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No Hands on the Loom: The New Handloom Policy

Sethi, Ritu, Chairperson, Craft Revival Trust

In the current context of competitive trading across the world it is extremely important for India to hold on to the special features of what she produces. Product differentiation, patenting are some of the ways competition is muted to the advantage of the seller. Today when the internet also communicates designs and all details without any human intervention, the imitation even plagiarizing of product design and competitive wars are intense.

China, as it used to be the case of Japan in the earlier century, is able to manufacture "Hand Made" art and craft of almost all the other countries of this world, with machines, and since price competition is the name of the game in a world of trade liberalization, she is able to offload her imitated products in the very same countries from where the "handmade products " emerged.

 In this context , one of the ways or the only way that countries can keep their special "brand " is to strengthen the  presence of the uniquely handmade , support its survival and even subsidize , give  tax relief , take it on to the High road , to products that are uniquely from India 's civilization . Therefore it is very worrying that the newly declared policy for handloom textiles in India, has taken the view that for the sake of volume, they would now remove the restrictions imposed on the space provided to power looms and large mechanized mills that already have the lionís share of textile production to take over the space provided for Handloom.

Those who are dedicated to preserving Indian traditions in production, and also enabling the people who fabricate them have more often than not argued about the critical value of handmade goods, not only to rural livelihoods, but to the saving of energy, the use of indigenous methods which are environmentally friendly and most of all the spiritual satisfaction that a craftsperson gets from making a beautiful object Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay , Pupul Jayakar and other eminent national champions have written extensively on this aspect.

Indian embassies and celebrations are built around the hand products - perhaps increasingly China made Indian handicrafts and handlooms? who knows? .It would be a SHAME  from which it will take much time to recover if we now shift our approach to textile production, of shared spaces to cannibalizing the handloom. Shared spaces was a famous aspect of Indian economic policy, called product differentiation in economics. Rajaji resolved the conflict between hand and mill, at one time, in relation to sari manufacture, by putting in place a policy whereby woven bordered saris could only be produced by hand.

At Expert Committee meetings and during the over 6 month long deliberations of the  Steering Committee and Working Groups for the 12th five year plan there was no discussion on change in the Handloom Reservation Act, the definition of Handloom or the mechanization of looms. In field research, meetings with stake-holders this was not placed on the agenda. The strength of the powerloom and mill owners lobby can be gauged by their concerted efforts to bring about a change in the Handloom Reservation Act and the changing definition of handloom to open the floodgates to manufactured weaving production at the cost to handloom. This kind of backdoor policy change broods ill for the industry, for employment in rural India and for the unique products of the loom.

The Steering Committee offered several prescriptions for renewal and growth. Recognizing not only the huge numbers that are gainfully employed in rural India, providing the second largest area for employment after agriculture, its home based workforce, that requires minimal capital investment, it took into account another significant aspect which cannot be quantified in monetary terms: the social and cultural weightage of handlooms, the traditional knowledge associated with its production, the entire handloom value chain that it sustains including those who wear and value handloom and its unique Indianess. Recognizing that this needs to be factored in and included in the final mathís, before imposing change that will disrupt rather than enhance employment, production and development.

At a time when the value of handlooms is increasing in the market for its uniqueness, this sector is being punished by mechanization.  The strength of handlooms lies in its hand-skills and any attempts to mechanize would pit it directly against the power-loom and the mills who have been cannibalizing the share of handlooms through the copying of design and passing off products as those made by hand. With over 33% of handloom workers reporting that their greatest threat was from the mill and powerloom sector (NCAER Handlooms census 2009-2010).

Handlooms are a counterpoise to 21st century mass and anonymous production, based as they are on the qualities of hand, oral knowledge and tradition. The products of the loom are woven by a skilled workforce, trained and educated through apprenticeship and inter-generational guru-shishya parampara, outside the formal technical training system.  The uniqueness and distinctiveness of handloom product offerings is honed by cultural and civilizational underpinnings, its diversity reflected in materials, skills, motifs and techniques.

The eco system of handloom production is well structured and defined; its regional variations are home grown, being indigenously and differently organized from that of the so called organized sectors. In fact a parallel could be drawn with the highly effective havala system that too is indigenously and differently organized and yet effectively services a large number of our countrymen.  Policies need to recognize this differently organized handmade sector, build on its advantages to create delivery systems that prioritize its growth. 

While tools and looms are in need of urgent development and improvement, field work has shown how innovative changes have been introduced by weavers themselves to reduce drudgery and enhance productivity. Loom technologies represent indigenous ingenuity at its best, are built, repaired and maintained, within the village eco-system, not dependant on spare parts from the city.  With 87% of weavers located in rural India with limited access to continuous electricity supply the new planned policy of mechanizing looms would be an ill considered strategy. Mechanization of the loom as proposed by the new policy will link the production of handloom to power supply Ė erratic at its best in areas of handloom production. Mechanization will in the short run itself result in declining productivity as loom-work will be tied to unreliable electricity supply inevitably leading to declining production rather than the expected enhancement.

If for the sake of argument we assume a scenario where there is an uninterrupted supply of power in rural weaving centers, it is counter intuitive to expect increased production; as a major bottleneck to production currently is yarn availability at the right price and right quality - the life blood of weaving. This has and continues to be a perennial concern, its supply regulated, managed and controlled by the PSU - National Handloom Development Corporation (NHDC), Ministry of Textiles. Until NHDC is restructured to be more effective and efficient and responsive the handloom sector and weavers will continue to be under served.

The handloom industry provides the second largest area of employment after agriculture, with over 72% of weaver communities belonging to the economically and socially disadvantaged SC/ST/OBC and other minority groups ad hocism of this kind will be a disservice.

Each loom provides employment to an average of 6 to 9 workers on the pre-loom, on-loom and post-loom process. 70% of this skilled work force is in the productive age group of 18 to 45 years; this ill considered move could result in at least 2 to 4 workers being unemployment.  Resulting in the inevitable migration to already swollen cities, the deskilling and disenfranchising of the weavers, and the entire village eco-system.

The effects of this policy on the North-East also require study, with a concentration of 60.5% of the  total handloom household; and where the numbers have increased  over the previous census (as they have in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh). 99% of the weavers here are women, operating looms that are ergonomically suited to them and to their production,

While there is an argument that power loom India is not able to produce as much as she could and needs to, for textile production to swell this is a specious argument.  Mill owners are putting out textile manufacturing to power looms as it does enable them to save costs while not forfeiting profits.  To cater to this strategy would be an error on the part of the Indian state.

First published in the Indian Express. 6 June 2013



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