Critical cultural heritage

Handloom Industry

By Dr. S Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

August 7, the Day when Aurobindo Ghosh, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bipin Chandra Pal and others started the Swadeshi Movement in 1905, was declared as the Handloom Day in India in 2015, to create awareness among people about the importance of this sector as a rich cultural heritage and about its contribution to socio-economic development. The Day is also stretched as Handloom Week in some States. The occasion should not be allowed to pass on with some ceremonial speeches or for pushing sales with extra vigour. It’s time to bestow some serious thought to enriching this over 2000- year old handloom industry, which has survived several onslaughts and stands today adjusting itself admirably to changing demands and tastes.
While khadi is being invoked in the name of freedom struggle, handloom is linked with our cultural heritage and native skill and as a traditional family occupation. As such, it has devout patrons as well as bitter enemies. Handloom weavers once constituted an occupational caste known by different names in different States – a factor unacceptable today. The growth, decline and revival of handloom form part of our economic-social history.
India today produces nearly 90 per cent of handloom products in the world, employing nearly millions of artisans. It does not seem to be a dying industry as portrayed by some people. True, it is a struggling industry fighting against many adverse factors. It can re-emerge as one of the most promising industries as it has the ability to undergo a lot of transformation without losing its unique characteristics. Handloom contributes about 13 per cent of total cloth produced in India. Very few countries — Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nepal, Norway, and Sri Lanka — have handloom industry.
A genuine and total “Make in India” product, handloom deserves to be promoted by the NDA government. The nation can reasonably expect a boom in the industry. Handloom industry is second largest employment provider in rural India next to agriculture. According to the Handloom Census of 2009-10, there were 23.77 lakh handlooms employing 43.31 lakh weavers and allied workers. It is considered a “green” industry as it does not cause noise, air, or water pollution.
The term “handloom” refers to wooden frames of various types used by skilled artisans to weave fabrics normally from natural fibres like cotton, silk, wool, and jute. It is mostly run as a cottage industry and as a family enterprise from spinning yarn to weaving on the loom. Handloom represents various sources of knowledge – physical and historical – and more importantly collective memories and indigenous knowhow. It combines art and science.
Presently, handloom is famous for various weaving styles that use machine spun yarns. Weaving styles specific to regions, sub-regions, tribal motifs, geometric designs, etc., have come up and have earned world-wide reputation for Indian handicraft in textiles.
Handloom went through a period of sharp decline during the British rule when India was turned into an exporter of raw cotton for manufacture of fabrics in Britain. Growth of mills in 1920s, high cost of yarn, and unfair competition led to the decline of handloom giving rise to the khadi movement in which boycott of foreign fabrics was an important programme. Mania for foreign cloth also gripped some sections of people. Its revival started after independence.
Since liberalisation of 1990s, handloom faces more competition and needs State protection for survival. The cost of natural fibre was growing, while the market was flooded with cheaper artificial fibre. Official surveys of the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handloom) has estimated that the number of weaver families reduced from 124 lakh in 1970s to 64 lakh by 1995 and to 44 lakh by 2010.
Handlooms and handicrafts are vital to the country’s economy. Export of handloom products from India was valued at US $355.91 million in 2017-18. These have the advantages of low capital investment and high ratio of value addition offering employment opportunities for the educated as well as uneducated skilled artisans. The sector absorbs noticeably large female workforce.
The Textile Policy adopted by the Government of India in 1985 introduced many changes in the unorganised sector cottage industries based on traditional technology. Weavers on low wages were asked to shift to powerlooms. Those on high wages weaving fine cloth were supported. The policy promoted efficiency, productivity, and healthy competition among handloom, powerloom, and mills. In 2010, the revised policy aimed at maintaining a leading position for handloom in the global market. Technological upgradation and foreign direct investment were encouraged. Garment industry was removed from the list of small-scale industry.
Cluster schemes were introduced a decade ago to aid growth in the sector with improved infrastructure, training in new designing, adopting new technology and such direct interventions. Incentives in the form of minimum support price for cotton farmers, upgradation of weaving technology, and centres for trade promotion are extended.
Handloom production itself is region-specific in every stage of production including skills of the weavers and has a unique system of registration on geographic indicators (GI). Inclusion of GI under Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIP) has benefited Indian handloom industry to a great deal. GI tag is non-transferable.
In recent years policy has been revised several times and in 2019, A New Integrated Textile Policy was adopted to ensure sustenance of the industry in long-term. Several schemes of subsidies to help the industry, including 10 per cent capital subsidy for new machines have been announced. But, the industry is undergoing tremendous stress and for the weavers a difficult time. Suicide of weavers due to debt burden is a serious problem to be tackled at the earliest.
There is no dearth of promotional policies or required governmental assistance for the handloom sector. But, we have to protect decentralised growth so as to encourage innumerable varieties that make the product so attractive. The tradition of family enterprise is not dead, but weakened as new generations of weavers choose to migrate and take up more rewarding occupations involving less physical exertion. Establishment of cooperative societies has come to the rescue of this cottage industry. It will be advantageous to continue the linkage between the owner, producer, and worker in order to protect small enterprises in rural areas.
“India Handloom Brand” was launched in 2015 to authenticate the quality of the products on various parameters such as the raw material used, processing, embellishment, design, etc. It is intended to ensure quality and conformity to the unique characteristics of Indian handloom in all products.
Government had tried policies of reserving particular products like border sarees, dhotis, and bed sheets for handloom manufacture. In these days, copying designs and patterns are very easy though methods of production may vary. While considering efficacy of reservation policy, we may consider the suggestion of using largely handloom in temples and other places of worship, and in important national celebrations.
The biggest competitor to handloom is machine fabrics also produced in India. But, handloom is indeed linked with our rich culture including ethical, aesthetic, and family values, and religious beliefs and rituals. It is a rich cultural heritage that fits well with modern life. — INFA