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In Kanchipuram, COVID-19 has dealt a death-blow to handloom weavers

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This year, the COVID-19 pandemic saw sales of Kanjeevaram sarees fall drastically, thanks to low-key wedding ceremonies and a consumption slowdown.

Sixty-year-old KP Panneerselvam says he has never seen a year as dull as this one. Four decades of weaving Kanjeevaram silk by hand has taught him that the festive season is usually the busiest and most rewarding. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic saw sales of Kanjeevaram sarees fall drastically, thanks to low-key wedding ceremonies and a consumption slowdown. However, for handloom weavers like him, the consumption slowdown has also meant a debilitating hit to their livelihoods.
"Earlier, we would get an advance with orders that would sometimes total to Rs 2 lakh," says Panneerselvam as he speaks to us in his modest handloom with three other weavers. "It is a challenge, today, to get wholesalers to part with Rs 10,000," he added, "On being paid, we are even told to not come back for pending payments for ten days. How do I pay my labour and buy raw material with just Rs 10,000?"
60,000 weavers impacted
It’s a similar ordeal for Kanchipuram's 60,000 weavers, nearly 50,000 of whom are registered under the Tamil Nadu Silk Cooperative Society. Orders have trickled down to just two or three a month, not to mention four months of lockdown that saw no activity. While COVID-19 has gravely impacted festive sales in Kanchipuram, at the heart of this economic crisis, is a human one, involving several thousands of handlooms in the silk hub.
To make matters worse, newly established power looms, have been drawing business away from handlooms. On the face of it, the scenario makes complete sense: power looms are quicker, their products cheaper and in demand especially given that shopping budgets are tighter in a post-COVID world. What this has meant though is that thousands of weavers who depend on handlooms for their bread and butter have begun staring at an uncertain future.
'Orders for handloom sarees dwindling'
"We haven’t had daily income for months, now. I've only woven two sarees in the last four months, and my third saree order is just getting started," says N Dhanalakshmi, another weaver in the silk town, "The silk cooperative society says that hand-woven silks aren’t selling anymore and that we can get paid only if sarees are sold."
Her colleague and another weaver Godharan however, is a tad optimistic. "For seven months now, we have seen no income whatsoever, but the last two months have given us some hope that things could turn around," he says.
While the situation may seem dire, some retailers insist that all is well. The sharp fall in handloom orders, they say, is a consequence of temporary post-COVID market dynamics. But the fact remains that tough times have pushed these retail outlets to stock up on cheaper, easier-to-access power loom silk.
'Power loom sarees cheaper and in demand'
"A hand-woven wedding saree is priced at between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000. The same saree made by a power loom is only Rs 12,000 or Rs 13,000," says D Sampath, proprietor of DM Silks, as he shows us the subtle differences between hand-woven and machine-produced silk, in his store. "During these times, when weddings are held at home, several customers are want to spend less on sarees and don’t end buying hand-woven silk," he added.
There is no doubt that cheaper, power-loom-produced silk is the flavour of the season. Although the Tamil Nadu Silk Cooperative Board declined CNBC-TV18’s requests for an interview, an official in the know told us that there has been a 72 percent decline in orders for handloom silk, while power loom sarees are seeing a relatively smaller 34 percent fall in orders.
The hope, now, is that Diwali and Tamil Nadu's Pongal festivities in January revive consumption, and bring these weavers some festive cheer.

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