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BW Businessworld

The Handloom Sector: Alone In The Market Of Things?

A comprehensive and dedicated handloom policy is thus the need of the hour. Under its aegis, the much talked about governance systems must evolve to develop while integrating other sectors which in turn will give the much needed impetus to the handloom industry and induce competitiveness.

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The handloom sector, employing over 31.45 million individuals, contributes to about 12% of total domestic textile production in the country along with 95% of all the hand-spun fabrics produced globally. India is also among the very few countries in the world that can boast of the entire value chain - from farm (fibre) to manufacturers, existing within its own boundaries. While India leads the world in exports of raw materials such as cotton yarn, its share in the export of value added cotton fabrics for instance is very low. The competitors such as Vietnam have not only improved their yarn production but also expanded their export position by over 60% in the past decade, commanding 15% of the global market share while India remains at the lower end commanding less than 6%. Moreover countries such as China and Bangladesh import the bulk of the cotton yarn from India and are able to export the finished articles at better quality and cheaper rates than India. 

While on the one hand, its strengths are located on the base of raw materials - natural and manmade fibres and yarns along with low cost production and cheap labour, its persistent weakness is located in and around the processing function coupled with lack of efficient market linkages, and low technological induction. Having said that, the struggles of workers, particularly women, and the lack of a strong policy intervention should again not be discounted. These factors along with the increased durational incidence of periodic economic shocks further compounded by the growing emphasis on open market competition both locally and internationally contribute towards the struggles. Furthermore, taking cognisance of the fact that the majority of the workers for inputs - viz., hank yarn (76.6%), dyed yarn (58.1%) and dyes and chemicals (49.7%) among other procurements depend on open markets. Similarly, for sales too, more than 64% of the workers directly depend on local markets. Further notably, the bulk (88.7%) of the weaving activities continues to be concentrated in the rural areas.

Besides this, the recent move to dismantle the already watered down institutions such as the All India Handloom Board - is one of the many direct moves by which (inadvertently) the worker gets disassociated from policy processes at large. While this is a welcome move at one level but
on the other, there was limited reflection done on why such (advisory) “institutions of national importance” failed - which were unique in the sense that they accommodate representation from across the country providing a common platform for stakeholder engagement.

The pandemic and it’s distressing impact

With the largest installed production base in the world, the bulk of handloom production functions are performed by self-employed individual weavers (73.2%). Besides them, the sector comprises of (19.4%) workers engaging under Master Weavers who employ other weavers followed by those who engage with the Cooperative Society (6.35%), then there those who directly work with the State Handloom Development Corporation (0.6%) and lastly Khadi Village Industries Commission/ board (0.4%). Even though 95% of the production and processing activities in the sector take place in the unorganized sector, it is its decentralized nature, its heaviest burden, that managed to keep the supply chain running all this while. 

The near devastating impact of the pandemic and the great pause has left many catatonic, and struggling to meet with the forthcoming challenges. Observing the acute level of distress within the sector, several stakeholders in India and elsewhere came together to form collectives, e-commerce websites, dedicated marketing channels, and more importantly solidified networks leveregining online tools and platforms. A number of grassroots organizations took it upon themselves to nudge the workers towards the digital by organically building the ecosystem. The direct outcome of these initiatives was a period of relief in a situation wherein for many savings dried, stocks increased and overdue incomes deferred further. This is a strong indication showing possibilities within the handloom ecosystem and its underlying strength.

Possibilities within uncertainties
In the past, the handloom sector received significant protection in the form of reservations and promotions, but evidently the momentum of growth and its beneficiaries largely remained only a few. The nature of national growth today remains concentrated in silos nearly always incriminating the unorganised and decentralised production processes. The need of the hour is improving the integration across sectors and regions while simultaneously adding technological and skill-based upgradations. Afterall just as art and traditions integrate with new modernities, systems, institutions and policies too must upgrade systematically accounting for the worker and her needs. All of this can only be made possible when the public policy processes improve. Traditional trades, particularly the handloom and craft sectors and the woman weavers and artisans in India are always struggling both in and beyond the terms of economics. This was strongly made evident during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Therefore, taking the artisan and weaver
along will be paramount if India is to propel into the next phase of growth. 

A comprehensive and dedicated handloom policy is thus the need of the hour. Under its aegis, the much talked about governance systems must evolve to develop while integrating other sectors which in turn will give the much needed impetus to the handloom industry and induce competitiveness. This handloom policy must strongly streamline the linkages between the
various Government Ministries, private equities and stakeholders at the grassroots level. 

Secondly, it must push to reinstate 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 Weavers Service Centres (WSC) at the block level categorically bridging the information gap, creating avenues for education and welfare of both weavers and allied workers.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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handloom industry

Shantanu Kant Dubey

The author is a social science researcher by training with three-plus years of experience in the sector. He is associated with SEWA Bharat in the capacity of a MEL Associate.

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Nikunj Agarwal

The author is a working with the International Innovation Corps, the trust of the University of Chicago, as a project consultant and leading the projects under SEWA Bharat. He has more than 9 years of experience in the corporate & social sector in development domains.

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