Originally Published 2015-08-25 10:17:23 Published on Aug 25, 2015
Handloom industry in dire straits 

"Recently August 7 was declared 'Handloom Day' by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Tamil Nadu. Indian handlooms have been famous through the ages and even now due to a few dynamic entrepreneurs, hand woven cottons, carpets and silks are making inroads in markets abroad. But the ordinary handloom weaver living in remote areas of Assam, Andhra Pradesh or West Bengal is under threat of extinction and is likely to shift to some other profession sooner or later. Modi's own constituency of Banaras has many handloom weavers famous for their silk brocades but now living in dire straits. He promised to revive the handloom industry of Banaras and some initiatives have been taken. The Ministry of Textiles has recently agreed to set up dyeing centres, undertake promotion of subsidized yarn and campaign for handlooms nationwide, holding a series of exhibitions to establish classical handloom design bench marks. This is a good beginning.

Apart from world famous Banaras brocade, India has many handloom centres where fabrics of excellent quality can still be found and each state has its own cultural tradition of weaving. But the problems range from high raw material cost to the slow process of weaving that increases the price of cloth produced by handloom as compared to power loom.The difference between handloom and power loom fabrics is sometimes hard to tell and according to one report, 70 per cent of the fabrics sold as handloom are actually made in power looms. Better marketing, design as well as credit availability to handloom weavers are important for the revival of handloom sector.

Handlooms come under the Government of India's textile which promotes handloom cooperatives and clusters. But deep problems remain as the handloom worker is unaware of market trends and innovative designs. Looms have to be upgraded and yarn of required count and quality has to be made available to weavers. Some of these problems have been solved in the handloom clusters. The government has set up 20 clusters for handloom weavers in different states across the country. But the needs of weavers have to be looked in each state separately because they vary from state to state. Marketing and branding are very important and active e-marketing of products through government portals will definitely revive the sector.

Creating awareness about the special features and advantages of handloom products is also very much needed. Through buyer-seller meets more awareness can be generated among handloom weavers about the market trends and they can design their products accordingly. Usually the self employed weavers are weaving products that are rather shoddy or of poor quality and it does not appeal to the up market segments.

Some private entrepreneurs however are producing fine handloom products for the upper strata of society at prices unaffordable for the common person. There is no doubt that the variety, design, colours and textures offered by the handloom sector are quite unmatched by anything produced by powerlooms or the mill sector but this is not true for cheaper varieties.

People from lower income groups prefer to buy power loom cloth and handloom has a small share of 11 to 12 per cent of the total fabric production. Power looms have a 60 per cent share because they are cheaper and faster to produce. While one meter of handloom fabric costs Rs 500 per meter, the same amount of cloth by power loom costs only Rs 30 per meter. But the machinery used in handloom is much cheaper than power loom which costs three times more.

Reservation of items for handlooms has been a contentious issue and now only 11 items are reserved for handloom under the Reservation and Articles for Production Act of 1985. Even the definition of handloom was going to be changed to include hybrid looms in which at least one process of weaving required manual intervention or human energy for production. But the government has opposed the amendment and handloom stands for 'any loom other than power loom.'

Sarees are still reserved for the handloom sector even as the powerloom sector has been lobbying hard against such reservation. There has also been an attempt to 'dereserve' all the items which according to some experts would lead to the extinction of handlooms. But the government has declared that it has no intension of amending the reservation act.

There is good reason behind preserving Indian handlooms because loom weaving is the second most important occupation in Indian villages after agriculture and employs around 12 million people. It includes not only weavers ( 4.3 million ) but also dyers, and people involved in starching, spooling, ironing and tying up loose ends. Handloom production is also eco -friendly and has a small carbon footprint and easy to install and operate. If it could be revived and made lucrative, it would lead to a slowdown in rural migration. Also 75 per cent of workers are women and 47 per cent are from BPL families.

Most handloom workers are not able to sustain themselves from earnings from weaving and the average is a little above Rs 3000 a month ( 2010 handloom census). They are forced to engage in other trades. For example, master weavers in Bishnupur (West Bengal) who were weaving the famous Baluchari sarees in complex Jacquard looms, are also selling potatoes to enhance their earnings. Their children have migrated to towns and are not engaged in weaving.

The government's allocation for the handloom sector has been going up and down and this year's budget is Rs 440 crore which is rather small for a sector employing so many people. But the main problem is the implementation of the various programmes for weavers which are aimed at giving them better access to subsidized raw materials and improve credit availability and marketing channels. According to many weavers, there is often misuse and corruption in the delivery of the programmes. The end result is that weavers remain cash strapped and poor and have to borrow from the money lender. Some are perpetually in debt and end their lives when they cannot pay back.

There is a growing global demand for organic cotton cloth which India can easily make. In 2012-13 India exported a total of 6.9 billion square meters worth $ 372 million in 2013-14. Improvement in quality/design will enable Indian exporters to compete with others and exports could grow faster. Low price is not always the catch word for niche markets-because consumers want fine, hand woven fabrics. There is a huge potential waiting to be tapped also in markets in Africa and South America. Vegetable dyes, block printing and embroidered embellishments will lead to higher value addition and all handloom products should go through proper quality control which can be facilitated by the state governments, to have fame. They should get into contracts with big global buyer chains like IKEA, Walmart etc. and domestically, in readymade garment chains like West Side, Shopper's Stop and Big Bazaar. The government's initiatives have to be stepped up to eliminate the weavers' disconnect with urban as well as international buyers. "

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

Read More +