The government of India has declared August 7, as National Handloom day to mark the Swadeshi Movement which began on August 7, 1905. The objective is to generate awareness about the importance of handloom industry and its contribution to the socio-economic development.
The handloom sector is one of the richest and most vibrant aspects of the Indian cultural heritage. Weavers are keeping the traditional craft from different states alive. The level of artistry and intricacy achieved in handloom fabrics is unparalleled, with certain weaves and designs still beyond the scope of modern machines.
A wide range of distinct silk is found in our country, be it the heavy Tasar silk from Jharkhand or the thread work of Bomkai from Odisha. There is also the shiny Mangalgiri cotton from Andhra Pradesh, the luxurious Paithani from Maharashtra and the traditional Patola from Gujrat. The wide range of silk fabrics with their ethnic texture and beauty make our textiles the richest in the world.
While India provides about 95% of hand-woven fabric in the world, sadly there is very little demand for handloom products in our country. Not only does this fact make handloom expensive but it also contributes to making the lives of weavers full of hardship. A sari woven in a handloom requires months to finish but doesn’t cost as much as the energy and inputs invested to produce it.
The plight of weavers in our country highlight that the situation of the weavers’ community is still the same as it was during the British rule. It has been 70 years since India got independence, but the handloom sector in our country is still marginalised. The textile industry played a significant role in the fight for independence. The Swadeshi movement was only possible because our weavers took charge of creating more handcrafted products to fulfil everyone’s demands.
Indians turn very patriotic when it comes to talking about the movement to promote Indian goods and services. But, we fail to support the real essence of Indian industry. The Indian consumer market has always supported companies who are replicas of foreign corporate houses but never cared for products which support the Indian artistic communities. Many start-ups evolved in these years, but very few dared to take the initiatives to promote indigenous artwork. The mass consumers in India, who find themselves comfortable with the goods and products of international brands consider handloom products to be too expensive. Even outlets like Handloom House or Jharcraft, which are government undertakings failed to increase the demand for handloom products.
Official surveys published by the office of the Development Commissioner (Handlooms) suggest that the number of weaver families reduced from 124 lakhs in the 1970s to 64 lakhs in 1995, and further down to 44 lakhs in 2010. A study conducted by Rashtra Cheneta Jana Samakhya, a leading trade union of handloom weavers, reports that over 1,500 weavers committed suicide in the last three years across the country.
Handloom weaving is largely decentralised with the weavers mainly belonging to the vulnerable and weaker sections of society. The lack of orders, the rise in consumption of foreign materials, increase in the price of input costs and the long time required to create handcrafted products are some of the primary reasons which are slowly killing the handloom sector. Apart from these issues, the past governments have also carried out minimal efforts for conserving the lives of our weavers. Further, the Handloom Reservation Act, 1985 which protected the interests of the weavers came into scrutiny only in 2015 when there was a chance that it may get repealed. Lack of proper government schemes for sectors like health insurance, work shed funds, thrift funds and no provision for minimum wage programs in this sector have worsened their lives.
Small and medium enterprises, CSR initiatives of various companies and various NGOs succeeded in training several women in the art but couldn’t provide a market to sell their products.
But we should not forget that financial aid by the government or the support from textile outlets alone, cannot resolve the existing issues. Self-help groups can work with small and medium enterprises for greater access to funds. We can also do our bit to make their lives better by buying goods from small weavers rather than accepting foreign material. By saying foreign material, I mean that we should stop, or at least cut down on accepting and buying synthetic fabric and mass produced designs.
India boasts of luxurious natural textiles which need to be recognised and highlighted more. Our efforts will not only preserve our culture but more importantly, enable the weavers to fulfil their dream of living a good life.