The sorry state of saree makers in TN's Tiruvannamalai

Arani weavers say parties turning a blind eye to issues such as GST on raw materials, lack of subsidies & nil flood relief
Velu, a 56-year-old weaver from Sevoor village in Arani of Tiruvannamalai, has been weaving silk sarees from the age of 13.
Velu, a 56-year-old weaver from Sevoor village in Arani of Tiruvannamalai, has been weaving silk sarees from the age of 13. (Photo | S Dinesh, EPS)

TIRUVANNAMALAI: Beads of sweat fall from the face of Velu, a 56-year-old weaver from Sevoor village in Arani of Tiruvannamalai, as he pedals and moves the weft simultaneously to let the heddle pass through the warp in his handloom. He takes a brief break to explain how the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and the increasing number of power looms have struck a severe blow to the once-thriving handloom weaving industry in Arani.

Velu has been weaving silk sarees from the age of 13. Weavers like him who have a handloom at home usually take orders from persons involved in silk saree business. While the businesspersons supply raw materials, the weavers get them the final product for a price. “In all these years, our work has never dried up as much as it has since the implementation of GST. The situation worsened after the pandemic,” Velu told TNIE.

The town is renowned for its silk weaving industry and Arani pattu (silk) is as popular as Kancheepuram pattu. Before GST came in, essential raw materials for handloom weaving such as plain twisted silk yarn, zari, and dyeing products enjoyed tax exemptions or lower tax rates. Now, the purchase of raw materials like silk yarn and zari attract 5% GST each and there is separate taxation for twisting and dyeing of the silk. The final product attracts another 5% GST. Consequently, saree prices have surged, resulting in lesser sales. This decline affected business owners, who passed on the burden to weavers. This led to wages being stagnant for years.

A businessman from Mullipet in Arani, who engages around 10 weavers for work, confirmed the adverse impact of GST. “Earlier, we used to pay value added tax but it was much less. Now, we must file the taxes every month even if no payment is received from traders,” he said.

Velu, whose village falls in the Arani Lok Sabha constituency, alleged that every political party neglected the interior area even during campaigning. “Only PMK (NDA alliance) did door-to-door campaigning here so far, but they did not talk about GST,” he said.

Tamilselvan (36), a weaver from Saidapet in Arani, said, “Nowadays, nobody wants to get married into a weaving family as the profession is slowly disappearing.” While handloom weaving has long been revered as the traditional method for crafting purest silk sarees, the imposition of GST on raw materials has compelled weavers to compromise on quality, he added. For instance, instead of pure zari, HF zari, a cheaper low quality alternative, is being used now.

“For politicians, we are just a vote bank and they do nothing for our welfare,” he accused. Besides the GST burden, the increasing number of power looms is another concern in the community.

Another weaver, seeking anonymity, said many power loom houses are illegally producing 100% pure silk sarees despite laws mandating them to use only up to 45% silk in their products. “They are backed by politicians. How do we elect one among them to power?” he asked and added the government-run weaving societies provide work majorly to weavers aligned with the ruling party. “While AIADMK members dominated these societies till 2021, it’s DMK’s turn now. Weavers relying on these societies, which provide higher income than private companies, often face inadequate work as the supply of raw materials gets frequently halted under the pretext that sarees from previous batches remain unsold,” he alleged.

Tamilselvan added that while farmers receive relief during flood/drought, weavers get nothing though they endure hardships as threads become entangled during the rainy season, making the process challenging.

The weavers’ demands include amending of Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985 to mandate power looms to not use silk in their products; establishing a panel for their welfare; issuing combined (centre and state government) ID cards to access subsidies and relief; removing GST on raw materials; establishing silk parks; and setting up cooperative textile stores.

Weavers’ issues seldom find a place in election rallies of any parties in the constituency. Although DMK has promised GST exemption for raw materials in their manifesto, it is rarely discussed in speeches. PMK candidate A Ganesh Kumar spoke against power looms in a video, but did not mention about GST.

G Sundaramurthy (53) from Araiyalam village said the only move that helped them in the recent years is the introduction of 200 units of free electricity during AIADMK’s tenure, which was later increased to 300 units by the DMK. “It is going to be a fight between these parties, and others have lesser chances,” he noted.

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