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View: Handloom Sector - forsaken, and struggles in the Market of Things

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The handloom sector is among the largest employers while contributing to about 15 percent of total textile production in India and 95 percent of all the handwoven fabric in the world. Despite such a magnitude of production and employment, the sector continues to be laden, always brimming with the struggles of workers on the one hand and the conflict between sustainability and subsistence on the other.

View: Handloom Sector - forsaken, and struggles in the Market of Things
The handloom sector is among the largest employers while contributing to about 15 percent of total textile production in India and 95 percent of all the handwoven fabric in the world. Despite such a magnitude of production and employment, the sector continues to be laden, always brimming with the struggles of workers on the one hand and the conflict between sustainability and subsistence on the other.
Although the number of workers engaging in the sector between the two census periods (2009-10 to 2019-20) has increased by 11.5 percent along with the total production output, the average earnings have not improved. In-fact, 66.3 percent of the workers earn less than Rs 5,000 as per the Fourth Handloom Survey. Furthermore, the average number of weavers per household between the two periods has also decreased from 1.28 to 1.05.
Moreover, the economic situation has further aggravated as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crisis which has disrupted the supply chains. Various accounts have indicated that a large amount of stockpile of finished articles along with outstanding incomes, burden the workers.
Against this backdrop, the recent move towards dismantling the already watered-down institutional frameworks without any alternative solution in the form of the All India Handloom Board, while being a welcome move, has resulted in the emergence of a massive gap along the lines of stakeholder, worker and Government engagement.
What do we know? Problems and sectoral landscape
India is among the very few countries that can boast about the existence of the entire textile value chain within its boundaries (from the farm to the mill to the manufacturer). This is entirely based on a very strong base of raw materials - natural and manmade fibers and yarns.
Owing to this, India's export positions improved in the case of cotton yarn but not in the category of fabrics and apparel. While the immediate competition, Vietnam, Bangladesh and China have improved their export share considerably in the past decade, India’s share remains at less than 6 percent.
Nearly, 95 percent of the 31.45 million weavers and allied workers engaging in the sector are unorganized in an inherently decentralized production function. The bulk of these production functions are performed by self-employed individual weavers (73.2 percent).
Besides this, workers engaging under master weavers who employ other weavers are 19.4 percent, those engaging with the Cooperative society (6.35 percent), under State Handloom Development Corporation (0.6 percent) and Khadi & Village Industries Commission/ board (0.4 percent). The concentration of the weaving activities is in the rural areas (88.7 percent).
The majority of the growth witnessed in terms of income and scale only happened in urban areas. This situation has not improved between the two censuses. The rural-urban and the gender earning differential has remained wider, not showing significant improvements.
More than 72 percent (around 23 lakh) women engage in the sector are doing both weaving and auxiliary work but their position remains highly vulnerable. Their incomes earned and contributions remain conspicuously undermined owing to overpowering regressive gender norms.
Moreover, the rural economy has been gradually moving into non-farm activities ergo a decline in agriculture as the primary income stream. This followed by a declining trend in the generation of quality regular employment options in the urban sectors, workers have been moving in and out of a number of work forms.
This coupled with the rising incidence and duration of distress periods in the past decades, workers, in general, are unable to find consistent and quality employment. These factors further complicate the issue at hand. Similarly, women workers who form the bulk of the weavers at 72 percent in the sector continue to suffer from a multidimensional level of precarity.
As far as social security schemes are concerned, the fourth Handloom Census also recognizes very low levels of access and awareness. The same can be attributed to poor functioning of the machinery beginning at the block level under the aegis of the Weavers’ Service Centre.
The real question to be asked here is, why are the WSCs not operating at decent levels across the major handloom producing regions. In this regard, the consistent work done by various grassroots organizations needs to be heeded in order to improve governance systems. In a given usual year, workers struggle to find requisite information about schemes and access input materials from the subsidy shops.
Discussion and possible solutions
Handloom as an art is the conduit of discourse through which the vision of the weavers is represented. In doing so, it, therefore, becomes a means towards an end and it is this end which often ends up being perceived as a state bereft of its economics under the guise of institutional preservation. The questions on equitability and worker rights are more important because while we submerge ourselves in the motif, the buoyant aspects of lives and livelihoods rise to the surface time and again.
The handloom sector-related policy formulations in the past have tried to empower the worker through institutional frameworks but they too were not immune to the gradual rusting. Moreover, periodic economic shocks in the past few years while weakening the inherent resilience capacities of the sector and the workers, is also further demotivating younger workers from entering the sector.
In recent times, it has become clear that the future lies in collaborations. Owing to the lockdown, several stakeholders in India and elsewhere came together to form collectives, e-commerce websites and dedicated marketing channels for relieving the stresses of the worker. This is a strong indication showing possibilities within the handloom ecosystem shows its underlying strength.
Therefore, the governance systems will have to integrate the various sectors to foster growth, development and accountability. A comprehensive and dedicated handloom policy is the need of the hour. This handloom policy must strongly streamline the linkages between the various Government Ministries, private entities and stakeholders at the grassroots level.
Secondly, it must push for reinstating a platform to take further the voices of workers while streamlining integration of technology - in the loom and in the form of access to the market. Introducing structural remedies starting at the WSCs categorically bridging the information gap, creating avenues for education and welfare of both weavers and allied workers.
Besides this, the handloom sector and the woman weavers and artisans in India are always struggling both in and beyond terms of economics. This was strongly made evident during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The weavers in West Bengal also suffered because of the cyclone Amphan.
All in all, the government must identify key vulnerable areas and work on a strong relief package. This is with the goal to have a strong institutional structure based on which the workers in general and women workers, in particular, can actualize their entrepreneurial potentials.
The art and the bearer of the art here, the worker, both are far more dynamic and are able to persist owing to structures of institutions supporting and promoting the spirit with fair trade as the driver. Moreover, just as art is able to over time integrate with the new modernities, the institutions also must evolve to not only facilitate the expansion of the art but also the artist.
By, Nikunj Agarwal, SEWA Bharat and Shantanu Dubey, MEL Associate, SEWA Bharat
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