Hanging by a thread

Blame low profits, lack of marketing platforms or ‘unfriendly’ tax regime, the handloom sector is struggling for its very survival
Namdev H Sure, a  fourth-generation weaver in Ilkal town. He says, weavers are born with debt and die with debt. (Photo | EPS)
Namdev H Sure, a fourth-generation weaver in Ilkal town. He says, weavers are born with debt and die with debt. (Photo | EPS)

BENGALURU: The beautiful rock temples in Bagalkot’s Badami town have weathered time over centuries to tell the story of the great Chalukya kings.

Not far from these temples are thousands of handlooms that once formed the backbone of the rural economy and employment, but which are now facing threat to their very existence.

Dwindling profits, lack of adequate marketing platforms, competition from mills and the “unfriendly” tax regime are adding to the woes of thousands of artisans.

Handlooms are becoming economically unviable. Many weavers have bid adieu to the traditional craft to look for employment in cities as they are just not able to continue with the tradition passed down to them from generations.

“Weavers are born with debt and die with debt,” says Namdev H Sure, a fourth-generation weaver in Ilkal. Namdev’s house in filled with raw material, including rich silk.

Like the loom and the sector, the raw material too has lost its sheen. The family gave enough indication that the remaining one unit of handloom, too, would be shut soon. Just five years ago, they had seven units.

Among other places in the state, Badami, Ilkal, Hungund and Terdal taluks in Bagalkot district have high concentration of looms.

There was a time when these taluks buzzed with activity related to handloom as each of them had over 10,000 looms weaving world class cotton and silk products.

That is no longer the case now. Their numbers have declined drastically, and even those that are operational have lost sheen.  

“After weaving continuously for two days, we make a maximum profit of Rs 180. It is difficult to run a family with such an income. We also have to clear loans,” 38-year-old Ravi Harti, a resident of Guledgud in Badami, rues.“Without taking loans, it is difficult to weave. Raw material is expensive and its price oscillates,” says Ravi, a fifth-generation weaver, who recently quit weaving to work as a cook with a local catering firm. “Now, I am earning Rs 250 a day and leading a happier life,” he adds.

The weavers’ situation seems to be similar to that of farmers, but unfortunately, not discussed much — neither by people nor people’s representatives.

Wholesale merchants procure handloom products at low prices by giving less than 15 per cent profit to weavers, and selling it to retailers with a big margin. “Retailers sell it to consumers by making about 50 per cent profit. Middlemen are a threat and the government must address it to save traditional weavers,” says a weaver from Ilkal town.

The situation on the ground seems to be so alarming that the weavers have stopped educating their children about weaving as they believe it is impossible to lead a decent livelihood.

The government, according to weavers, has to do away with Goods & Services Tax (GST), failing which most handlooms will shut shop and weavers will migrate to cities in search of a better livelihood.

“I am alive only because of the groceries, mainly 14 kg free rice that I get through the Public Distribution System (PDS) under Anna Bhagya scheme of the state government,” Namdev rues.

According to J Krishna, Managing Trustee of DESI Trust that strives to provide a decent livelihood for the handloom workers and advocates rights of handloom workers, GST is one of the major concerns and that is the reason for demanding zero-tax on handloom products.

Explaining taxes on handloom products, Krishna says they are taxed from 5% to 12%.

Unstitched products like towels, saris or dupattas that were exempted from tax prior to the GST regime have now come under the 5% tax bracket, while other products below Rs 1,000 are taxed at 5% and those above attract 12%.

Tax for raw material is 5%, says Krishna. Noted theatre director and Gandhian activist Prasanna is the founder trustee of DESI Trust.

Laxmi Narayana, president, Federation of Weavers’ Associations in the state and former chairman of Karnataka Handloom Development Corporation, paints an even grimmer picture.

“The sector is in distress and the government must directly buy products from weavers to support them,” he says.

But there is optimism

Not everything is lost as yet. There are many optimists who are working to revive the sector. “There is a huge potential in terms of market for handlooms and weaving as a profession,” Dr MR Ravi, Commissioner for Textiles, Department of Handlooms and Textiles, says.

“Handloom products have got heritage value, they make a fashion statement, and are trendy. Handwoven products are sustainable and can withstand any onslaught of modern design,” he says.

The government, according to Ravi, is taking a number of measures to add value to handloom products in terms of design intervention and marketing.

“We have started taking support of designers in order to bring in all-new designs and also working on providing an e-market platform to weavers so they can directly get the market price for their products,” says Ravi.

On this initiative, the government will not spend any amount, but will only play the role of facilitator by collaborating with a private e-commerce site.

“I am waiting for formal approval from the government to launch the initiative,” says Ravi.

The department is training weavers on presentation of the product, packing and marketing so they can make maximum profit, and it can help eliminate middlemen and bridge the huge difference between production cost and market price.

Pavithra Muddaya of Vimor Museum of Living Textiles, too, concurs with design intervention playing a key role in making handloom products more appealing.

According to her, big brands must come forward to help weavers by adopting clusters as they know what their customers need and also have large chains of stores.

Pavitra and her mother Chimmy Nanjappa started Vimor, a boutique sari store in 1974, and the likes of late PM Indira Gandhi have been their customers.

They have recently opened the Museum of Living Textiles, and recreated the Gandhi Collection 2017 for Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary year.

From Indira Gandhi to her granddaughter Priyanka Gandhi, handwoven sarees and handloom products have indeed become style statements for generations, but sadly people who make them are in dire need of help from the government and society.

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