86-year old handloom weaver Donthamsetty Suryanarayana has no hope of relief from the drudgery. His is a struggle against age, ill health, low income and loneliness. This Telugu speaking man from Chirala district in Andhra Pradesh is burdened with a leg affected by filaria, occasional stomach ache, failing eyesight and pangs of hunger. He has been working for the past 56 years with one master weaver, in a traditional system of cloth production in India, wherein an investor employs weavers for weaving clothes.

Everyday, Suryanarayana has been putting in almost 12 hours of work. He has been earning in the range of a paltry Rs 250-350 per month -- major portion of which goes to pay for mounting debts and failing health. Despite lifelong labour, his worldly possessions are limited to a tumbler, a steel plate, a wooden bed and a torn cloth bag. Suryanarayana's life epitomises the problems of handloom weavers and their livelihoods in India.

Weavers like Suryanarayana toil for most of their waking hours to weave the rich tapestry of clothes and fabric that delight consumers across the world. Yet, their earnings per month do not exceed Rs 1,000. This is also the family income, as all family members chip in. Children do not have any scope for educating themselves, especially the girl child, who has to help in house chores and livelihood also.

How did this come to be?

A brief history

The handloom sector provides employment for an estimated 12.5 million people and is the largest rural employment provider next to agriculture.

 •  GIs and protection
 •  Crafts - from then till now

Handloom is an ancient industry in India. The features of this sector vary across the country. In some parts of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Assam and Orissa, it has attained the status of a mature industry, and in other parts, it is still an enterprise confined to the needs of the household.

The last 100 years have seen the growth of mechanised textile production internationally. In part due to competition, handloom has lost much of its market and is almost non-existent in most countries. However, handlooms are still a force to reckon within India and some other Asian countries such as Srilanka, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Cambodia.

Today, India's textile sector comprises four important segments -- modern textile mills, independent powerlooms, handlooms and garments. Though there is a huge, informal tailoring enterprise, it has not been studied or considered worthy of public attention, leave alone policy. There are also sub-sectors like textile machinery manufacturing and spinning sectors, which form part of the textile sector.

Though it employs the largest number of people, the handloom sector is considered a sunset industry, and there is an air of inevitability given the relentless march of mechanisation, modernisation and sophistication. Still, there are many advocates of handloom for reasons including ideology, philosophy, sheer love for handloom products and economic arguments. However, irrespective of the policies, projects and aspirations arising out of various quarters, the handloom sector is undergoing changes that are impacting the livelihoods of handloom weavers.

Large footprint of the handloom sector in the economy

While the weavers face a dismal situation for their livelihood, there is a large market for India's handloom products both domestically and internationally. Handloom production has significant contribution to the national GDP and export earnings. According to the Ministry of Textiles, export earnings as late as 1998-99 was Rs.1,956 crore. Current figures are expected to be around the same. (1 crore = 10 million.)

Weaver in Epurupalem, Prakasam district, A.P. Pic: CHIP.

The handloom sector provides employment for an estimated 12.5 million people and is the largest rural employment provider next to agriculture, generating jobs also in semi-urban and urban areas of India. According to surveys conducted by NGOs, the country has more than 38,00,000 handlooms. In north-eastern States, there are more than 15,00,000 domestic handlooms. Handlooms in north India and south India are geared for commercial production for domestic market and also exporting their products abroad.

In Andhra Pradesh alone, there are about 3,20,000 handlooms. About 5,00,000 families directly and 20,00,000 families indirectly are dependent on them. Major handloom centres include Chirala, Mangalagiri, Pedana, Ponduru, Polavaram, Pochamapalli, Puttapaka, Gadwal, Dharamvaram, Emmiganur, Madhavaram, and Narayanpet. Each centre has its unique identity of producing varieties of handloom products. Large numbers of handloom can be seen in coastal Andhra, Rayalseema and Telangana. In all centres of Andhra Pradesh, production is geared for the domestic market only.

By some estimates, there are 32 other sectors that are benefiting from the handloom sector, including transportation, financial services, marketing services, service and maintenance services and hotels. Many handloom centres are well known tourist spots, drawing visitors from far places of India and foreign countries as well. Thus, the tourism industry's fortunes are in part influenced by the handloom sector and its fame.

Handlooms have an umbilical linkage with cotton farmers and the rural farm economy. Agricultural labour gets employment in handloom sector during the non-agricultural season. The sector has self-sustaining mechanism, including training for young weavers, irrespective of gender. The inheritance of skills, resources and capacities has remained beyond the realm and reach of any modern training and educational institution. The sustaining of the weaving skill itself has not been dependent on the government or any modern formal institution. There is also inherent flexibility for all types of communities to take up handloom production as a profession.

Handlooms are environment-friendly. A handloom is an independent and autonomous technology. Energy impacts are almost zero. The sector thus lends itself to sustainable development policies aimed at reduction of negative impacts on environment and ecology.

What ails handlooms?

As noted earlier, handloom weavers are facing severe livelihood crisis because of adverse government policies, globalisation and changing socio-economic conditions. The national and state governments do have several schemes pertaining to production inputs, market support and development, meant to safeguard the interests of the weaving community. Ineffective implementation of the schemes and the changed context of textile industry -- increasing competition from the powerloom and mill sectors -- has been largely responsible for the crisis in the handlooms.

Lack of information to weavers regarding various policies and schemes is no less a significant cause for the dwindling fortunes of the weaver community. Even government departments and implementing agencies related to handloom suffer from inadequate information and data resulting in a widening gap between policy formulation and implementation.

The formal education system (including research institutes) has not included teaching and imparting skills for this profession into its fold. As a result, any innovation and change has been left to the weaving families. In the recent decades, due to lack of information and fast paced changes, practices in handloom sector became static and apparently redundant.

Shed weaver in her dwelling, Prakasam district, A.P. Pic: CHIP.

Presently, government policies are increasingly influenced by the globalisation processes and are related to WTO-induced trade regimes. As the controls on exports get liberalised and domestic markets open up, the textile scenario in the country is likely to undergo drastic changes in terms of skills, inputs like designs, market trends and changing demands therein. The question is whether these changes include the interests of weavers who are still practicing their skills and knowledge, honed over centuries.

In earlier planning processes at the national level, development of handloom sector was seen as a stimulation for rural development, being based on local resources, local craftsmanship and catering primarily for local markets. In the first decades following India's independence, all national policies emphasised this. However, current thinking at the apex policy level is that the handloom sector is a redundant profession and is a burden on the government exchequer. Political leadership, in general, has been avoiding taking up cudgels on behalf of the weaver community.

Consequently, there is no discourse on handloom policies and also the replacement of the whole set of existing policies. Handloom weavers have no say in policy matters.

What needs attention?

The central government needs to recognise the value of the handloom sector in sustainable development. On its own, the government would never be able to provide employment to such a large workforce. Going by the logic of liberalisation itself, the government in turn ought to formulate, promote and encourage policies that sustain this employment. Government has to ensure a 'level playing field' for this sector towards healthy competition among the different sub-sectors of textile industry.

Principally, the government has to change its policy, swinging between attitude of gross neglect and shallow protection, to an enabling role. Public policies should go beyond mere subsidies, sop schemes, appeasement of politicians and their vote banks and aberrations in budget allocations.

The following are aspects that require immediate attention:

1. Raw Material supply

Access to raw material such as yarn, dyes and dye stuffs has become a problem. (Yarn is made out of fibres such as cotton and is used to weave the cloth, horizontally and vertically. It is the primary material to produce the cloth or fabric.) Weaving is a rural and semi-rural production activity and weavers have to go far to get these raw materials. To top it off, yarn prices are steadily increasing. The availability of hank yarn - the basic material from which weaving is done - is a serious issue because it is controlled by modern spinning mills, who see more profit in large-volume cone yarn. Secondly, since hank yarn is tax-free and has subsidies, enormous amounts are diverted to the powerloom and mill sectors. As a result, there is a perennial shortage of yarn for the weavers. Despite a few schemes, the hank yarn access issue has not been resolved. Colours are expensive, and presently there is no system or mechanism to increase their availability.

2. Raw material prices

Handloom primarily uses natural fibres such as cotton, silk and jute. Prices of these fibres have been increasing during production and processing. Cotton production in India is expensive because of intensive and high usage of costly agricultural inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. Secondly, while the fibre production most often happens in the vicinity of the weavers, their processing is done in distant areas, and as such the prices to the weaver are higher. With the central government now encouraging primary fibre and yarn exports, handloom weavers would be on the last priority for yarn suppliers.

The solution lies in establishing relatively low-cost, decentralised spinning units in the villages where handloom and fibre productions co-exist. The units would enable direct linkage between farmers and weavers, which essentially decreases the cost of yarn and thus the cost of handloom products. Still, the cost of setting up the units may be too much for an individual, and hence governmental support will be required.

3. Infrastructure and Investment

Investment in handloom sector has thus far been limited to input supply costs. There is no investment on sectoral growth. While there have been some piece-meal projects such as workshed-cum-housing and project package schemes, they merely perpetuate the existing conditions. There has been no thinking on basic requirements of the producer. Facilities such as land, water and electricity need to be provided in many places that are a harbour for handloom manufacturing. On the other hand, powerlooms are getting more usable support from the government in procuring land, water and electricity.

Places like Pochampally (for e.g.) suffer from water pollution, where the Musi river drains the wastewaters of Hyderabad city. In many places across Andhra Pradesh, the only water available is groundwater, which is laden with salts and other contaminants. This affects the quality of production, economics and also the structure of production. Weavers simply have to put in more time to procure water for drinking and other needs, as well as compromise on dyeing quality.

Common facilities have not been developed such as godowns, credit facilities (banks in the vicinity), roads, proper sanitation, etc. have not been provided anywhere.

In recent years, the investment profile in handloom sector has also been changing. Traditional investors -- known as master weavers -- who had been investing for several decades in handloom production have been moving away, or have become reluctant to invest in new designs. There is a need for new programmes that enable the inflow of fresh investments and emergence of new entrepreneurs into the handloom sector.

4. Design improvements

While there are suggestions that handloom sector should increase its design in response to changes in the market, the bottlenecks are many. The lack of change is not due to the weaver not being amenable to change, as is bandied. Rather, it is due to unwillingness of the investor to take risks and provide incentive to weavers for effecting the change. This apart, government has been providing substantial grants to the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) to provide design support to handloom cooperatives, but nothing much has come of it. NIFT was granted Rs.42.71 crores in 2004-'05 and Rs.22.78 crores for 2005-'06.

5. Market for products

Handloom products require more visibility. This means better and wider market network. One-off exhibitions organised with the support of government do not suffice. Presently, handloom products are available only in few places. An umbrella market organisation -- autonomous and financed by the government initially -- should be formed to undertake this task, financed by the sales of the handloom products.

6. Patenting designs/varieties

Handloom designs are not protected. As a result, investors are not interested lest they end up with the risk and those who copy the benefits. Protection options include development of handloom/silk/jute marks and registration under Geographical Indications Act. However, more discussion is required on this if handloom has to come up with designs that suit the market preferences and are still protected against theft.

7. Cooperative system

While cooperatives do help in maximising the benefits for weavers in the entire chain of production, their present condition a cause of concern. The handloom cooperative system is riddled with corruption and political interference. Many handloom weavers are not members of these cooperatives. Government departments have to stop using them as primary sources for routing government funds and schemes. Cooperatives have to become independent of district-level government officers in terms of management and decision-making. An enabling role is called for, as detailed elsewhere in this article.

8. Free export/import trade -- opportunity

Post the WTO Agreement on Textile Clothing, there is going to be more free export and import of textiles. The handloom sector, as a traditional area, can claim some special packages or discriminatory measures, to protect this kind of production. Options and policy measures need to be worked out either by independent institutions or the government.

9. Budget allocations

Allocations for handloom in national and state budgets are being reduced. This has to be reversed. Budget has to increase with new schemes which address the problems of the sector, in view of the linkage and the need to protect rural employment.

10. Intermediaries (individuals/institutions)

Government has created a few research, training and input institutions to help the handloom sector. These institutions include weaver service centres, institutions of handloom technology, NIFT, etc. But their performance has been below par and their presence has not helped in obviating the problems of handloom weavers.

11. Enhancement of Value

There is a need for enhancing the value of handloom products through utilisation of organic cotton and organic yarn, application of natural dyes and by increasing the productivity of the looms through research and innovation – for example, changes in the width of the looms and some appropriate technical changes.

12. Competition and unfair competition from mills and powerlooms

Competition is now uneven, with mill and powerloom sector getting subsidies in various forms. Secondly, powerlooms have been undermining handloom markets by selling their products as handloom.

13. Wages, employment and livelihood issues

Wages have not increased in the last 15 years. Some sections of handloom weavers are living in hand-to-mouth conditions, with no house or assets.. These issues need to be addressed by the government; at least effectively implement the Minimum Wages Act. (The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi)