Originally Published 2013-04-03 00:00:00 Published on Apr 03, 2013
The government should establish a price regulation mechanism for the Assam silk weavers so that the small traders are not exploited. This can be done by setting up a Silk Auction Board on the lines of the Tea Auction Board. This will also make Assam silk a large global brand like the tea industry and transform it into a modern industry ensuing competition at the global level.
Reviving Assam silk industry: Few suggestions
Our nation has a very unique way of dealing with protests. From the streets of Srinagar to the grounds of Kudankulam down south, the first response of authorities always seem to be to meet the protest with force, terming everything a "law and order" problem. Such an attitude generally doesn't pay any long term dividends and in fact increases the distance between the government and the governed.

A similar cycle is being repeated in the Sualkuchi village of Assam. Nestled between the Brahmaputra on one side and Guwahati on the other, Sualkuchi is one of the adjoining towns of Guwahati city. It is also home to the traditional silk industry which has survived in Assam for almost 10 centuries now. Along with the brass metal industry of Assam traditional silk industry are one of the two bedrock industries of Assam in terms of arts and crafts. Not only money, the industry also brings a lot of recognition for Assam. Assam is the only place in the world which produces all three different types of indigenous silk -- golden Muga,white Pat and warm Eri silk. And this industry is centred in and around Sualkuchi. Looking at this particular aspect the government also decided to establish a Fashion Institute Technology in Sualkuchi region.

Yet today this source of pride is in the news for all the wrong reasons. The glory that this sleepy town earned for Assam and for India throughout the years, is now slipping away. It is slowly turning into a story of despair and these protests and subsequent being fired upon is merely a manifestation of this despair. So what is it that ails the industry today or rather the bigger question is how do we develop and protect our indigenous industries?

First and foremost, we must be able to understand the basic problems that plague this labour intensive industry today. An example in this regard is the non existence of price control. There is no price control board which regulates the price of these commodities. For example, the price of a piece of cloth is the same as it was five years ago with very minor increase. In this era of inflated economy, we can all comprehend how this non-increase in the basic prices of the commodity will hit the producers. Major fallout of this non-increase in price is degradation in the quality of cloth. To make up for the losses in the non increases of prices, a large number of producers are resorting to mixing other elements in the cloth. The price of the commodity depends on a few large traders who virtually have iron grip on the market. They fluctuate the prices according to their own needs so that the market prices move when they desire to do so. This hegemony deters the very growth of the industry and also acts against letting any new traders enter this trade since they know the profits will depend on the whims and fancies of a few large traders.

It was against these unscrupulous traders who were passing cheaper Varanasi silk in the name of Pat and Muga that the people got angry and agitated with. The smaller weavers were expecting a boom in sales since Rongali Bihu is round the corner (that particular time when a large amount of cloth is sold) and to their despair, they found cheaper cloth was being sold in the name of Sualkuchi silk.

This system of hegemony of trade has another major fallout. Once the production is made, the small traders flock to the few big traders of the commercial area of Guwahati to sell their produce. However, this is a very unique system here. Suppose, a trader from Sualkuchi sells goods worth Rs. 50000. Then the particular trader of Guwahati pays him only Rs. 25000 and the rest goes to the account book of the small trader as the money that has to be paid. This money accumulates over a period of time and sometimes they run as high as Rs. 500000.Thus it is easily deducible that while the big traders of Guwahati carry on their business by circulating the money of the small traders in the market, the small trader rarely gets the benefits. During the time of weaving, the big traders do pay some amount, but even then it is not comparable to the dues the small trader should actually get.

The solutions to these problems are not difficult to comprehend, however. First and foremost, we must understand the pattern of the silk trade. A major part of the silk produce is exported to Japan where it is used to make kimonos -- a kind of specialised clothing in Japan. The traders in Assam can organise a workshop by visiting Japan under the aegis of the Assam government. They can learn how to manufacture kimonos .After getting back, the weavers can sell the finished product of kimonos, instead of raw silk. This will ensure not only added revenue but will make the silk traders of Assam global competitors in the true sense.

The second solution is, of course, the government setting up a price regulation mechanism so that the small traders are not exploited and they get fair price. This can be done by setting up a Silk Auction Board on the lines of the Tea Auction Board. With a proper administrative mechanism, this board can regulate the activities of the traders in Assam and all produce being sold through them. This will make Assam silk a large global brand like the tea industry and will also transform it into a modern industry ensuing competition at the global level. Government can take steps to regularise the payment of the weavers or the traditional "sipinis" so that they get paid more than what the NREGA pays .This will make weaving a lucrative option once more and will stop the trend of decreasing weavers in the industry. Proper financial auditing must be a strict regulation for all the traders so that they have a sound economic growth. Banks and other financial institutions must come forward to give loans to the small traders. Till now, most of them are dependent on private financiers who charge very high interest rates. Banks interest in this sector will also encourage many youths to take up this business.

To curb the meance of inferior quality silk entering the market in the name of Pat and Muga, the government must establish some taxation norms on the entry of such products in the state. Apart from that, the local people must be vigilant about any unscrupulous practices like hoarding of silk of inferior quality etc.The small traders also should be given an institutional mechanism where they can air their grievances and also find a platform for solutions. Declaring Sualkuchi as a cluster industry under the MSME (Micro Small and Medium Sized Industries) and giving them benefits under it will also auger well for this industry.

In the end, everyone has a stake in the betterment of the silk industry. It is after all one of the oldest industries of not only Assam, but also the country. Hence what it needs is not armed action and curfew, but genuine attempts at understanding the grievances of the people and efforts towards solving them.

(The writer is a Research Intern at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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