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Hanging by a thread
Sangeeta Yadav travels to Assam to bring you a report on how the traditional silk industry in the region is dying and the mekhla chaadar may soon disappear
It is 1:30 pm and all the weavers have gone for lunch and a catnap before they resume their work at 3:30 pm. The only person at work is 49-year-old Bhagaban Baishya, the owner of the factory — Karbi Peakak Silk Industry in Sualkuchi, Assam who continues to work on his jacquard loom. Carefully weaving the colourful silk threads through his fingers at a fast pace, Baishya is working overtime because he has to complete the order by tonight. “It’s a mekhla chaadar with a heavy design and it takes a week to weave this. Therefore, I’ve to do overtime, cut my lunch break. I may even have to work till late night to finish this,” he tells you.
As you take a round of the factory, you notice that there are few windows to let in the natural light and fresh air. It’s dark and dingy ambience looks like a haunted factory with cob webs hanging and on the jacquard machines which are no longer in use. Open wires, a stack of punch cards on the shelves and colourful yarn dots the place. This, one is told is a regular sight at every silk weavers’ factory. But it was not always so.
Sualkuchi, the largest silk village of North-east, also known as the Manchester of the East, at one point, used to be full of activity and weavers busy with making the traditional mekhla chaadar. Today, the place is left with only a handful of families still engaged in taking this traditional art form forward. The reason why there are a few takers for this traditional silk are many.
“First, weaving a mekhla is time consuming. Second, it involves a lot of work but the weavers are paid peanuts. Hence, many have taken up other jobs. The weavers’ children are no longer a part of the industry. They prefer a corporate job which pays them better and they get to afford the modern amenities. Those who have no alternative are slogging over their looms. In the past five years, 60 per cent of the factories have shut down. Families, who were taking the ageold tradition forward, have sold their factory and invested in some other business or have turned shop owners,” Baishya says.
A recent report tells you that there are around 15,000 looms in Sualkuchi Panchayat out of which 5,000 are inactive. Lack of skilled weavers and or insufficient funds to buy the yarn are other reasons why this art is dying. This is unfortunate, since, the North-eastern States contributes 19 per cent towards India’s silk production. Not only this, the area is the only producing region of all four commercially known varieties of silk — mulberry, muga, eri and tussar. Also, the sericulture industry has highest woman participation and most of the beneficiaries are tribals. Since these people are also traditional weavers, it means that any hit that the industry takes directly affects these people for whom income from sericulture is the only source of income.
People like 61-year-old Gajendra Mishra, one of the richest weavers in Sualkuchi, have been fortunate. He played host to former President the Late APJ Abdul Kalam in 2006. But even his factory has only 40 looms. The biggest challenge he is facing is of manpower.
“Earlier I had 15-20 weavers but now I am left with only seven to 10. Most have left the profession or have joined some other factory which is closer to their home, involves less work or has flexible timings,” Mishra explains.
The big question for all factory owners is who is going to take this ageold traditional art forward. The entire industry is now dependent on the migrant weavers who come to Sualkuchi looking for work. The local weavers’ and their families don’t want their children to do the job which they have been doing for decades. After all, it is tedious and has low returns. With the present generation not interested in weaving the mekhla chaadar, its fate hangs in balance.
“I named my factory Suman Silk Industry after my youngest daughter. I have three daughters. One is married, one is pursuing Masters in Economics and Suman is doing Bachelor in Engineering. These two will also get married and go away. I don’t know what will happen to this factory after me. Maybe my children will take care of it or it will be sold off and the new owner may continue the tradition. Only time will tell,” Mishra says.
Sualkuchi Institute of Fashion Technology, Assam principal Niranjali Kakoty tells you that a large number of students in Assam are opting for fashion designing than textile designing. “The traditional art will soon die because not many children are interested in textile any more. Most of them are interested in wholesale or retail business but not become weavers. Though students get to learn the entire process of weaving a mekhla chaadar on jacquard machines, what interests them is how to develop design, yarn dying and printing. This is because designing requires less effort than to actually weave the material,” Kakoty says.
But things were not always this dismal. Back in 1980s, the handloom industry grew manifold that gave boost to entrepreneurs. “In 1985, the new Government — Assam Ghana Parishad — came to the power and All Assam Students Union were self-reliant. The educated youth was attracted to the traditional business. Post liberalisation (1991), the industry benefited as the banking sector had liquidated credit facilities and the rules and regulations were relaxed for those wanting to start their own venture. There was infusion of the money by the local businessmen. Personal loans became easier to get. Weavers became entrepreneurs and their incomes doubled. In 1991, the average household loom holding was around 2.5 units. In 2002, it had increased to 4.7 units,” Dr Nihar Ranjan Kalita, Secretary, Sualkuchi Tat Silpa Unnayan Samiti and associate professor, Department of Economiccs at SBMS College, tells you
But after 2008, the industry was hit by economic slowdown due to rise in dollar prices. It not only made the raw material expensive but affected the trade too. “The silk that was being imported from China became expensive. But the wholesale price at the Sualkuchi didn’t increase which led to market imperfection. The raw material prices increased but the price of the product remained the same,” Kalita tells you.
People realised that they could become businessmen rather than remain weavers. They took advantage of the people who were slow to make the switch. They bought the mekhla from the weavers who had not increased their price and sold it in the retail market at double the cost thereby increasing their profit margin. “Exploitation always happens at the lower level, here the weavers with shopkeepers making the killing. They command a good commission. For instance, if the manufacturing price of a simple mekhla chaadar is Rs 2,000, it will be sold for Rs 10,000 in the retail market,” Kalita says.
Then there is the rise in the cost of the raw muga silk which is Assam’s speciality. Its production has declined. Three years back, its price was around Rs 1,000 per kg and now it is around Rs 15,000 per kg. Even the cost of tussar silk has gone up to Rs 4,500 a kg,” Kakoty says.
The lack of proper co-ordination between various Government departments has made it difficult to effectively implement a policy to benefit the weavers. “The textile industry is concurrently led by Central and State Government. There is Ministry of Textile, Handloom and Handicraft of Assam, Sericulture Department of Assam and the Ministry of Commerce. Another important organisation is national handloom development corporation (NHDC). There are three departments — sericulture department, handloom department and textile department, and all of them lack synchronisation in policy implementation. Even the money that is been pumped from both Central and State Government lacks transparency in distributing fund under various schemes. The poor weavers in the villages are ignorant about the schemes. The budget allotted and the schemes are State-centric and not district-centric. Government should come up with Sualkuchi-centric schemes,” Kalita says adding that the State Government has sanctioned Rs 20 crore for the development of Sualkuchi Silk Industry for 2017-2018.
There are some implementation problems present in the schemes which are creating a hindrance in benefiting the weavers directly. “Like we have the Public Distribution System, the Government has created a distribution system of the yarn to be made available at Mill Gate Price Scheme. But the list of the beneficiaries prepared by State is faulty and there are many loopholes. This means that the benefit is not reaching the weaver who really needs it. In fact, the scheme which gives 10 per cent subsidy to buy the raw yarn is also not very viable for a small producer since they need 90 per cent money to pay in advance to get the subsidy,” Kalita explains.
Then there are several socio-security measures like MGNREGA, housing facility etc. Yet the weaver continues to struggle. The problem, one is told is that today, most of the weavers in Sualkuchi are migrants. They are not permanent voters of the region. The various schemes available are only for the locals. This means that only 25 per cent of the people are enjoying the facility. Also, many beneficiaries are selected on the basis of votebank politics. This means that those who don’t belong to the region suffer. There is need to have a weaver-centric policy rather than region.
What the industry needs are some concrete initiatives by the Government that would actually benefit all the weavers who can continue this traditional art form. “For instance, the credit card system can be a good proposal which can grant the poor weavers subsidy on raw material, medical benefits at Government hospitals, etc,” Kakoty opines.
But since there is lack of proper implementation of Government schemes and policies, it has led to market imperfection. “Usually, retailers give bulk production to the middle men or the mahajans who supply the product at the cheap rates throughout the year. Since the price of the raw material is on the rise, the poor weaver can’t buy it himself, he is dependent on these mahajans who now dominate the market with the weavers having very little say. The silk industry in the region is totally unorganised. There is no registration of loom owners. There is no provident fund facility for the weavers. Hence, they don’t get benefit from any of the Government schemes,” Kalita tells you.
But who remain in the ageold profession, have the wrong approach. “They are facing competition from the Kanchivaram or Benaras silk industry. The ingenious producers don’t know how to compete in this group. The corporate movement is not strengthened,” Kalita says.
Another threat to the handloom has been the powerloom. The buyers can’t differentiate if the mekhla chaadar is made of on handloom or powerloom. “With advancement in technology, powerloom can today make similar designs with better finish. Handloom saree takes seven days to complete, whereas one can make five sarees in a powerloom in a day. This reduces the cost of production which means that the handloom product can’t compete. A handloom silk saree in the market will cost Rs 10,000 whereas a same made on powerloom will cost Rs 6,000. Customers, today are looking for cheaper products,” Kakoty tells you.
The final blow to the region came when some retailers and wholesalers started selling the powerloom silk products at much cheaper price that were made in other States. Because of the invasion of the silk products from silk producing States, unscrupulous producers copied the traditional designs and sold it to powerlooms outside of Assam who then sold the finished product in the local markets of the State. The buyers are not informed whether the product is made on handloom or powerloom or if it is made in Sualkuchi or outside. For the retailers, the product is being sold as handloom from Sualkuchi at exorbitant price. The local weavers can’t compete with big businessmen of the region,” Kalita tells you.
Due to the huge profit margin, plagiarising designs by other States became rampant. Since none of the weavers ever patented their designs, anybody can copy them. But some measures are now being taken to protect the weavers and the designs. Sualkuchi Tat Silp Unnayan Samiti has recently received a trademark in Sualkuchi silk. This will protect the local weavers to an extent. Plans are afoot to apply for Geographical Indication (a kind of patent) to protect them from unscrupulous traders.
But it is not just the weavers and factory owners who are cheated. Even customers were deceived by the shopkeepers who sell fake mekhla chaadar in the name of pure silk from Assam. To keep a check on the issue of mixing adulterated silk, India’s first silk testing laboratory was set up in 2015. The Sualkuchi Silk Testing Laboratory, which was launched by Sualkuchi Taat Shilpa Unnayan Samiti under Silk Mark Organisation of India and Central Silk Board, provides certificate and sticker to authentic silk yarn and products made from it.
In 2013, when the issue of cheaper silk yarn and fibre rocked the silk village its root was traced back to Varanasi and other States. To prevent this from happening again, Silk Mark Organisation was formed in 2014. After a year a lab was under public-private partnership was set up to prevent people from getting cheated. For a common man, it is very difficult to made out the difference between pure silk and one which is mixed
“Muga silk is exclusive to Assam but when it is mixed with tussar, the value of the fabric comes down. Same is with mulberry silk which is mixed with polyester. We need more such public private partnership to give boast to our handloom industry,” Kakoty tells you.
Sometimes, even big wholesalers are taken for a ride. “Last year, a customer bought lots of mekhla chaadar from my shop. After a few months, I was aghast to see my collection being showcased at a big fashion show that was presented under a fashion designer’s label. She removed the tag of my shop and put her own and said that it’s her collection. I felt cheated but I could not do much about it,” Dilip Kalita, the owner of Jayanti Silk Centre in Sualkuchi, says.
· A recent report tells you that there are around 15,000 looms in Sualkuchi Panchayat out of which 5,000 are inactive. Lack of skilled weavers and/or insufficient funds to buy the yarn are other reasons why this art is dying.
·In the past five years, 60 per cent of the factories have shut down. Families, who were taking the ageold tradition forward, have sold their factory and invested in other business or have turned shopowners.
·Then there is the rise in the cost of the raw muga silk which is Assam’s speciality. Its production has declined. Three years back, its price was around Rs 1000 per kg and now it is around Rs 15,000 per kg. Even the cost of tussar silk has gone up to Rs 4,500 a kg.
·In 1991, the average household loom holding was around 2.5 units. In 2002, it had increased to 4.7 units. But after 2008, the industry was hit by economic slowdown due to rise in dollar prices. It not only made the raw material expensive but affected the trade too.
·The silk industry in the North East region is totally unorganised. There is no registration of loom owners. There is no provident fund facility for the weavers. Hence, they don’t get benefit from any of the Government schemes
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