Do you 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.
One day 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 modernity.
The 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.
The emperor fell for this story and shelled out sacksful 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.
They are still waiting.
That fairy 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.
Today I’m 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.
I’ll tell 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.
Simply put, 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 power-loom 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.
The past, 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.
Making 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 know that
Today, over 50 million[i] 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 become invisible!
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.
And by 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:
Imagine 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!
The trade 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 it’s 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’!).
Cotton is 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’.
“Slave 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.
..here is 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/imported 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.”
The devastation of hand-spinning 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.
“The story 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 wilderness. …”
That was the 19th century.
Now we’ll 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 today.
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:
‘Fustat 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/workshop’ 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/ordinary people was India’s real strength: Ordinary cloth made in vast quantities by ordinary weavers for ordinary people at affordable prices.
No other 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.
About 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 foot”.
It was 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..
But export 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’
It’s 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 let’s go back to the 19th century let’s see how the intervention of the EIC affected the growing of cotton in India:
Cotton 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.
This 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.
A 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 Desi/indigenous and Americans grow in very different ways, one of which is suited to Indian conditions, and one of which emphatically is not.
And 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.
But 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 bugs.
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 conditions is: it is 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 cotton.
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 industry. It’s only the middle stage that’s missing. I 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.
And how are the existing modern spinning mills of India doing?
Very 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 crores, 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[ii].
They’re 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! So it becomes urgent to develop small-scale spinning, because the only kind of 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.
And finally: 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 India several steps ahead on this score – we don’t 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.
Weavers 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 replacing it.The 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 some success.
[i] Including 6 million cotton farmers: Indian Textile Journal
[ii] Investors Stalk the Wounded of Wall Street
Lecture delivered in 2014 at the LILA Foundation sponsored PRISM series in New Delhi, India