Modi on khadi: Need to walk the talk

While addressing the people in his monthly Mann Ki Baat programme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi extolled the countrymen to buy at least one piece of khadi. Over the last 2 years, he claimed that the sales of khadi have doubled, and in January he said “it can provide employment to crores of people in the country.”

Have things really changed over the last 2 years in favour of khadi and handloom? Is the NDA government keen to revive this sector? Have the ordinary weavers benefited from the government schemes?

After agriculture, the handloom sector employs 4 million workers, the second largest in the country. Both agriculture and handloom are closely interlinked; the landless and the marginal farmers, especially women and the weakest sections of our rural hinterlands, are able to eke out a livelihood from weaving by hand.

Of the total fabric production in the country, only 0.4% is from khadi, 20% is handloom and 74% is power loom. The basic difference between khadi and handloom is the way the yarn is spun. In khadi, it is hand spun and in handloom, it is mill spun. In both cases, the cloth is woven by handloom. This does not require power and manual labour is the basic input of energy.

In reality, the produce that is sold as khadi or handloom is spurious, and mostly made by power loom. In handloom fabric, the costs are low and profit margins are high whereas in khadi, the production costs are high and profit margin is low.

The sales of khadi have not doubled, for the official figures by the Ministry of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) show that it increased only by about 6% over the past 2 years. The average income from weaving is Rs 3,400 per month, which is below the minimum wage. In Varanasi, looms have fallen silent as 85% of weavers have abandoned their profession in search of other employment.

The UPA government had announced financial support of Rs 6,000 crore to revive the handloom industry, but this hardly reached the weavers. Similarly, the NDA government had promised to revive this sector, but so far no changes have happened on the ground.

In real terms, the allocation and funding to the sector have been drastically reduced. It is also not a part of the Make in India programme.

Unfortunately, the government has historically committed the blunder of separating khadi and handloom, with khadi getting priority as a separate unit under the Khadi Commission, while relegating handloom to the ministry of textiles. This division has weakened the case of people who depend on the handloom. The time has come for the PM to integrate these two units and strive for a sustained growth of the sector.

Rescuing weavers
Varanasi, the city that Modi adopted as an electoral constituency, is not only the world’s ancient city, but also one which homes the living traditions of religion, culture and hand-weaving. Nevertheless, the condition of weavers, who continue to face a tough challenge from the power looms, is pathetic. The world renowned Varanasi weaving tradition is being eroded by the spurious power loom products that are flooding the market.

There is no roadmap for rescuing this age-old weaving tradition. Rahaman, a weaver from Varanasi, asks “How can you seek the participation of people in keeping the city clean if people do not have anything to eat?”

It seems the PM has to understand these ground realities and act on them on a war footing. Representing the ancient city, he has a moral and ethical responsibility to support the weavers and show how the sector has the potential to change the profile of the weakest sections with a sustainable and dignified option for livelihood.

What they need is assured funding, cheap credit, access to good quality yarn, and setting up of a common dyeing facility, preferably organic. This will go a long way in rescuing this sector.

The drought-proofing that the prime minister is advocating has to address not only the issue of water, but how to provide employment to millions of people displaced by agriculture. Drought also creates shortage of power due to lack of water for power generation, and it is the only the handlooms – which run on human power – that have the ability to sustain people’s lives and overcome drought by providing decentralised employment at minimal costs.

Over the past 2 years, Modi has talked about the numerous virtues of khadi, now the time has come to walk the talk. His government needs to show that it is serious about the revival of this ancient skill and make India the hub of handwoven fabric.

For the first time, a prime minister has shown keen interest in khadi and handloom, and none can stop him from implementing the dream of empowering the weavers.

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