Varanasi Handloom Weavers

Advocacy, Case studies, Codes of Practice, Craftspersons/ Artisanal

Varanasi Handloom Weavers: Lost in the Urban and Global Jungle

Jaitly, Jaya

The ‘Banaras’ sari has a history that goes back more than a thousand years in one of the oldest living cities in the world. Not only home to Hinduism and Buddhism , with the sacred River Ganga attracting millions of travellers, tourists and pilgrims alike over a countless number of years, Varanasi, as it is now known, has also cradled and nurtured the largest number of handloom weavers in the country. Every bride had a Banarasi sari in her trousseau, and the Bombay film industry, always influential, has dressed many of its sparkling heroes and heroines in fine brocades from Banaras. The history of its weavers, their presence and their productivity, is intricately woven into the very fabric of the society of Varanasi, but now, just as local pollution and global warming have affected the quality of the water of the sacred river, so too has the world of the handloom weaver turned murky and sluggish. Most of the weavers along with power loom workers are a mix of both Hindus and Muslims, as are the traders who sell woven cloth produced in the cottage sector. These communities have been intertwined and interdependent over centuries which has lead to harmonious relations, empathy, sympathy and sharing of joys and sorrows. When terrorists tried to create mayhem in Varanasi through bomb blasts near the holy temple area not too long ago, the respected sant of the Sankat Mochan Temple held meetings with members of all communities, who assured each other that their lives were indeed linked to a common future. This ensured no violence, vendetta blasts or tension in a city whose many inhabitants live cheek by jowl in narrow bye lanes above which only slim ribbons of sky are visible.

Over the past two years voices have been raised in concerned circles describing the plight of handloom weavers in Varanasi. It began with a news item distributed through the internet in early 2006 that weavers were committing suicide here because cheap mechanised Chinese copies of India’s handlooms were flooding the market. It was a catchy headline but there was no confirmation about the suicides, and statistics of how many looms now lay idle in Varanasi were unreliable. Processions were taken out by persons claiming to represent the weavers and a meeting was held in Delhi to assess the situation, not in government buildings where officialdom should deliberate on these issues, but amongst some elites with concerns for the arts and crafts of India.

The Dastkari Haat Samiti, a not-for-profit association of crafts people, offered to explore the issue further. It decided to ask its members from the weaving community to arrange a meeting of as many weavers as possible to assess the situation and obtain feedback directly from the affected community. On 28.6.06 a Bunkar Maha Panchayat was convened by the Bunkar Vastra Udyog Sanghatan at Peeli Kothi in the heart of the old weaving and trading area of Varanasi city. Over three hundred venerable elders and young weavers comprising gaddidars (traders), master weavers, designers, ordinary weavers who were the real workers, women zari workers and fabric trimmers, and others who were part of the entire production process were part of the meeting. Many problems were identified but there was an underlying note of optimism, since the final assessment was that no problems were insoluble if they all worked together. Surprisingly, they had not heard about the suicide deaths and felt that if indeed such things had happened they should be the first to know and assist the stricken families in some way. They were unanimous that at least 40% of the looms in and around Varanasi were idle and urgent steps needed to be taken to survive and compete in the marketplace and protect their livelihoods. The main reasons for the existing handloom crisis were identified as, a), the fluctuating cost of Chinese silk yarn which was being controlled by local cartels, b), computerized power looms replacing handloom production, c), lack of regular electricity, which left work sheds in darkness, d), bad sewage systems in the narrow lanes causing gutters to overflow and flood the pit loom areas, e), changes in local and global market preferences, leaving sari-width looms idle.

Bestseller, a Danish company which had heard about the crisis in Varanasi, decided to inject some emergency funds by ordering Christmas gifts for their employees all over the world from this troubled sector. Their Indian partners, a garment design studio named Upasana in Pondicherry, contacted the Dastkari Haat Samiti to design the fashion stoles and oversee the project so that 13,000 pieces could be distributed before Christmas. By the time a confirmed was placed in July-August it was almost impossible to find an establishment willing to take the responsibility of completing the order in such a short time. Some looms were occupied, others were in sari sizes and did not suit narrow stole weaving, and the number of weavers available to produce the required number seemed inadequate. Individual weavers have no capital to produce in quantities. They work from order to order. Logistically, it is impossible to distribute work for a large order, where standardization and quality matters, to a large number of individuals who live separately in units that are nothing more than hovels. Big establishments cannot keep more than 20-40 weavers on their rolls, irrespective of whether there is any work or not, so that they have weavers available at short notice, and to prevent them from migrating away from the skill. They occasionally helped them with advances for personal expenditures. This situation certainly lent itself to exploitation, but is part of a traditional arrangement that has no effective alternative mode in place. The original co-operative societies which were supposed to provide justice through equal distribution of earnings have long been converted into mere fronts that are politicized and geared for corruption and the exploitation of illiterate weaver-members. Most co-operative societies in North India exist only on paper and the very same establishment would be just another exploitative sweatshop led by a local politico claiming to be a weaver. In name, there are 300 co-operative societies in Varanasi.

One private establishment decided to overcome the difficulties of trying to complete the Bestseller order despite the advent of Dussehra, Divali, Ramzan, Id, and the wedding season. This is when Varanasi silks are most in demand, domestic orders are pending and the weavers are overworked, or else idle because the looms are conducive to weaving the product required. Handlooms take more time and effort to operate. If a pattern or size changes, new pattern cards have to be prepared and new looms made. However, in this case, the challenge to deliver became a matter of national prestige; a chain of workers devoted 18 hours a day to complete the weaving, cutting, tasseling, ironing, folding and packing. A celebration followed its completion as the project was worth Rs 70 lakhs. Upasana has since set up a follow-up project in a couple of villages nearby to create new fabrics for its garment exports. This is also funded by Bestseller. While this is a positive but very small outcome, one cannot claim that our one big order helped the handloom industry in Varanasi revive. Significantly, all these efforts were completely outside the purview of any government agency, which is still probably blissfully unaware of our efforts. Ultimately, production in handlooms needs a reasonable lead time and manageable quantities to ensure quality and standardization. Intrinsically, both these factors are not conducive to the export sector. It encourages exporters to turn to power looms for quicker production. Highly decorative handloom textiles made by master weavers can always find a market, but to focus on these for exports leaves out large numbers of average producers who has been producing items for the domestic market. It is this section that is suffering today, yet mandarins in Delhi focus only on inputs for export. With dollar values dropping the bottom falls out of this policy.

It may be relevant to make a short digression here to look at the condition of Muslims in the textile sector since the partly myopic lens of the Justice Sachar Report seeks to increase the country’s collective responsibility to improve only the lot of the Muslim community since presence was not visible in the defence services or the bureaucracy, even though the National Sample Survey Organisation found that the overall difference in the level of unemployment between Hindus and Muslims is only 0.5%. The report would have been more accurate if it looked at professional trades as a whole rather through religious identities. Varanasi came under the scanner because of the Muslim component of the weavers’ problems. A Member of the Planning Commission went for a first hand look. The earlier Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh ordered 24-hour supply of electricity to Varanasi; but the truth is that the problems of this sector belong to both Hindus and Muslims alike and for all the comfortable Hindu traders, there are equally well off Muslim entrepreneurs and artisans. Let us look at some ground realities: Mughal rule brought an influx of highly skilled artisans and craftsmen who fused their talents with their Hindu counterparts. Since those times, Muslim communities like the Chipas, Ansaris, and Khatris have associated themselves at all levels of textile production, from dyeing to hand block printing, embroidering and weaving. There would be no fabulous Varanasi brocades without Muslim master crafts men who have continued to work and build upon their ancestral skills. Maqbool Bhai of Resham Silks in Varanasi has not just nurtured age-old traditions but has developed fine new Pashmina weaves and silk-wool brocades. Alongside, he has established a school for 1500 girls and is an attentive member of the All India Handloom Board. Spectacular fabric woven out of peacock feathers is sold by in Varanasi at Rs 1500 per meter and goes to Saudi Arabia for the Sheikhs to upholster their sofas. Another sari trader Sayed Bhai of Taj Estate indulges his passion for exotic multi-hued birds, importing them at considerable sums of money so that they can strut and flap outside his sari showrooms. Big time designers go to master weavers and traders who produce finely woven shimmering silks, ordering special colors and weaves exclusively under their name for export, but they are enjoined to keep these secret. Master weavers in Kasim Arts and others supply all the Tibetan monasteries across the world with their shimmering gyaser and gyanta cloth from Varanasi. April 2008 was the month China’s Olympic Torch created news all over the world. Many Varanasi citizens, including weavers, already sympathized with Tibetan refugees whom they have befriended over the years. The question of Tibetans fighting to preserve their religious and cultural identity found resonance here since an end to the religious gyaser brocades would mean the loss of a huge clientele. They realized that local and global concerns indeed had a meeting point. So, in the context of Justice Sachar’s concerns both Hindu and Muslim weavers at the low end of the ladder are equal victims of market changes, exploitation, power cuts and fluctuating yarn prices. It is their collective condition which should be of immediate concern.

April 2008 saw the convening of a public hearing to discuss the problems of handloom weavers in Varanasi yet again. Weavers from four districts including Varanasi, Mirzapur, Bhadohi and Chandauli were present although the biggest representation clearly was from Varanasi. The meet was arranged by the Human Welfare Association, an NGO supported in its work by a UK-based funding agency. This writer and Bharat Dogra, a veteran journalist with rural concerns, along with Dr Rajnikant Dwivedi of the HWA were part of what was called an Independent Commission to hear the problems of the weavers. LC Jain, former Chairman of the All India Handicraft Board and former Member of the Planning Commission, and senior journalist MJ AKbar were to join, but could not make it at the last moment. What was found can be summarized in a nutshell. Despite the attention catching headlines, the to-ing and fro-ing of government officials over the past two years, and announcements of Rs 70 crores for the development of ‘mega clusters’ by the Finance Minister of India for his constituency in Tamil Nadu and for Varanasi the situation for a majority of the weavers seemed to have regressed.

The assessment made by those working within the handloom sector in Varanasi is that silk weaving earlier provided livelihoods to about 700,000 thousand people, but this has now been reduced to about 250,000 thousand, about one-half working on handlooms and the other half in various supportive activities. The government claims that 75,000 looms are working in Varanasi but the weavers laugh this off saying no survey has been conducted in the last 8 years. The income of handloom weavers has declined to such an extent that they cannot even meet their basic needs. On an average a weaver earns just Rs. 50 to 60 in a day, but gaddidars will tell you they pay Rs 140 a day for highly skilled workers. This livelihood crisis and related indebtedness resulted in unconfirmed stories of weavers in recent times having committed suicide, but what is certain is that some have resorted to selling their blood to meet the needs of their families. Such incidents, including the sale of small children reported in the local media, have highlighted the feeling of quiet desperation that pervades the daily lives of most weavers.

Unlike farmers who are perforce attached to land as the only productive asset they have, artisans are landless. When they reach a point of hopelessness, they migrate to places like Surat, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore to pull rickshaws or perform manual labor or attach themselves to contractors at construction sites. Out of Uttar Pradesh’s 17 crore population, 2.2 crore are unemployed. How many are skilled workers who can be put to creative and productive use has not been researched. Those who are forced to migrate cling to their new lives despite the ugly sounds of the likes of Raj Thackerey’s MNS, preferring to duck for cover and continue boiling eggs or making ‘belpuri’ for working class pedestrians on the streets of Mumbai so that there are small money orders to send home to Varanasi every month.

According to Tufail Qadri of the Bunkar Sanghatan, approximately 50,000 people are out of work in Varanasi because of globalization and the ‘China’ factor. In 2006, imports of textiles from China were 10 lakh meters which has now risen to 9 crore meters. Apart from this, Surat’s textile mills copy the Varanasi sari on their machines. The paper work required to apply for GI protection has only just begun. Even the traditional zardozi of Varanasi is being copied by Chinese machines costing Rs 20 lakhs. This machine was referred to at the meeting as the Chinese Dragon.

If a survey is to be conducted a wider parameter is required rather than one which merely counts heads sitting at looms. Who will be recognized as a weaver? The man who has left his loom and become a rickshaw man? An unskilled person who pays a bribe to get a ‘bunkar card’ from the Handloom Directorate? A man who can produce a health card stating his occupation? Who decides whether a fabric is certifiable as handloom or power loom? Will any one recognize the manual laborer as the erstwhile and potential weaver? Will an ordinary weaver even come to know of a survey being conducted? What does the card give him in terms of real benefits? How does a genuine weaver compete with traders who pose as weavers and “provide the golden egg” to officials to claim benefits? These are some of the agonized questions asked by weavers – all rhetorical, since there are no easy answers.

The major problem is the price of yarn. In a situation where India is the second largest silk producer in the world, it is nothing short of criminal callousness to allow such a condition to develop in Varanasi. No effort has been made so far to link Varanasi with suitable silk production centers, despite Jharkhand, Bihar, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh being engaged in silk production, which in itself offers employment to tribals and other landless artisans, especially women. Mulberry, Tussar, Eri and Moga production provided over 15000 MT in 2006.

The news of cartels operating to manipulate prices of Chinese yarn, and politicians’ links with them, had come up even earlier in the meeting held in 2006. According to the weavers government had promised them a yarn bank three years ago but nothing had been done. One participant at the meeting said there were supposed to be four or five yarn banks in the city but the weavers were unaware of their existence. It is possible that these have been provided exclusively for traders and big exporters, leaving the small weaver ignorant and without access. Aminuddin of Nakhighat said that the real weaver, the real artisan, is exploited in this system. If “something is given by one hand, it is snatched by another hand”. The reality is that most government benefits reach only those who are already rich and prosperous. He said committees and delegations do not even bother to meet poor weavers who are the real sufferers of the crisis. “Please meet them and know their problems”, he implored.

Razia Begum an elected local representative from Lohta village said women make an important contribution to weaving work and that till some years ago families could earn in a satisfactory way, but now the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that after the weaver completes a new sari he cannot be sure he will get a minimum price for it to support his family and start work on the next sari. This is why weavers are leaving their skills and women too are taking to threading beads. She emphasized the need for girls’ education to open up more opportunities for them.

The appearance at the hearing of an emaciated Ainul Haq, a handloom weaver who became seriously ill, presented the stark face of poverty within the weaving community. He came with three of his four small children to tell the story of how weavers and their families have to suffer greatly in the absence of social security when illness disrupts their life. He said even when media reports of his serious illness helped him obtain grants from the state government for his treatment, formalities like getting doctors’ estimates of the approximate expenditure for his treatment could not be completed. While he suffers, unable to work, his wife is housebound, caring for the children. What institutional help and help save this man’s life, or his family, in the absence of trusts or welfare funds for such exigencies?

An example of government interventions going awry through faulty planning is the Sanskritik Sankul – a government building set up in Varanasi for marketing handlooms at a cost of Rs 7 crores. The rent for its use is fixed at Rs 50,000 per day which no one can afford, so a space that can house 200 shops lies vacant except for occasional government-organized programmes taking place. None of these efforts enable the weaving community to be self reliant or empowered.

Central policy makers readily adopt development buzz words that take over their minds and block innovative ideas. Favorite ones that fit in with globalized thinking like “value-added”, “cluster programmes” and “exports” are uttered by Ministers and the hierarchy of secretaries ad nauseam. Anything that does not fit into this framework of planning falls by the wayside. The government looks at a cluster as numbers of weavers sitting at looms located in geographic proximity. Yet weavers, who are part of a lengthy tradition and network of relationships, prefer to interpret the word cluster to mean the entire producer-seller chain, provided there is no exploitation of the man or woman at the bottom. He counts everyone from the spinner to the customer as part of the chain that is inextricably linked, so that the work that needs to be addressed must include the needs and conditions of the producer of raw material to the mechanics of marketing. Just as in agriculture there are traders, landlords and actual farmers (cultivators), similarly in weaving there are gaddidars, (those who sat on mattresses i.e. traders), grihastars (master-weavers) and actual weavers. Interventions have to take all into account. Weavers believe that sometimes impractical schemes upset the traditional system in such a way that they did not benefit from new schemes yet cannot go back to the old support system. So they are left neither here nor there.

Take the words “value added”: plain fabric can be given additional value through embroidery, decorative weaving etc, but this applies only to up-market products. Traders and master weavers dealing with real zari saris or peacock feather fabric do not have a problem of livelihoods. However, in the villages surrounding Varanasi, low skilled weavers producing the simple gamchha, (the ubiquitous all-purpose kerchief /scarf /head cloth /towel of rural India) have to compete with cheap, brightly colored Chinese cloth and towels that are piled in mounds on pavements right across the Hindi-speaking belt where every poor laborer traditionally uses a gamchha. No one in a design studio or government office spares a thought for saving this poor man’s cloth which gains nothing from value addition since it suits the working class section of society just the way it is. The weaver simply goes under because of the competition on the pavements. He has been wiped out by imports, but his goods cannot and need not be exported as long as he can save his markets here. Because of the over-emphasis on exports, small-scale weavers working independently are left out of govt. schemes to help handlooms. Small schemes that can target specific problems are replaced by big ones that require ‘big’ implementers with clout, access and influence. The scheme to mark or certify handloom products is also weighted in favor of the big man rather than small-scale independent weaver who cannot the pay the fee. The tag in any case is not needed for goods that are not aimed at elite markets. Certification itself is prone to corruption encouraged by the power loom lobby.

Criticism of government attitudes was frank and the participants at the meeting were thankful that no representatives of the government were around as they would not have been able to speak openly. However, they desperately wanted their views conveyed to the sarkar .Some spoke regretfully of so-called experts and visiting officials who could not even identify the real weaver. They met traders and exporters in the name of meeting weavers and only listened to views articulated by them. However, there were also many positive notes. Some participants offered remedial steps that benefited the entire sector. They wanted emphasis on improving quality through stable and natural colors. They wanted training and financial assistance to upgrade looms to prepare more contemporary items, and relief from fluctuations of yarn prices by giving agencies for silk yarn to members of the weaving’ community. Since weavers felt isolated in their own pit of problems and big NGOs and middlemen cornered development funds that came for cluster schemes, they wanted the government to think out of the box to fund groups of genuine representatives of weavers from all levels of activity to visit other big handloom weaving centers like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam to learn how they are coping with existing problems and link-up with wider struggles and initiatives. They could also facilitate silk producers to create tie-ups with weaver’s groups. An up-graded, tourist friendly haat (‘weavers only’ marketplace) could be set up in Varanasi where small weavers could sell their products directly to customers in small numbers. Start-up funds and independent business plans could be framed to help small handloom weavers in the country buy raw material, invest in a few modern looms, obtain design input, and pay the rent to hire a stall in the haat once a week to sell their own products. This would protect them from succumbing to exploitative terms dictated by the gaddidars.

Other participants at the Varanasi meeting made demands of government that were out of sync with the political and financial realities of the day. They demanded cheap yarn, government purchase of all their produce, free electricity, and a minimum support price for their production. The fact that a once booming and proud sector should ask for support that has no relevance in today’s global market economy shows how far they have been compelled to stray from their roots and basic systems of trade and commerce. Coming against the backdrop of the central government’s recent farm loan waiver of Rs 60,000 crores, and pre-election promises of free televisions (ironically instead of 24-hr electricity ) during elections had made weavers feel that they too deserved such bail outs even though they are populist responses to policies which were skewed in the first place.

The larger picture, of course, is that the dynamics and structures of globalization have completely shattered traditional bonds and systems, leaving the weavers adrift and uncomprehending.

During the freedom movement khadi (hand-spinning and weaving) had become an integral part of the freedom struggle, but in government, policies are never imbued with that kind of passion and commitment. They are prepared by red-tape bound bureaucrats, vetted nowadays by those who define their vision through the frames of corporate finance, and promoted by politicians who only parrot the latest slogans.

A lively story was related by a senior weaver at the Varanasi meeting. It met with loud applause:

“There was a goat and her calf tethered to a tree near a jungle. The goat asked a bunch of monkeys sitting on the tree above whether they would protect her calf from the tiger in case it came out of the jungle. The monkeys assured all help and told the goat not to worry. Sure enough, a while later the tiger arrived. The monkeys screeched and shouted, jumping back and forth from tree to tree. This had no effect on the tiger, which took away the goat’s calf and ate it up. The goat cried piteously and asked the monkeys what happened to their assurances. The monkeys answered, “Well, we said we would do something. We did!”

This was the weaver’s description of the nature of government interventions in their lives.

Handlooms and their unique decorative variations, including the lowly gamchha, are an important part of our multi-cultural heritage. Equally, it can be a strong pillar of our rural economy. We should work with full faith that these are worth saving. Many weavers would come back to handloom weaving if conditions improve. In the absence of this the only road for them is down, as most are illiterate and have no access to systems or institutions that can retrain them into other professions.

Mahatma Gandhi firmly believed that spinning and weaving activity was the greatest salvation for our nation. During his struggle to set the khadi movement on his feet he found most weavers wearing British mill cloth. Even then, Muslims did not take very eagerly to his khadi campaign although many weavers were Muslims. In Varanasi too, none of the weavers were wearing handloom, unless it is was a gamchha. Even their lungis come off the power loom. There is an urgent need to protect and sustain employment emerging from traditional textile skills from the vagaries of the global market, particularly Chinese dumping and copying. The problems of our weavers today are not much different from what colonialism brought them. Sadly, this time, we have done it ourselves.

Weavers must also recognise the need for a strong leadership that unites weavers into one ‘weavers’ vote bank’, rather than allowing petty politicians from all parties to divide them into Hindu and Muslim vote banks. People of both communities can live happily together if this interdependence assures both growth and reasonable earnings, if not prosperity. If their economic edifice crumbles there will not only be nothing to hold them together, but can result in tensions and tragedies with grave repercussions on a larger societal landscape. Slowly developing human tragedies in India are seldom noticed, but the red warning light over the fate of India’s handloom community is shining bright and clear.

With inputs from Bharat Dogra

First Published in The Other Side, May 2008


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