India has been globally famous for its handloom industry for centuries. From the early seventeenth century, India’s two principal export items to Europe were food grains and textiles. In exchange, India predominantly imported horses and precious metals – mainly silver. For more than two centuries, from the early seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century, India enjoyed huge trade surpluses with western and other countries. The state of West Bengal was very prosperous at that time as it had little need of imports but could export textile items and food grains and some other bulk items. This continued till 1757 when the Battle of Plassey changed things. The East India Company won the battle and forcefully received free trade licenses to trade in Bengal from the Mughal emperor.
The first shock
The first shock to Bengal’s textile industry came in the late eighteenth century after the Industrial Revolution (IR) in England started in the mid-eighteenth century. The first sector that achieved the rewards of IR was the British textile sector. The Bengal textile industry began to weaken as cheap machine-made British cloth came to Bengal. The age-old coarse cloth could not compete with the cheaper and finer textile products. Lakhs of weavers lost their livelihood within a few decades. This was not the only sector but many other sectors faced similar pressures from British industrial products. As a result, Bengal faced a severe deindustrialisation from the late eighteenth century. A similar situation continued till India’s independence in 1947 - although many types of modern industries like railway, coal, jute and plantations were set up in British India. But the proportion of persons involved in industry in pre-British India was more than that was in 1947.
Handloom sector at present
The Indian government has been trying to protect the handloom sector by various ways - financially and non-financially. The sector has been protected from other types of textile sectors - mainly the power looms and the big textile producers. At present over 4.3 million people are directly or indirectly involved in the sector. The industry has been the second largest employment producer in rural India after agriculture. Even today, the Indian handloom products have world wide reputation and demand. Ministry of Textile data for FY 2019-20 shows that India’s handlooms products exports was valued at $343.69 million. In FY 2020 (till November 2019), exports stood at $226.05 million. The US is the biggest importer of Indian handlooms ($93.94million), followed by the UK, Italy and Germany. Nearly 15% of the total cloth produced in India is from the handloom sector. Total cloth production of India in 2019-20 (till January 2020) stood at 63,348 square meters. Noticeably, production of hand-woven fabric from India constitutes 95% of the global production.
Handloom weavers in precarious condition in the Covid-19 phase
Almost in every state, the weavers have been affected badly. The demand for handloom is low. Even the government departments selling handloom products of the respective states are unable to attract customers. The government rescue measures vary widely. From several reports it is known that each artisan who lost their livelihood received `24,000 as compensation in Andhra Pradesh. On the other hand, the compensation to each artisan has been only `2,000 in Karnataka. Kerala has come to the rescue of all rural artisans - bringing them under MGNREGA - with a target of doubling their income.
Assam as the biggest producer of handloom products
Assam has the largest employability in the handloom industry. Sualkuchi, a village 30 km from Guwahati. is considered one of the biggest weaving villages in the world. Its 17,000 handlooms came to a halt in the early Covid 19 phases. Now many have been working but the demand for their products is very low. A report points out that Assam handloom has incurred a loss of `130 crore of which `100 crore was lost in Sualkuchi alone. Many weavers came there for jobs and a lot of them have gone back to their homes and the rest have been suffering severe hardships. Hardly, about one-third of the looms have been working but they also have been working without full capacity. Some big weavers and members of the Sualkuchi Tant Unnayan Samity reportedly said that many of them had suffered huge financial losses due to lack of demand for the products and secondly to due the damage of the materials. A student organisation of Kamrup has demanded a `100 crore rescue package for Sualkuchi.
West Bengal as the second largest producer of handloom
West Bengal is the second biggest source of handloom products in value terms - enjoying around 17% of the country’s handloom production after Assam’s 43% (in value terms). There are more than 6.5 lakh registered weavers in the state. Most of them are unemployed in the Covid 19 phase. Earlier, a weaver received `250 to `350 as wage per sari. But now they have been getting `20 to `30 per sari. The weavers have been selling a sari at `100 to `150 (whose price would be around `500) and the rest of the money would be repaid later by the local merchants when those would be sold. Many weavers have to take other jobs like vegetable vending or fish selling or join the MNREGA programme to earn their livelihoods. The weavers of Nadia, Bankura, North 24 Parganas, East Midnapore or Burdwan districts in West Bengal are in a precarious condition.
Urgent need of government help for weavers
It is known that two West Bengal state government sales emporiums, namely, Manjusha and Tantuja -decided to purchase handloom products from the weavers. But sources said that these institutes could purchase only a small portion of the products from the weavers as purchase prices were set at very low levels. According to some weavers, those prices could not even cover the cost of the products. A senior person in Phulia, a very well-known place for the handloom industry in the Nadia district in West Bengal, said that a large number of weavers came to sell their products to Manjusha and Tantuja camps at that place. Products valued at more than `4 crore were brought by the weavers but out of that, products of only about `25 lakhs were sold. This reveals that the government initiative for the weavers was almost nothing in the crisis period.
The handloom sector is in crisis
The handloom sector has been facing severe challenges for many years. The power loom products are capturing markets as their cost of production is lower than handloom products. There are some items which no power looms can legally produce and only handlooms are allowed to produce those items. But in spite of having that reservation, power looms are also producing these items illegally. But state governments are not always acting in a responsible manner to protect the handlooms. The weavers are mainly rural and labour participation is very high in this sector. But at times, many are not independent and running their jobs under cooperative societies. But in spite of that, the weavers have to depend on local masters who are mostly exploitative in nature. Several committees were formed by the Indian government like Ashok Mehta Committee in 1964 and the Shivaraman Committee about a decade later to ensure some relief to the handloom sector. Then the Handloom Reservation Act was also enacted in 1985. But gradually the number of weavers declined to 44 lakhs in 2010 from 124 lakhs in 1970s and 64 lakhs in 1995. The Indian handloom sector now also has the Geographical Indicator Act of 2003. Recently the All India Handloom Brand 2015 also has been put in place to protect the sector. Specialists think that the biggest threat to the handloom sector has been that the highly centralised mills controlling all processes under one roof and their resultant lower cost of production.