Dark side of the loom

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In Andhra’s craft market, weavers once spun success stories. Today, the tables have turned for the worse, says Amitangshu Acharya

Losing the thread Some shed workers receive a measly Rs 65-70 for a day’s work

ON A hot, mid-March afternoon in the village of Desaipeta, 300 km from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, Sujatha is weaving an amber yellow Pochampalli sari. With half her body inside the pit from where she operates her loom, one can only see the glistening beads of sweat on her forehead. And even in that heat, her hands and body move with precision and grace, as she weaves the many strands of dyed yarn into a single fabric. Though a weaver of silk and cotton saris, Sujatha herself is wearing a polyester sari. “It’s cheaper,” she says. Even if one we a ves a cotton sari for oneself? “Yes,” she smiles.

It makes you wonder about the ironies of an economic system that enables synthetic saris bought from a market to be cheaper than cotton ones produced at home. Especially, since this is Chirala (also known as “Chinna Bombay” or mini Bombay), a handloom hub in Prakasam district of Andhra Pradesh, with a network of 18,000 working looms.

Sreenivas of the Subhodaya Handloom Cooperative Society sees through the idiom of ‘Brand India’, the stories about consumers and conscientious supply chains. A weaver himself, Sreenivas argues that though weaving may not be in crisis, weavers definitely are.

From 2002 to 2012, official estimates claim nearly 900 debt-ridden weavers committed suicide in Andhra alone. Others believe the number to be much higher, almost 2,000. Weaver suicides have rarely made a dent in our collective conscience, although weaving still remains the largest employment provider after agriculture. From January to March 2012, unable to cope with debt, approximately eight weavers committed suicide in Nalgonda, Kadapa and Karimnagar districts. The National Handloom Census of 2009-2010 provides further credence to Sreenivas’ claim. It shows that a staggering 57 percent of weavers in the country are below the poverty line, and almost 80 percent either indebted or dependent on moneylenders. In Chirala, weavers refer to moneylenders as “sahukars”, while the latter prefer being called “master weavers”. Needless to say, the master weavers commandeer most of the 300 crore-handloom business of Chirala. By default, they also control the lives of some 18,000 weavers who depend on them for work and loans.

Many of such indebted weavers live in villages that make up weaving clusters of Chirala, Ipurupalem and Vetapalem. Conversations with weavers take place with the steady rhythm of looms providing a perfect backdrop. Through these conversations, Sreenivas’ paradox begins to weave itself into a tangible story.

There are many types of weavers in Chirala. “Master weavers”, who weave a complex network of business contacts and marketing chains; small “master weavers”, who aspire to drop the “small”; “independent weavers”, who have their own looms; and “loom less” whose looms are owned by the master weavers. At the bottom of this hierarchy lie the “shed workers”.

The plight and exploitation of the weavers increase top down, as profits go bottom up. The shed workers, most of them migrants from East and West Godavari districts and other regions of Andhra, are paid a measly 60-75 per day. The sheds have none of the comforts that an independent weaver enjoys. The looms are packed within a small space with no ventilation or provision for drinking water. The men sit bare-bodied, dripping with sweat. The women, many of them thin as reeds, tug away at the shuttle. And though with masterful strokes they weave saris in traditional colours, their faces are drained.

The cooperatives, vexed with their own issues, have little concern for the shed workers. In Chirala, Jan Samakhya, a labour rights group, agitated on behalf of the shed workers, demanded improved housing facilities, wages and working conditions. Though this led to new government programmes on housing for shed workers routed through MP and MLA local development funds, the movement was declared to be in cahoots with Maoists and a number of cases were lodged against the leadership.

A staggering 57 percent of weavers in the country are below the poverty line and almost 80 percent either indebted or dependent on moneylenders

Things aren’t any better for the “independent” weavers. They have their looms, but the master weaver, who they sell the final product to, provides the yarn and decides design and output. These weavers are caught in a strange Catch 22. Escaping indebtedness is possible only through higher wages. This requires production of silk saris of complex designs. However, weaving silk causes wear and tear of the loom. Only the master weaver can provide repair and maintenance loans, as no formal sources of credit entertain such requests. Such recurring costs and loans mean that their dreams of becoming “independent” by earning higher wages remain unfulfilled. Like a good business man, the master weaver maintains his profit margin whether the markets boom or go bust. The lack of transparency and inability to access market information makes the weaver helpless in this context.

There is no way out. It is the master weaver who is the only source of regular employment in Chirala. The cooperative movement in Andhra, which once promised deliverance from this usury, is now a tangled mess of red tape and corruption. On 16 March 2012, local newspapers in Ipurupalem cluster were awash with the news of the arrest of the Additional Director of Handlooms of Prakasam district for having embezzled Rs 3.6 crore. Red-tapism has also slowed down payments, which has affected the ability of cooperatives to circulate capital and procure raw materials at the right time.

A master weaver (on conditions of anonymity) argues that there is a corollary to this simple tale: “Weavers would be without work if it wasn’t for us. All their concerns are outsourced; they don’t have to buy raw materials or engage with markets.” And yet, there are weavers who started off in an individual capacity and worked their way up to become small master weavers or master weavers. Many weavers now send their children to engineering colleges and polytechnics. Though weaving as livelihoods has largely been caste-specific, restricted to the Devanga and Padmashaili communities in Chirala, a number of other SC groups such as Malas and Madigas have also made an entry into weaving. These examples vouch for the dynamism in the handloom sector, where it is creating possibilities for upward social and economic mobility.

However, the paradox that triggered the enquiry into weavers in Chirala acquires a more painful note when one meets single women weavers. S Vijayalakshmi’s husband passed away two years ago. With two unmarried daughters and no insurance, only support from her relatives helped her to get her daughters married. Being a single woman she cannot operate the physically exhausting jacquard looms required to weave complex designs. Able to produce basic patterns, she earns barely Rs 500 a month. Given her debt of Rs 60,000 for meeting health and her daughters’ marriage costs, she doesn’t see any possibility of climbing out of poverty.

Neither does Sujatha. Abandoned by her husband, she now has to bring up her daughter and get her married. Like Vijayalakshmi, she too finds it difficult to operate her jacquard loom and sticks to weaving low-end saris for the master weaver. The last sari she made on the jacquard loom was for her daughter. Resplendent in red, green and purple, the silk sari is a delight to look at. Sujatha proudly displays her creation. “I may be poor, but I am a weaver, and will make sure that my daughter only wears the best,” she says, her eyes glittering with pride. Adorned in her cheap polyester sari, she displays the gem of her creation, and the ghost of Sreenivas’ paradox becomes visible in broad daylight.

One wonders as to how long weaving will continue to do better than weavers. Reduced import duties, subsidised raw material and electricity for power looms: all this doesn’t augur well.

As the trains leave Chirala, an unusual sight greets the passenger. Across the railway tracks are neatly arranged rows of Eucalyptus trees. Strangely, interspersed right below them are numerous cacti. Somehow the resource depleting eucalyptus that sucked the life out of the soil on which it grew also created a xerophytic condition for the cacti to survive in. This strange coexistence was the final testimony to Sreenivas’ paradox.

Acharya is a development analyst based in New Delhi

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