Tuesday, March 2, 2021
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Looming crisis averted

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The government was mulling over amending the Handloom Act that protects millions of weavers. Better sense prevailed, but is the threat over yet?

By Ramesh Menon

Millions of wor-kers in the handloom sector hea-ved a sigh of relief this fortnight as the government decided not to go ahead with amendments to the Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act.
Enacted in 1985, it protected traditional handloom weaves from being copied by textile mills and power loom operators. It listed goods and textiles reserved for production by traditional craftsmen and weavers. It ensured incentives to keep the tradition alive.


The fact that the government even mulled over amending this act goes against the face of logic as India leads the world with it unique handloom designs. Almost every state in India has its own unique designs.
For some time now, the powerful power loom lobby has been pressurizing the textile ministry to amend the Act, hoping to corner the benefits of the protected handloom sector. Power looms produce 60 percent of India’s fabrics. Ironically, it goes against the concept of “Make in India” touted aggre-ssively by Prime Minister Narendra Modi even on his foreign tours.
Why did the government even consider such a move? Observers say it was because business-hungry pressure groups were trying to get whatever concessions and advantages they could with the present government, which had sworn to boost industry and business. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as businesses have to grow to resuscitate the present sluggish economy. But it cannot be done sacrificing the future of the handloom industry that employs millions of non-agricultural labor and skilled artisans.


Even the UPA did not care much for handlooms and did little to let it grow and flourish. In fact, at Planning Committee meetings, Deputy Planning Commission chief Montek Singh Ahluwalia would openly say that the handloom as a sector was doomed. He would coldly tell handloom enthusiasts, which included bureaucrats, that he did not want emotional arguments but facts to convince him of how handlooms had a future in India.

The mechanized power loom sector hoped to get the right to copy traditional handloom designs, taking away once and for all the strength of their distinctive weaves and designs, which machines have not been able to copy till now.

Ashoke Chatterjee, former president, Crafts Council of India, told India Legal: “The current retraction by the government is not in itself a guarantee that the crisis for handlooms has ended. Less than two years ago, a similar assurance was given to the handloom sector. There was a move to fix four horse power motors to handloom units so as to change the definition of ‘handmade’ products. This time, the move was to help power looms benefit. It indicates a deep indifference and contempt for what is India’s greatest contemporary advantage.”


 handloom sector generates millions of jobs

When Dastkar put out an online petition demanding that the Handloom Reservation Act be left alone, it got over 25,000 signatures in a week. Many of the signatories were foreigners. Generally, the present discourse revolves around how handloom is a high-end product for the wealthy. But that is not true. The fact is that handlooms have a huge
market in India among all sections, apart from a hungry global market, which sees it not only as an art but as healthy wear that allows the skin to breathe. Five years ago, the European Union coined a phrase: “The future is handmade.” This was done to bring back to Europe a culture of encouraging crafts and creativity.


Handmade designs and prints by handloom weavers have a special attraction for buyers who are ready to pay more for it. This is what the mechanized power loom sector wanted to cash in on. It hoped to get the right to copy traditional handloom designs, taking away once and for all the strength of their distinctive weaves and designs, which machines have not been able to copy till now.

Many handloom designs are exclusive. There are four dozen families in Nepura village of Bihar, for instance, who weave the “Bavanbuti” or 51 motif saree that is derived from Buddhist traditions. They also weave the famous Maldehi, Sundrahi and Kirkiri saris. Handloom sarees that adorn the ward-robes of many women include Chanderi, Paithani, Patola, Kanchipuram, Gadwal, Muga and Banarsi. All of them represent the purest traditions of highly skilled weavers. Clearly, this is an art that should be protected and helped to grow.

Points out Chatterjee; “Handlooms have huge social, economic, environment, cultural and even spiritual strengths. Yet, we treat it with such indifference. Look at the potential. IT can give India only two million jobs, but handlooms can give 25 million jobs and that too in rural areas. As India’s emphasis is on non-agricultural job creation in rural areas, handlooms cannot be neglected.”

There is no doubt that the power loom sector should also flourish. The solution is to create a new policy for them so that it creates millions of jobs as it is easy to set up. Power looms set up in the 1970s changed the face of Surat, creating both jobs and wealth. This would also jell with Modi’s policies of boosting business and creating jobs.

However, powerlooms also need to be reigned in. Says Chatterjee: As handlooms are popular, a lot of power looms produce cloth which looks similar. Handloom products need to carry a special mark to show that it is hand-made, but it is not enforced. “Power looms should not be allowed at all to sell spurious handloom.” .


Even before Independence, Indians nurtured the handloom sector. It requires no electri-city, needs low investments and is easy to set up for poor households with small loans. The Modi government has always underlined the need to develop skills; here is a sector where it can start with. As it is eco-friendly, handloom’s international status is only growing, marking India’s unique craft as numero uno in the world. It will be worthwhile to ensure that it stays that way and is not diluted to help mechanized systems make more profits.

The handloom sector contributed `2,812 crore in 2013-14. What it needs today is government help in terms of proper infrastructure, investment and planning. We must not forget that after agriculture, handloom is the largest employer in rural India. It takes care of millions of livelihoods in rural India, preventing them from migrating to cities.


And social media has to some extent helped in the popularity of handloom sarees. The #100sareepact was a movement started by Ally Matthan and Anju Kadam to encourage women to wear 100 sarees in a year. It has now gone viral, with stories of women who talk of their exotic handloom designs, including rare weaves gifted to them by their grandmothers and mothers. Jaya Jaitley, who has worked with craftsmen and artisans for the last four decades, feels such moves will give a fillip to the handloom sector.


 Power looms, if allowed access to traditional weaves, will wipe out many jobs in the handloom sector

Says Chatterjee: “There has been no marketing management in India for the last 60 years for handmade products. There is a demand for it, but there is no marketing to meet it. The future of handlooms should not be looked at from the prism of concessions and reservation, but from the point of creating demand and helping the hand-made fabric cater to a huge market.”
As of now, the handloom sector has again started breathing easy. But if the government is really serious about the Made in India slogan, it should not consign its arts and crafts into the dustbin of history.

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