remember the fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes?: Long long ago there
was once a country that made the best cloth in the world, in vast
quantities, enough of it to clothe everyone in the country, with enough
left over to send to many other countries. The other countries paid for that
cloth in gold and silver, making the weaving country one of the richest in
the world. The kings of that country wore fancy versions of that cloth, the
poor people of that country wore plain versions of the same. All the people,
the milkmaids and shepherds, the merchants and governors, the farmers and
townsmen, all wore versions of the cloth specially made for them.
some clever swindlers came to that country and sought an audience with the
emperor. Your majesty, they said, the clothes you wear are not good enough
for you. How can you wear the same as what the fishermen and farmers of your
country wear? Not only that, there are so many different kinds of cloth made
in your country that it is confusing. The cloth made in your country lasts
for too long, it is too soft and too comfortable. Don’t you know that the
world is changing and now things made by machine are the fashion. Cloth made
by machine wears out much sooner, it is not as soft, mass produced cloth is
the same everywhere, so everyone looks alike, it may be boring, but this is
fantastic thing about this new way of making cloth, they said, is that it is
highly profitable for the owners of the machines. It’s silly to make cloth
on simple wooden looms in your villages, from a bewildering variety of
cottons; our expensive and complicated machines that mass produce cloth in
factories and need one and only one kind of cotton are a much better bet.
This advantage can be seen only by intelligent people like us, to all others
it is invisible, they said.
fell for this story and shelled out sackfuls of gold and shipfuls of silver
for the machines and for the cloth made from them. The conmen dressed the
emperor in their machine made cloth, all the time telling him how wonderful
the new clothes were and how he now looked like a real emperor. And
for the next two hundred years the people of that country waited for someone
to say: That cloth is rubbish. The cloth we made was much much better.
tale is the story of cotton cloth in India. As in the fairy tale, India made
enough cotton cloth to clothe rich and poor in the whole subcontinent, with
so much left over for export that it was said to ‘clothe the world’. The
world paid for this cloth in gold and silver, which poured into India, not
just into the pockets of the Adanis and Ambanis but into the hands of the
millions of farmers who grew the cotton, the women who spun the yarn, and
the weavers who wove the cloth. India grew rich from its export, so rich
that Europeans flocked to India to make money for themselves, to ‘shake the
pagoda tree’ as it was said.
going to remind you of the many advantages of weaving on the handloom. I
want to suggest to you that we should look at the handloom not as an
outmoded relic of the past but as a low-carbon production technology for
the energy-stressed future. In my talk I’ll tell you about the grim reality
of cotton yarn spinning in India today, and what a dreadful fate awaits it.
I will also point out a possible brighter future – a possible, affordable
and rational future in which we safeguard the Indian cotton textile industry
and our rural livelihoods.
For much of
my life I’ve been fascinated by the story of cotton and cotton cloth making
in India. I’ve spent the last 24 years working in this field. I’m part of a
small group of people who have been puzzling over the strange trajectory of
the indigenous cotton textile industry of India, during more than 20 years
of research combined with active involvement with handlooms. And I find that
the reality is as unbelievable as a fairy tale.
the story of the different bits of this industry by jumping from
country to country and century to century, backwards and forwards, because
that’s the way the story makes sense. In between we’ll hear some voices from
history. I’ll end with a possible roadmap for the future and I hope you’ll
have lots of comments to add.
India today is actively decimating a sensible, energy-efficient low-carbon
way of weaving cotton cloth on the handloom, in favour of capital and energy
intensive mechanized weaving which only survives on subsidized electricity
and exploited workers. That’s the powerloom weaving. And the yarn spinning
industry too is in terrible shape. But it is always the woes of the handloom
and handloom weavers we hear about, while the much larger woes of
mechanized weaving and spinning in India seem to be hidden, or ignored. To
understand the strength of the handloom, we need also to look into the
dismal situation of the mainstream cotton textile industry today.
present and future of cotton cloth making in India is fascinating. The
distant past is extraordinary: the Indian subcontinent clothed the world in
cotton cloth for thousands of years. The present is a mess, a real horror
story. The future depends on the choices we make. I believe the Indian
cotton textile industry has the potential to be a huge factor in India’s
social and economic well-being, if we take the right direction and recognize
the power of the handloom.
cotton cloth was the largest and most important industry of the subcontinent
for at least 2000 years, from the time of Jesus Christ upto about the middle
of the 19th century. Actually, we all know that. But do you also
over 50 million’ people in India grow cotton, gin cotton, bale and unable
cotton, spin cotton yarn, weave cotton cloth, sell cotton cloth, make
clothes from cotton, export cotton, yarn or clothes, or make oil and oilcake
from cotton seed, and we’re not even talking of the toolmakers, or including
Pakistan and Bangladesh!
But as if by magic, as if it’s a fairy tale, this massive industry has
Questions need to be asked, and the first one is: How did the vibrant past
turn into the grim present? The answer seems obvious: mechanization in the
19th century made craft production unviable. But it wasn’t as
simple as that. There’s a crucial point here –The mechanization was not
just a matter of turning a hand process into a mechanical one. It was a
shift of fundamentals, of principles. It changed a flexible technology into
a rigid one. It changed a dispersed industry made up of millions of small,
scattered production centres into a centralized one, concentrated in
‘industrial areas’ where the profits went into only a few pockets. [The
Tatas, the Ruias, the Sarabhais, the Ambanis all made their first millions
in textile mills]. Mechanization need not have been like that. It could have
been quite different. You could have had mechanization that was both
flexible and decentralized, as hand processing had been.
the way the change didn’t happen automatically and smoothly, as many of you
are aware. It was made to happen all through the nineteenth century through
unfair trade practices by the English East India Company. A fascinating part
of the textile story:
yourself living in India in the year 1820. You will remember from your
history lessons what was going on in India at that time. The last Mughal
emperor was weak. The Maratthas were defeated. Names familiar to us played
prominent roles on the Indian stage: Ranjit Singh of the Punjab, Baji Rao
Peshwa of the Maratthas, Wajid Ali Shah of Avadh. All of whom wielded
enormous power. But the most powerful ruler of them all was - the British
East India Company. What was the Company? It was merely a large corporate
entity, like Walmart is today. But, backed by the government of Britain, it
starts to rule over large parts of India. The Company maintains an army,
levies taxes and makes laws. Nick Robins in his book The Corporation
that Changed the World points out:“At its height, the Company ruled
over one-fifth of the world’s people, generated a revenue greater than the
whole of Britain and commanded a private army a quarter of a million
strong.” . Can you imagine a corporation like Walmart having its own army,
levying taxes and making laws! a corporate entity whose sole purpose is to
make a profit for its shareholders!
of the Company, the ‘Honourable Company’, as it was known, had an
effect not just on the economies but also on the societies of both England
and India, an effect that is ‘hard to over-emphasize’ as a scholar of the
subject puts it. Beginning in the early 1600s the Company imports cotton
cloth from India into England, where it becomes extremely popular because
its so washable: people prefer it to the locally woven cloth made from wool,
linen and mixed fibres; so much so that it destroys the English textile
industry and ruins the lives of English handloom weavers – while it makes
English traders and merchants rich (remember Napoleon 200 years later called
them ‘a nation of shopkeepers’!).
the hinge on which artisanal cloth making turns to mass-production.
The first machines of the Industrial Revolution are machines for spinning
cotton yarn, machines that can be run by water or steam. This new
industrial cotton textile production needs to be fed cotton at an industrial
rate, so cotton begins to be grown in the newly colonized American
continent, to be imported into England from America, cotton that is grown
and picked and ginned by African slaves and the children of those slaves.
“Indeed, so closely tied were cotton and slavery that the price of a
slave directly correlated to the price of cotton” says a 2011 article in the
New York Times, headed ‘When cotton was king’.
produced cotton” is imported into England to be mechanically turned into
cotton yarn, the first product of mass-production. And where is all that
yarn to be sold? In India, of course, the biggest cotton cloth weaver in the
world. The Company carries the machine made yarn to India, selling it
cheap, undercutting locally made handspun yarn, and destroying the
hand-spinning industry of India.
the first of two voices from history –a short extract from ‘Representation
from a suffering spinner’ a letter printed in the Bengali newspaper
Samachar Darpan, in 1828:
“I am a
spinner. [the letter says]. After having suffered a great deal, I am
writing this letter …The weavers used to visit our houses and buy the
charkha yarn at three tolas per rupee…
Now for 3
years we two women, mother-in-law and I, are in want of food. The weavers
do not call at the house for buying yarn. Not only this, if the yarn is
sent to market, it is not sold even at one-fourth the old prices. …They
say that bilati yarn is being largely imported... I heard that its
price is Rs 3 or Rs 4 per seer. I beat my brow and said, ‘Oh God, there are
sisters more distressed even than I. I had thought that all men of Bilat
were rich, but now I see that there are women there who are poorer than
I'…They have sent the product of so much toil out here because they could
not sell it there. But it has brought our ruin only. Men cannot use the
cloth out of this yarn even for two months; it rots away. I therefore
entreat the spinners over there … to judge whether it is fair to send yarn
here or not.”
devastation of handspinning was one part of the destruction of the
Indian cotton textile industry by the East India Company. There was more.
There were the taxes. Listen to Francis Carnac Brown on the subject of taxes
in 1862. Francis is a British cotton planter in India, on the Malabar coast.
of cotton in India is not half told, (he says), how it was systematically
depressed from the. ..date that American cotton came into competition with
it about ..1786, how ..one half of the crop was taken in kind as revenue,
the other half by the sovereign merchant at a price much below the
market price of the day …how the cotton farmer's plough and bullocks were
taxed, the Churkha taxed, the bow taxed and the loom taxed; …how it paid
export duty both in a raw state and in every shape of yarn, of thread, cloth
or handkerchief, ..how the dyer was taxed and the dyed cloth taxed, …how
Indian piece goods were loaded in England with a prohibitory duty and
English piece goods were imported into India at a duty of 2 1/2 percent.
(He goes on to say): It is my firm conviction that the same treatment would
long since have converted any of the finest countries in Europe into
the 19th century.
take a jump backwards in time, the period that lasted from the time of Jesus
Christ upto the early 19th c. This was the period, lasting almost
2000 years, in which India clothed the world. And it has its relevance to
There is an
impression that the greatest achievement of ancient Indian cotton cloth
weaving was – as you must have heard- Dhaka muslins. Cotton cloth woven so
fine that that it had names like Woven wind, Evening dew, Flowing water;
So fine that when the Mughal emperor Shahjahan chides his daughter the
Princess Jahanara for being immodestly dressed, she retorts that she has on
seven layers of the stuff. Yes of course this was a fantastic achievement…
But in my opinion the greater achievement was something else which I want
you to pay close attention to, because I believe that it is this that holds
the key to the future:
textiles’ are pieces of Indian cloth found in Egypt, carbon dated 9th
to 14th century. They are thick, ordinary, coarse cloth. Ruth
Barnes, the Textile scholar says these textiles “cannot claim fame as good
examples of outstanding craftsmanship”… but the significance for me is
exactly that, that it is coarse cloth, obviously for the common man.
India was unique in producing ordinary cotton cloth for ordinary people
on a vast scale as a market-oriented activity from which millions of
people derived their living. Making and selling cotton yarn and cloth were
economic activities which gave people an income. While cloth for
the elites was made in the ‘karkhana’ system, where yarn was given to
weavers by a ‘master-weaver’ who marketed the finished product, cotton yarn
and cloth was sold through local markets to ordinary people, and both
these kinds of cloth were exported. According to my understanding making
ordinary coarse cloth for aam admi was India’s real strength: Ordinary
cloth made in vast quantities by ordinary weavers for ordinary people at
region could do this. In China as in our Northeast today cotton cloth was
made as a household occupation. It was only in the Indian subcontinent that
it was a massive, market-oriented economic activity. So viable, so
embedded in society that it has sustained for 5000 years. This is not just
as a matter of historic interest, but also is a vital clue to the future.
scale: Enough cotton cloth was made in India to clothe India’s own rich and
poor and for export both eastwards and to the west. In the first
century after Christ the Roman historian Pliny complains that India is
draining Rome of her gold - partly for spices, but mostly for cotton cloth.
In 1610 Pyrard de Laval says about Indian cotton cloth “wherewith everyone
from Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to
the largest variety of cloth the world had ever seen. "Every year ships
arrive from Gujarat on India's West coast… from Cambay a ship put into port
worth seventy to eighty thousand cruzados, carrying cloths of thirty
different sorts" says Tome Pires in 1515. [A cruzado was a Portugese gold
coin]. And you find the names of some varieties of these cloths in the
Anglo-Indian dictionary known as ‘Hobson Jobson’: Albelli, alrochs, cossai,
baftas, bejutas, corahs, doreas, dosooties, chhint, ginghams, jamdanis,
morees, mulmuls, mushroos, nainsooks, nillaees, palempores, punjams, susi..
and so on..
was the smaller part. A huge part of the indigenous cotton textile industry
also went into local loops: cotton grown, spun, woven and sold locally,
through local markets. There is an account of a local weekly market at
Jamoorghatta, in a report dated 1867, by Harry Rivett-Carnac, Cotton
Commissioner for the Central Provinces, in which out of about 1400 stalls,
572 relate to cotton, yarn and cloth and 350 of the cloth sellers are
non-weaver castes ‘Dhers, selling coarse cloth of their own manufacture’
amazing how little research has been done on this part of Indian textile
making. All the textile scholarship seems to be about export. No research on
clothing for the entire Indian population (250 million people in 1830)?
That’s part of the cloak of invisibility this industry wears! It’s not just
for historic interest that we need to look into this, but more important, to
understand what were our particular strengths and advantages that will be of
use in the future, that we can use today to make a viable, ecological and
democratic cotton textile industry, not one that just puts more money into
rich industrialists’ pockets.
Now lets go
back to the 19th century let’s see how the intervention of the
EIC affected the growing of cotton in India:
has been grown in India for 5000 years by smallholder farmers – as it still
is. Different varieties were grown in different parts of the country. They
were rain-fed and grown mixed with food crops of various lentils. Growing it
with other crops, did 2 things, it kept off pests and it replenished the
soil. These 2 things made it possible to grow cotton in the same spot over
millennia. But different varieties did not suit mass-production, and Indian
cottons did not suit the new yarn spinning machinery that began to be
invented in England in the early 1800s.
new way of spinning yarn was not in small scattered locations using wooden
equipment. it was concentrated in a few places and using huge machinery
made of rigid steel. And what effect did
this change in spinning have on Indian cotton farms and farmer families? An
earth-shaking effect. Now cotton had to be aggregated, collected together,
so it had to be all of one kind, and that kind had to be one that could
stand up to the harsh action of these new steel machines. Indian varieties
were too soft and their fibres were too short. And so American cotton
varieties were introduced into Indian cotton farms by the East India
Company, the long strong fibres that had the long strong fibres the newly
invented English technology needed.
Colonel Prain writing in 1828 tells us: “I have no doubt that the fine
cotton produced near Dacca is one cause of the superiority of the
manufacture”, he says “nor do I think that any American cotton is so fine,
but then there can be no doubt that the American kinds have a longer
filament and on that account are more fitted for European machinery”. The
machines were heavy metal, bruising and battering the delicate cotton
fibres. Longer, stronger filaments took the strain better, though they
didn’t produce better cloth. That was it. Now that kind of cotton, became
known as the best cotton, not the cotton that made the best cloth. Instead
of inventing a technology to suit the cotton, Walmart’s ancestor, the EIC,
changed the cotton plant to suit the technology. And nobody cared that Desis
and Americans grow in very different ways, one of which is suited to Indian
conditions, and one of which emphatically is not.
since then, till today, the definition of best quality cotton is what can
stand up to harsh …machine processing. .. and as machines are made to run
faster and faster, nature is expected to keep up.
nature has its limits: and we’re feeling those limits now in the 21st
century. Cotton farmers today have only one customer - the spinning mill,
and all spinning mills today only have one kind of machinery, the kind that
demands ever longer and stronger staples. Growing American cottons does not
suit Indian soils or Indian climates, why because as we say down South, the
American hirsutum cottons are shallow rooted, they cannot stand extremes of
climate.. You can never depend on the Indian climate - one year it rains too
much, the next year the rains fail. Desis have long taproots, which helps
them survive both too much and too little rain. Hirsutums need irrigation.
Irrigation creates humidity in which bacterial, viral, fungal diseases and
pests thrive to which cotton is particularly prone. The Bt gene is only
useful against a few varieties of caterpillar, its not a cure for virus or
fungus, nor does it prevent insect attack by thrips, aphids, mites, mealy
Large-scale spinning broke up the close relation of weaving cotton with
growing cotton. After all, weavers and farmers were neighbours – as they
still are. Today between them stands the modern spinning mill, to whom the
cotton farmers must sell their cotton and from whom the handloom
weavers must buy their yarn. A mill that forces farmers to grow the
kind of cotton that’s immensely risky for them …a level of risk that small
farmers cannot bear..the farmer suicides that have been happening
particularly in Maharashtra & Andhra Pradesh for the last 20 years, part of
the largest wave of suicides in history as Sainath reminds us. Many,
possibly most, of these suicides are of cotton farmers. But I don’t read
anywhere that the connection of cotton farmer suicides with cotton spinning
technology has been made.
Let’s take a
quick look at how yarn making happens in the mill: Cotton lint from the
plant is first separated from the seeds. In the 1800s, a new stage was
introduced: after seed removal loose fluffy lint began to be pressed
tightly into bales. So tightly that it becomes as hard as a block of wood,
and needs an elaborate process and huge machinery to get it back into
separate fibres. Basically to its original form. Its only after that the
fibres are made into a loose blanket, then twisted and thinned more in 3
stages into yarn.
Of course baling
made sense when it was done to carry the cotton overseas to England. But the
unbelievable thing is that baling, bale breaking, bale opening and
reconstituting it into individual fibres are still integral parts of yarn
making! Even when cotton grows nearby! And these additional, energy-guzzling
stages that need huge infrastructure, are one of the main reasons for the
unviability of modern textile technology.
And of course the
reason why this industrial revolution yarn technology is unsuited to Indian
uniform. It needs one kind of cotton and one kind of cotton only. With this
way of making yarn India loses what could its greatest advantage, of being
able to grow different kinds of cotton in different regions. We need
flexible yarn making technology that can adapt to different varieties of
Yarn-making specifically suited to Indian diversity of cotton varieties is
the missing link in our otherwise potential, green, low-energy
cotton-to-cloth production chain. If we had that we could regenerate our
diversity of cotton varieties. We still have the handloom. Link the flexible
technology of the handloom with diversity of cottons through adaptable
spinning and what will you get? A unique, hard-to-beat cotton textile
It’s only the middle stage that’s missing.
suggest we rid ourselves of a past “that lies upon the present like a
giant’s dead body” [to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne] the burden of a rigid,
inflexible, energy-intensive yarn spinning technology.
are the existing modern spinning mills of India doing?
badly. Today the mechanized textile industry of India -mostly spinning- is
on financial life-support from banks. It has gargantuan bad debts which it
is unable to repay. If you think Kingfisher Airlines’s debts are enormous at
7000 krores, what d’you think of the mechanized Indian textile industry's
debt, at almost 2 lakh crores! Strange that we don’t hear these dire facts
about the mainstream industry, while its constantly dinned into us that
handlooms are in such bad shape. Its not the handloom industry that has
these huge debts! The fact is that the textile technology that today is
considered modern, both yarn spinning and mechanical weaving, is “viable”
only through debt-financing and on the back of an exploited workforce. A
kind of exploitation in which we can’t compete with China. And because its
on life-support its attracting Vulture Investors. Vulture investors look for
dead & dying industries: “There are a lot of dead carcasses on the road, and
the vultures are out sniffing,” says a New York Times report after the 2008
Wall Street crash.
here already. A recent headline in the Economic Times [July 30 this year]
says the US’ W L Ross plans to invest in the Indian textile sector. Has
anybody heard of Wilbur L Ross? He is known in the US as the dean of vulture
investors. And now this canny
investor has already taken the first steps towards swallowing up the Indian
Textile industry. Its my guess that he
is poised to
flood the great Indian market with low-cost yarn spun in China and Vietnam.
He could be the 21st century avatar of the East India Company,
destroying Indian spinning again 200 years later!
becomes urgent to develop small-scale spinning, because the only
industry that can stand up to
Wilbur L Ross and
his ilk is a dispersed one,
with small investments in scattered infrastructure.
This is a plea to
the country’s scientists and technologists to put in the research and
development needed to work out small-scale cotton yarn making for the
future, specifically suited to Indian cottons and to the handloom: smaller,
flexible machinery that can be run by alternative energy and that can
process different cotton varieties. We could then take the cotton textile
industry out of ghettos and industrial centres where it is today and put the
whole field-to-fabric production chain in thousands of locations next to
cotton fields. Cutting out the exploitation of powerloom workers. Saving
energy by cutting out transport, cutting out baling. With smaller
investments in small-scale infrastructure. An industry that can be owned by
producer collectives. A truly modern, democratic textile industry on a vast
scale, suited to an energy-stressed future. That would bring smiles and not
tears to cotton farmers and weavers - whose combined numbers make up a
substantial part of the Indian population.
handlooms & climate change. A recent report of the Global Commission on
the economy & Climate change, which has members from the World Bank,
Unilever, and the Bank of England, says that investments in low-carbon
technologies will stimulate rather than hamper economic growth. That makes
several steps ahead on this score –
even need to invest vast sums
- we already have a low-carbon weaving technology in all parts of the
country, complete with its huge bank of equipment and skills.
This means that we can have our cake and eat it too and
share it around: by promoting hand weaving we can claim international
credit for setting up a low-carbon textile industry, we can make good cotton
cloth for ourselves and for export and spread the profits of textile
making among a large part of our population.
and farmers must be re-connected through small-scale spinning – not by
harking back to the past, but in a modern, viable, feasible way, building
producer-owned, flexible technologies around the handloom rather than
handlooms are there, the weavers are there, the cotton farmers are there
waiting to be offered an honourable life in return for providing us
energy-efficient cotton textile production!
As a post-script
I’d like to add that the Malkha initiative in which I have been involved for
some years has taken the first small steps in this direction, so far with