Silk Industry reeling under the impact of Covid

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Farmers hit by covid regulations find themselves under a cloud of debt

Silk reeling and yarn making units stopped their operations for two to three months since March. The price of cocoon fell 60-70%, from Rs 480-500 to Rs 170-200 per kg. This fall in price was linked to export restrictions as well. Farmers couldn’t recover even the cost of silkworm eggs. Silk farmers mentioned that market officials blamed the poor quality of cocoon also for the low rate offered, pointing at damp weather. But the farmers were confident that cocoons were of the same quality as the lot they had sold during January-February, in the same market. Government apathy has fuelled angst in the silk clusters of the state. In the month of August, even though the festival and wedding season was fast approaching, demand for silk didn’t pick up much and cocoon prices saw only marginal recovery.

India is the world’s second largest silk producer, after China. The industry provides 9.1 million jobs, and the state of Karnataka contributes nearly one third of India’s total production. Sericulture operations are part of a longer chain that starts with egg producers and goes to small silkworm rearers, to cocoon farmers, to reelers, to dyers, to weavers, to merchants and finally to customers. Each link impacts every other. But never has the chain been so heavily damaged. Some silkworm egg producers and silkworm rearing centres have shut down.

Chandrashekhar Siddlasinghaia, a silk farmer says “I spent Rs 130,000 for producing the silk cocoon and I sold 166 kg of cocoon for Rs 320 per kilo. So basically I got only Rs 53,120 back. It was a huge loss for a farmer like me. These losses just add to the debt over time. I have employed five labourers and when I incur losses I am unable to pay my labourers as well and then I have to go and borrow and beg for money.”

One of the reasons for the fall in prices is the disruption of the entire demand-supply chain. Many marriages have been postponed, events stand cancelled, and apparel stores are mostly shuttered – so the demand for silk has sharply decreased, which in turn has kept silk reelers away from Ramanagara, according to market officials.

The farmers feed the worms mulberry leaves at regular intervals, maintain adequate temperature (24-28 degrees Celsius) and relative humidity (65-75 per cent) with sprinklers and humidifiers in specially built rearing houses. This ensures that the worms, placed in bamboo trays and covered with newspapers, remain disease-free for 20-23 days. The cocoons they then produce are sold in the market to the reelers, who extract silk and sell it to weavers and traders. To build silkworm rearing houses, farmers need to invest money (many take loans) to buy humidifiers, sprinklers, bamboo trays and other equipment.

The chawki rearing centres were temporarily shut too for a week from March 25, when the lockdown began. Many of the centres reduced production and discarded the small worms and eggs. But since silkworm rearing is time-bound, production resumed and farmers could continue to buy silkworms from the rearing centres during the lockdown.

Munshi Basaiah, Deputy Director (Timkur District), says “Silk reelers in Karnataka sell silk to weavers and traders across the country, but their primary market is Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. When the lockdown began transportation was not allowed, so silk was in excess and there was no demand from their side.”

Farmers were emphatic in their demand for no more lockdowns as it really affected their profit margins. However, few farmers said that the alternative should be that the government should procure their cocoons at a higher price to compensate them.

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