Weavers in North-Karnataka still weave in hope of getting fair remuneration for their hardwork. The weavers face hardship because of the unregulated sector and lack of government policies to preserve this traditional art.
Sitting under the cracked roof of his tin house with rays of sunlight seeping in during the day Mubarak Nabi Sahab Birdi, a powerloom weaver recalls the day when everything was left in shatters including his only source of income, his loom, after Bidari village in Jamkhandi taluk of Bagalkot district, Northern Karnataka, was hit with heavy rainfall.
Last year during monsoon, the state received 224 mm of rainfall. The downfall was recorded as one of the highest in the past many decades due to which many towns in North-Karnataka were taken under the grips of this havoc created by nature.
After weavers’ prolonged demand for suitable compensation, the Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa finally announced a compensation of Rs 25,000 per loom in September, to every flood-affected weaver. But, the path to recovery was not going to be a cake-walk for SahabBirdi and many weavers like him.
Life took a toll on Birdi’s family when the revenue department issued a revised order that fixed flood loss compensation at Rs 25,000 per weaver family against Chief Minister’s compensation per loom proposal.
Agitated by the state’s changed circular, many delegates of weavers’ association in Belgavi in October, last year, called for a meeting with state high ranks to highlight the ground level reality of the destruction caused by the floods. It was made clear by the state president of weavers’ association that many of the weavers own more than one powerloom and would need higher compensation to repair their looms, the requests were left unheard.
Caught in deep crisis Nabi struggles to fix his power loom machine as the expenses to fix is way higher than the compensation received.
Loom loom everywhere, not many weavers to weave
Karnataka is considered as the heart of handloom weavers. The state contributes almost eight percent of the national exports in the textile industry with six percent of the cotton and 11 percent of the country’s total wool production.
The data from the fourth handloom census showed that only 20 percent of the total weavers in the state of Karnataka are aged below 45.
Although the state has 168 private training centers and 144 skill development centers, most of the young generation of weaver families in Mahalingapur refuse to continue with the traditional saree weaving occupation. These centres certify a candidate after 45 days of training. Poor living conditions and unsatisfying wages are a few reasons why S Mahadeep, 21-year-old doesn’t see weaving as a viable option, therefore, he has opened a small grocery shop in Mahalingapur.
“It’s a tough job. I’ve seen my parents and grandparents working day-night to earn a living. My father is a handloom worker. The cost of one cotton saree is Rs 300 and he gets only Rs 60 as the raw material is provided to him by a company. So, on three sarees he earns Rs 180 a day,” said Mahadeep.
Despite enough training centres the reason why not many enroll in them is that the families in Mahalingapur has been practicing weaving since ages.And the art of weaving comes naturally as it runs in their blood. Not many find these training centres helpful, what they demand is equal opportunity and representation at national level.
“The problem here is less enrolment, and the government has given targets that each centre needs to achieve. Apart from that there is no technical upgradation to maintain a proper biometric data of how many people enrol for training,” said BS Gouda, incharge at skill training centre, Rampur.
Many in the region complain that these centres are SC/ST centric and don’t provide adequate facilities to the backward and general categories. The subsidies given to SC/ST on raw materials and for buying looms is 90 percent as compared to 50 percent subsidy for general category.
Unravelling the bonds of handloom weavers
Next to Mahadeep’s house lives an old couple who have woven sarees for 58 years.
Shankarappa Kadappa Udgati, 75, constantly complains of severe back and knee joint pain while working on a wooden handloom. Shankarappa was well known for weaving Ilkal sarees, his work was considered to be clean and commendable. But after decades of constantly listening to the monotonous sound of handloom and now powerloom machines in their neighbourhood, Shankarappa has lost his hearing ability.
A study by the International Journal of Technology Research and Management on health issues associated with weavers in India revealed that weavers go through intensive physical and physiological strains. About 60 percent of the weavers work between 11-12 hours a day, due to which they are, exposed to many health hazards like asthma, back pain, weak eye-sight, heart-attack, etc.
Although the government has in past proposed Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojna (MGBBY) under the welfare measures with the objective of providing social security through insurance to weavers in the case of natural death, partial disability, complete disability, etc. The scheme is implemented by the office of Development Commissioner for Handloom and to ensure awareness about the scheme, the government has created Hasthkala Sahyog Shivir in handloom clusters across India. A weaver has to pay a monthly insurance amount of Rs 80 while the rest is covered by the government and associated agencies. This scheme covers weavers under the age group of 18-year-old and above.
In the case of Shankarappa, who is eligible for partially disabled insurance benefit worth Rs 75,000, has been deprived of it due to the lack of awareness by the local handloom clusters. “We got to know about the scheme just a month ago. And someone said that we can’t enrol because the benefits of this scheme are restricted to two children of the member covered, and we don’t have any children. So, we lost hope then and there,” said Shankarappa’s wife, who is also partially disabled from an eye.
In a bid to help senior citizens centre’s textile and handloom ministry started an initiative of providing Rs 1000 per month to people who are above 60 years age. But weavers in Mahalingapur has lost their interest in government policies as very few reap the gains while rest continue to fight for a living.
Meanwhile, Boravva Langavantappa Konnu, akka Ajji, a 73-year-old lady is winning hearts on whatsapp and other social media in Rabkavi Bannahatti town. In the viral videos, Ajji is shown rigorously working under a shed-cum-loom unit, weaving colorful Ilkal saree. Many people have liked and shared this video, appreciating her dedication and passion towards her work, but little did they know about her helplessness.
Ajji doesn’t have insurance nor does she receive any pension. One of the many reasons why she is not able to avail the benefits is because she doesn’t have an identity card owing to the mechanical abrasion which has caused her loss of fingerprints. Due to which she failed to obtain an Adhaar card.
The Unrecognised Society
Few kilometres away from Mahalingapur is an ancient colony of handloom workers, which is now known as theKarnataka Handloom Development Corporation(KHDC) society in Banhatti. This place is a home to over 400 weaver families, who’re engaged in weaving business for three decades now.
Laxmi Dayanand Duddagi, 28, a widow who lost her husband six years-ago also stays there with her two children in a small tin and brick house. After her husband’s death she took a loan of Rs 50,000 from a private bank to buy a loom for a living. Little did she know that she has stepped into a vicious circle of exploitation where she has to pay an interest of Rs 1200 per week.
“I’m not educated so when my husband passed away, I had nothing left except for a roof above my head. I borrowed money from many land-owners to support my children’s education because no bank was ready to loan money with security deposits, but it only added more stress,” said Laxmi, in a weepy voice.
There are many like Laxmi, in that area who have nowhere else to go for help. Each year the educational department places a Rs 40 crore order and also provides the weavers with raw material.
Shehnaz, 43, a strong-willed woman lost her husband 13-years ago in an accident. Since then she has been as a handloom weaver.
“Government helps us get orders but it’s for six months, after that we don’t get work orders. KHDC provides us with raw material and we get Rs 10,000 a month for the final cloth products,” said Shehnaz.
The KHDC colony is one among those areas which was hit by heavy rainfall in August, last year. Since then the weavers have staged several protests in parts of Bagalkot, Belgavi districts along with a 27 days strike in association with many local weavers’ association to demand basic amenities like toilets and proper infrastructure in the area.
“But nothing till date has been done by the government to improve our living condition. We still weave clothes with hopes,” added Shehnaz.
Many in the KHDC colony rely on the Intensive Handloom Development Project that nine centers across the state provide. But this project is confined to handlooms and not powerlooms, which has restrained the growth of weavers in that area.
Explaining the role of KHDC in Rabkavi Banahatti, S Vijay Kumar, the project manager of government’s Vidya Vikas Scheme, said, “Under this scheme, the government allocates Rs40 crore for the production of uniforms every year. But this amount is given in three instalments and there are times when there’s a delay in payment from the state government’s end, due to which weavers often accuse KHDC for not providing enough work annually.”
“Although, we have requested the state to increase the price of procuring a cloth per metre from Rs 30 to Rs 40, but we are yet to hear any order regarding the same. Weavers are suggested to enrol themselves in self-production but then the question of raw material and affordability arises,” he added.
Time to change the policy discourse
The scenario is so grim across Karnataka that due to the negligence of government the number of weavers since 1971, when Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation was formed till 2020 has come down from 1,27000 to 7,000 weavers. The wave of westernisation where ready-made finished products have more buyers than hand-made clothes has drastically changed the graphics.
Citing the bitter truth of Mahalingapur’s weavers, Shivalingn Tiraki, the Karnataka state weavers’ association president said, “earlier what used to be called as the hub has turned into a crisis hit place. Till date seven cotton production units have been shut down because the government’s inability to help these weavers survive their tradition. Lack of awareness tops the list when it comes to the welfare of weavers union.”
“Our association has met the textile minister Smriti Irani and state chief minister BS Yeddyurappa several times demanding sufficient wages and subsidies, but all we have received till now is false promises and assurance from officials. If the government provides fair electricity and raw material subsidy and promises to waive the loan up to at least 90 percent like in the farming or agricultural sector, it would prove beneficial,” Tiraki added.
Underlining the current functioning of the textile ministry in India, Anand Sharma, the president of Salem textile manufacturers and exporters association, said that government policies revolve around forming co-operative and increasing productivity using modern technology rather than shifting their interest towards improving weavers’ welfare and providing loan waiver.
“Weaving is undeniably one of the most important contributing sectors of the Indian economy. But this unorganized sector needs schemes that work for the weavers at ground level. People who are self-employed can’t afford to pay taxes that are imposed by the government. Neither can they purchase raw material nor can they sell their finished cloth at a decent price. This calls for government intervention that not only provides low rate interest loans but also gives a marketing push to these weavers who are not a part of such co-operatives and block units, who work independently,” Sharma suggested.
Urging the government to form a separate reviewing committee where there should be appropriate representations from the grass root level of weavers’ region, Tiraki continues to fight for the rights of weavers.