Guest Blog: The Handloom Imperative: How can we make a difference?

by Payal Talreja

(Note from Sojourn with San: India has perhaps the most vibrant and talented handloom sector in the world. However, with the advent of powerlooms and synthetic textiles, the industry has been struggling. With a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, and other natural disasters, the industry has to weather yet another blow. What can be done for this sector, so that we preserve livelihoods along with the techniques and art forms that have come down generations for centuries? I am delighted to share the first guest blog ever on this site by Ms. Payal Talreja in the Small Businesses section. She is a handloom and handicraft curator and creative director at Tvam. In this story, Ms. Talreja lays bare the inside story of one of the largest unorganised sectors that is needs assistance and how we can elevate its status. Read on…)

Guest writer – Payal Talreja

I have often asked myself, ‘How do you differentiate between a mere reseller of a handloom products and someone who is actively engaged with the handloom industry as regards to design intervention, enhancing quality and is invested in the process?’ Both market handloom textiles. Both make a profit. Clearly, there is a differentiating factor and this is what I am going to discuss here- a deep learning that has come in this fascinating handloom journey.

  1. Do you know that the Handloom industry is one of the LARGEST unorganised sector?

This sector employs 43 lakh weavers across rural and urban areas. Which means it’s a huge employment generator.  It is no surprise then, that there are so many of us engaged in promotion, marketing and design activities related to handloom.

2. It’s a RARE GENDER AGNOSTIC sector

It is interesting that like unlike many other sectors there is wage-parity between men and women. A majority of weavers come from economically disadvantaged and SC/ST (Scheduled Caste and Tribes groups. This translates into financial empowerment opportunities for women. It is heartening to note that even in the allied or secondary activities, the female work-force participation rate is twice that of their male counterpart.

Source: FLO Report
A woman weaver in Kanchipuram; Picture courtesy: sojournwithsan

3. Weaving is a HOUSEHOLD BASED ACTIVITY

Every one, in the family, is usually employed either as a weaver or as an allied worker – loading spindles, dyeing, stretching etc. The positive is that it enables even children and grandmothers to be productive earning members. The downside or negative aspect is that the complete household is left without income when disaster strikes.

Mangalgiri Saree Weavers- a family enterprise; Picture Courtesy: Payal Talreja

I quote “Across India, 28.2 lakhs handlooms were reported in the 4th All-India Handloom Census, out of which 25.2 lakhs were in rural areas. Handlooms are mostly located in handloom weaver households (95.6%) which clearly signify that weaving on handlooms is primarily a household based activity.”

4. Weaving still remains a largely RURAL occupation

Herein, lies an ideal economic opportunity for resurgence, recovery and development at the grass roots. 82% of weavers in rural areas work independently i.e. are self-employed – which increases their risk, but also provides more opportunity for entrepreneurial engagement.

5. The sector also includes non-woven TEXTILE BASED CRAFTS

Textile based crafts include techniques like Ajrakh, Shibori, Bandhini and Batik. You also have hand-block printing techniques like Dabu, Sanganeri, Bagru, Bagh  and Kalamkari. Embroidery techniques include Kashidakari, Zardozi, Suf, Kutchi, Kantha, Chikankari,Phulkari, Lambadi and Chambarumal.

An Ajrakh Karigar/ artist’s workshop; Picture Courtesy: Payal Talreja

These cornucopia of textile based crafts provide occupation to marginalised communities. While the dyeing crafts are mostly the purview of male members of the family,  women manage the traditional trousseau making arts like chikankari, suf, kutchi work, lambadi work. These have been turned into successful commercial occupations by designers and the Indian wedding industry.

Keeping the above in view, for those of us, whose livelihood/ passion/commitment is dependent and allied to the handloom & handmade sector I would like to present some facts that I have gleaned working with weavers in 9 states. I simply see these as imperatives for all of us who work in this sector.

What can we do for Handlooms?

  1. Who is my Weaver?

Is he from a special community/religion/gender that can benefit from my interaction? It is worth pondering that wherever it is possible, we must support and buy from a weaver/ craft household. This provides them continuous and reliable occupation while limiting their risk. Weavers who are part of cooperative societies are buffered against risk better than small households.

Weaving of the Gamcha saree in Bihar; Picture Courtesy: Payal Talreja

2. WHAT is the level of education in the family/village/community and what interventions can I do to improve this?

Engaging with families implies taking the responsibility and mentoring households, where needed. Our Minister for Textiles has famously stated – “30% of weaver family members don’t go to school”.

According to the 4th All India Handloom Census 2019-20, 21% of male and 23% of female weavers were illiterate. The census added added that Goa, Maharashtra and Manipur had the highest levels of literacy and education. But most households remain reluctant to send the children to school.


The reasons I have ascertained for this, mostly pertain to the idea that once educated the youngsters don’t want to continue weaving but prefer to look for other occupations.

It is important in the course of our engagement that we actively seek to persuade and encourage them to educate their children, by showing them how education would help turn their households into entrepreneurial set-ups, whereby they can both weave and market their products, and get a better financial turnover for their skills. Stress must be laid on the education of the girl child. The fact that 77% weavers are women should be a significant persuader!

3. Is my weaver insured? How can I help make his life safer?

Research insurance options – Raise awareness & educate them. Those who work in the sector need to find out about the insurance schemes available for the state and ensure that our weavers are insured. This can be encouraged by paying the first premium for them.

According to the 4th All India Handloom Census (2019-20), Weavers are very poorly covered by insurance (life or health), with insurance coverage in rural areas being 3.3% and Urban areas having 7%. Only 2.6% weavers were aware of the WHIS – Weavers Health Insurance Scheme Of those, only 1 in 3 have been covered by the scheme.

Did you know that handloom weavers, in the age group of 51–59, are covered under:

  • Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY)
  • Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY)
  • Mahatma Gandhi Bunker Bima Yojana (MGBBY)

    Under these schemes, weavers are required to pay only Rs. 80 to enroll, while the rest of the premium is paid by the government. We need to help them to become aware of and take advantage of these schemes.
A weaver whose end product will be a stunning Kanjivaram saree: Picture Courtesy: sojournwithsan

4. Where is my weaver’s raw material coming from?

It is important that we do not just buy the end product but also engage with the way it is made. For instance, most weavers continue to buy and source yarn from the free market where the price of hanks (yarn in coiled form), is sometimes reasonable and sometimes high. The big disadvantage for them, and for us, is the unreliable purity. We have all dealt with spurious khadi, fake linen and deceptive silk.

Hank Yarn

The Yarn Supply Scheme has been put into place by the Ministry of Textiles. It benefits all of us including the weaver to make use of existing Government Schemes. Under this scheme

  • Yarn is supplied at mill gate price to weavers to compensate them for the high cost of transportation from mill gate to their workplace
  • In addition, 10% price subsidy is provided on cotton, domestic silk, woollen and linen yarn in hank form so that handloom weavers can compete with power-looms in pricing
  • Yarn depots have been opened in handloom concentrated areas
  • To facilitate delivery of small orders, warehouses have been opened in all States having significant handloom presence

Making our weavers aware of this is an imperative. Most cooperatives avail of this scheme but small weavers need to register themselves to get this benefit.

5. Does my weaver have a bank account? Does he manage to save? Does my weaver conduct his business under the radar? And if so, how will he grow?

And brings us to the yet another imperative. Use the internet to find out about the availability of banking services in his area and educate him on the need for banking.

I am hopeful that in the last one year, with the ease in opening of accounts this would have improved. I find fewer karigars now not having their own account. We need to ensure that business is conducted with complete honesty & transparency and that money is paid directly into the weaver’s account.

Some women weavers do not have their own account. Bank accounts are traditionally in the name of the father or husband. When we meet our weavers, this is the time to engage with them about financial aspects that can benefit them. With a bank account they can avail of government schemes. A proper business account also helps to create a chain of transparency and accountability, while encouraging saving and growth. I am listing some below.

Home decor handicraft of the Gandhi Charkha

6. Does my weaver has access to loans that can help him expand?

Talk to your weaver. Discuss future plans – because these relationships should not be transactional. We wouldn’t want to work at a job where there is no advancement or growth opportunities? Why should they?

Weavers often turn to or work with agents/ dalals/ middlemen. These individuals are not always villains but part of the system. We however, tend to view most of them as villains who squeeze, suck dry and own the weaver literally lock stock and weave.

What we forget is that the reason this person came into being, was the need of the weaver. With no one to help him when a loom broke down or when the daughter fell off a ladder and got a fracture or needing a loan for a wedding, the system gave birth to the agent/ dalal/ middleman.

For the most parts these are symbiotic relationships. But the poorest of the poor do remain in a strangle hold. A bank account would help a weaver to get a MUDRA loan. Under this scheme, working capital and term loans at 6% interest rate is being provided through banks. To leverage these loans, margin money up to Rs.10,000 is also provided. The Ministry of Textiles also bears the credit guarantee fee to be paid to the banks to encouraging lending. Once again, at the risk of being repetitive, I consider it our responsibility to make ourselves aware of economic schemes which can help our weavers grow. When they grow, we grow and the handloom sector as a whole becomes better.

Weeks of hard-work results in a beauty; Picture Courtesy: sojournwithsan

7. Do I understand, accept and acknowledge my weavers aspirations?

I have seen many weavers start off with one simple pit loom. A dobby attachment, is an aspiration. Did you know that the HSS – Hatkharga Samvardhan Sahayata (looms and accessories) helps a weaver get 90% cost assistance from the government for adoption of upgraded looms – especially jacquard and dobby?

Such schemes have been beautifully adopted in the past and shown a revival of weaving in dead or dying clusters. So, the imperative – help your weavers to avail of HSS if that is what they want and stop being elitist, snobbish and zealous of “ONLY handloom”. Them, and their needs should and do matter more.

8. Does my weaver have a reasonably safe and adequate work area?

Some of the weavers I work with, starting just as a household enterprise have expanded to now employing other karigars and weavers. One such example is an Ajrakh karigar, who has joined forces with a bandhini and shibori karigars to provide a new kind of saree. But where to do they work?

Nobody wanted to let strangers into their home-space, besides, there just wasn’t room. With the help of a few customers, he set up a second small workshop. The loan weighed heavily on his head, and moreover, he was obliged to offer ‘stock’ as return for the loan.

I didn’t know then, and he didn’t either that he could have got 100% loan for building a workshop. Under a government scheme the construction of individual work sheds aims at providing a working space for the entire weaver family close to their home. The unit cost for these sheds are Rs.1.2 lakhs and marginalised households and female weavers are eligible for 100% financial assistance for these.

Yet another gap in my knowledge – yet another imperative for us.

In the end, the answer that comes to me regarding what differentiates us- and it is how we choose to engage with makers of handloom and handcrafted. It has to be a relationship with a deep engagement and investment and growth for the future. I look forward to the day where no karigar works with anyone for the marketing and sales of his product without a contract. A contract that is transparent, honest and represents genuine partnership.

The wide array of weaves, techniques and colours of handloom sarees that adorns Indian Women

4 thoughts on “Guest Blog: The Handloom Imperative: How can we make a difference?

  1. Thank you Sangeeta for this opportunity to be a guest writer on your wonderful blog. The imperatives lie squarely on all of us who work in the handloom industry to create parameters that follow best practices in other industries.

    Like

  2. This was really a very informative article, Sangeeta. Lot of good data too! I hope we all can help this community and these craft forms to survive

    Like

  3. What an in depth and thought provoking article, Payal. So many new facets to learn. I’m really glad that you brought these to our notice. Awareness is the first step to action.
    Thank you Sangeeta for bringing us this Guest writer who’s revelations were truly, incisive.

    Like

  4. Pingback: A Heritage Unparalleled – The Warp and Weft of India ©Sangeeta Venkatesh – sojourn-with-san

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