The word handloom evokes images of a weaver caught in the meditative rhythm of the loom bringing warp and weft together. It conjures images of a pure, uncorrupted, simpler life for which we all yearn. It is associated with a simplicity and purity of purpose; that of making cloth.
The word “handloom” is symbolic of a tradition and a way of life that connects us to our past. An unbroken thread of continuity in an otherwise fragmented and fractured history.
The handloom has survived over thousands of years. It has survived invasions, religions, cultures, fashion, mechanization and imports. The handloom is resilient. The handloom retains its mystique and its charm.
However, we are so caught up in the romance of the handloom that we don’t see that the life of a weaver is hanging by a thread. The weaver’s life is strung along like a supporting actor in a badly made Bollywood film.
To patronize the handloom sector, in its present state, is to perpetuate the economic slavery of the handloom weaver. Structural changes need to be made, in this sector, to improve the lives of the weavers.
Policy is often framed for this sector ignoring one important aspect in the weaver’s life; the relationship between the weaver and the master weaver. I would like to examine this micro aspect of the sector. Progress or reform in this sector is not possible without breaking the ties between the weaver and the master-weaver.
Structural reform has to be made to enable the weaver to be woven into the fabric of the economy. The weaver is currently an outsider whose only link to the mainstream is the master weaver. Once free of the master-weaver, he or she should be able to rely on a structural framework that will allow the weaver to function as an independent economic entity – producing and selling cloth from home.
The weaver and master-weaver
The handloom weaver, typically, has one or two looms at home. The family members spend time at the loom making cloth. The yarn for weaving is given by the master-weaver. The finished cloth is handed over to the master-weaver. The weaver gets wages for his efforts.
A handloom weaver can weave between 2 and 2.5 metres of cloth in a day. Every week or every two weeks the weavers go to the master-weaver’s house and give him the woven cloth and collect wages. The wages vary depending on the complexity of the design.
Traditionally a master-weaver was one who had complete knowledge of the weaving process, came up with designs, colour combinations and was simply the best weaver in town. Today, the definition of master-weaver has changed. Now, a master-weaver is one who has capital to buy yarn and has access to markets and customers. By controlling yarn and access to markets, master-weavers play god in the lives of weavers. The master-weaver also is networked in the sector. Therefore, he has information about the price of yarn and uses this information to hedge risks.
Relationship between the handloom weaver and the master-weaver.
- The master-weaver purchases yarn and gives it to the weaver. The weaver makes cloth and collects wages from the master weaver.
- The master-weaver may sell this cloth directly to consumers or supply to shops and boutiques in cities.
- The master-weaver collaborates with buyers to decide colour combinations and designs. The actual weaver is not part of the design process. The weaver is merely a tool or machine that puts warp and weft together. The weaver does not make a contribution to the design but plays an important role in the execution of the design.
- For most part, the weaver just puts warp and weft together. A repetitive, monotonous, boring act that can be done faster and more efficiently by a machine.
The relationship between weaver and master-weaver is mutually exploitative.
How is the weaver affected?
- When a weaver agrees to weave cloth for a master-weaver, he/she takes an advance or deposit from the master weaver. The sum varies from Rs.10,000/- to Rs.25,000/-. This deposit ties the weaver to the master-weaver.
- This seems like a good thing. Now, anybody reading this piece, would assume that this deposit is put away in some interest bearing financial instrument. The sad truth is most weavers are financially excluded. Most of them, until the jandhan yojana did not have a bank account or access to formal financial channels. So typically the deposit amount is spent.
- If the weaver and master-weaver decide to part ways, then the weaver is expected to repay the deposit amount in full. The weaver cannot do this because he has spent this money. The only way he can repay is by taking a higher advance from the next master-weaver. This puts him on a treadmill of being indebted to a master-weaver.
- The challenge for reform in this sector is to break this relationship and make the weaver an independent producer.
- There are no minimum wages. The wages that are paid are barely sufficient to keep body and soul together.
- The wages to be paid are decided by a group of dominant master-weavers in a locality. This group invariably decides to keep wages low in order to maximize profits. Since there is no other alternative, he has to accept what is offered. The master-weavers argue that they pay fair wages. What are fair wages for a weaver? How does one calculate the worth of a weaver’s efforts?
- The weaver has no access to capital to buy his own yarn. Even if he has capital, he will be able to buy small quantities from a middleman and not from the spinning mill.
- The weaver does not know the price of yarn as it changes every month.
- The weaver does not have direct access to customers who will buy his product. He is solely dependent on the master-weaver.
How is the master-weaver affected?
- The master-weaver is first out of pocket. Assuming he pays a deposit of 10,000/- to every weaver, he has to pay Rs.1,00,000/- to retain the loyalties of 10 weavers.
- The weaver takes periodic advances from the master-weaver for medical expenses, functions, festivals and other emergencies. Essentially the weaver treats the master-weaver as an ATM.
- If the master-weaver does not pay as expected, the weaver holds out on him and does not weave cloth on time. This delay affects the master-weaver as he is unable to fulfill his commitments.
- Pilferage: If 500 gms of yarn is given the resulting cloth should also weigh 500 gms. This is not the case. The woven fabric weighs between 450 gms and 475 gms. There is always pilferage resulting in a loss for the master-weaver.
- The weaver may weave the cloth with so many defects that it is not possible to sell the cloth.
Thus the master-weaver is held to ransom by the weaver. The handloom weaver is not necessarily a simple, innocent, hard-working individual. Very often the weaver is a vicious, vindictive unscrupulous parasite.
Besides the above, the sector is plagued with other problems
a) The handloom is being used as a tool for mass production
A weaver in a cluster weaves cloth identical to other weavers in that cluster. In effect, there are 100 weavers weaving similar cloth producing 250 metres of cloth in one day. This can be achieved by one powerloom in one day.
The handloom is not a tool of mass production or standardized production. The strength of the handloom lies in its ability to custom make small quantities. No two looms need produce cloth of identical structure, weave or design. This is its USP.
By changing reed and pick, warp and weft, infinite variations can be created. Each loom can produce a unique product.
b) The price of yarn
How is the price of yarn determined? Nobody knows. People are led to believe that the forces of supply and demand determine the price of yarn. Industry insiders believe otherwise. The price of yarn is set by a cartel of large spinning mills. There should be transparency in the pricing of yarn.
c) Access to capital
Each handloom weaver needs working capital sufficient to purchase minimum order quantity of yarn directly from the spinning mill. This will eliminate yarn traders and wholesalers who are middlemen. Buying directly from the spinning mills will allow the weaver to procure yarn at a lower price.
d) Awareness of savings and insurance products
The small weaver has been till recently been excluded from the banking sector. With the jandhan yojana and direct benefit transfers, the weavers have access to bank accounts. However awareness of savings and insurance products is very low. A communication and education campaign has to be launched to create awareness of the following
- Small savings schemes offered by the post office such as PPF, NSC, KVP. It is necessary to highlight the fact that these savings instruments can be leveraged to secure loans at low interest rates.
- One time straight life insurance policy
- Health insurance policies
Currently the financial service providers offer loan or credit products to the low income household. As a result, firms involved in financial inclusion only seek to supplant the local money lender.
There are little or no efforts to create a savings and investment habit. Efforts continue to cultivate a borrowing and repayment habit.
I believe, the post office, with its newly acquired banking license, can play a huge role in improving the lives of weavers. They need to pull their weight. They have the network to reach out to the most remote weaver and help him get started with the savings habit.
e) Access to market.
The weavers do not have direct access to the market. This can be changed very easily. All they need is a smart device with internet access and a facebook account. The weavers need to be trained to use the internet, email and set up facebook pages. They need to be taught to take pictures and upload these pictures.
The post office once again can aid in market access by acting as his delivery channel. They already offer cash on delivery. These services can be extended to the weaver to help him reach his product to the market.
A combination of a post office savings bank account along with a COD facility offered by the post office can go a long way in helping the weaver reach the farthest corners of this country
The way forward
A powerful consumer movement in the handloom sector started with the 100 sari pact. There are many consumer groups that have been created around the wearing of a sari. A lot of information has been exchanged about quality, type of weaver, sources. The clarion call for this movement has been “Save the handloom. Preserve the Indian textile tradition”. I only hope that this movement looks beyond the preservation of tradition to include the upliftment of the weaver. This movement has the potential to revolutionize the handloom sector. The consumer movement should also push for transparency in the price of yarn, living wages for weavers, copyright of designs.
The challenge for this sector lies in transforming the weaver into a designer. The weaver has to move from being a wage earner to an entrepreneur.
The way to preserve the Indian handloom tradition is to create an eco system that can make handloom weaving a sustainable and an economically viable occupation for all of its weavers. Save the weaver and you can save the handloom.