Urgent need to revive and sustain Banarasi weaving industry

Weavers, activists and scholars came together for the launch of CJP's report on the state of the industry in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic induced Lockdown, and advocated for more robust policies as well as a national campaign to empower the weavers and artisans


On January 31, 2022, just a day after the death anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, Father of our Nation and a huge proponent of India’s traditional textile industry, Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) released a report on the state of the traditional weaving industry in Purvanchal (Eastern Uttar Pradesh). The report title Purvanchal: Silence of the Looms ascertains the impact of years of bad policies, growing communal violence, and most recently, the Covid-19 induced Lockdown on the lives and livelihoods of weavers and those engaged in allied activities in this region.

The report was launched online by Laila Tyabji, a highly respected social worker, textile expert and craft activist, who is also one of the founders of Dastkar, a private not-for-profit NGO established in 1981, working to support traditional Indian craftspeople, many of them women and village based, with the objective of helping craftspeople regain their place in the economic mainstream.

“Successive governments led by different political parties have let this sector down for decades, with the exception of the first ten years after Independence when Gandhi’s message about khadi, and handloom and swadeshi was still resonating,” said Tyabji, adding, “Look at the budgetary allocations in the first few five-year plans, and then look at what it is today. It is shameful and pathetic!”

“There was a time, a few centuries ago, when India clothed the world. We can have that again given how there is once again a growing climate where there is a shift away from fast fashion to handmade, sustainable clothing. We have the skilled creators and now is the time to invest in them, showcase them as India’s unique assets,” she said.

Syama Sundari, a noted textile expert, who is also coordinator, policy research and advocacy, Dastkar Andhra, was also a special guest at the report release.

“To see the decline of handlooms over the last decade, is heartbreaking. Unfortunately, I can’t say I am shocked by the findings,” she said. “When a loom shuts down, the survival of the entire family is at stake because they all operate as a unit. Today everything is out of their control and the rising yarn prices are only adding to the crisis,” she added. Sundari feels that skill development, employment generation and migration are all intertwined and we need better policies that focus on all three.

Scholar and Textile industry expert, Dr. Vasanthi Raman, who was one of the guiding lights of this project hit the nail on the head when she shed light on the true agenda of corporate houses that have now entered the industry in droves and are changing its traditional structure. “Unfortunately, bad polices and the corporate culture want to dismantle the artisanal industry and reduce weavers and artists to daily wage workers,” she said.

She also shed light on one of the key findings of our report with respect to gender roles in the weaving industry saying, “The work of the women is invisibilised and usually unpaid. But the industry cannot survive without their labour.”

In fact, the CJP team of researchers led by social scientist and activist Dr. Muniza Khan ensured that we spoke to women respondents and highlighted their plight. Seven such women whose work ranges from weaving to allied activities like stone application, saree cutting and polishing etc. joined us from Varanasi for the report release ceremony and shared truly heartbreaking stories.

“Our condition is so bad; most people only eat once a day. Most mothers just add salt to rice and feed their children. Our wages have been slashed significantly,” said Qaisar Jehan, a woman weaver from Saraiya.

“Women are the backbone of the industry, but we have no work. My daughter and I can’t even find work as domestic helps; if we do the pay is abysmal. Our men are doing daily wage labour, some are driving rickshaws,” said Anjum Ara, whose unemployed sons were forced to migrate to Surat to find work.

“One of my boys is sick, another one used to work as a daily wage labourer but lost his job. My daughters used to do stone application work on sarees, but even they have no work now,” lamented Anwari Begum.

Dr. Muniza Khan further gave examples of how women, often acting under socio-cultural conditioning, reacted when the team first approached them. “Some would refuse to speak t us outright insisting we speak to the men of the household. People are so conservative that we often found little girls wearing hijabs,” said Dr. Khan, recalling, “In one instance, when we tried to take pictures of some girls aged as young as five or six years, they refused saying it was a sin for girls to be photographed!”

Then there were other challenges in the team encountered as we painstakingly conducted detailed interviews of 204 respondents, 37 video interviews and 19 audio-interviews in: Varanasi (13 locations), Gorakhpur (Rasoolpur, Purana Gorakhnath), Azamgarh (Mubarakpur, Ibrahimpur, Shahpur) and Mau (Ghosi, Madhuban). The entire exercise was spread over several months in 2020-21. “Some people thought we were from the NRC and shut their doors in our faces fearing persecution,” recalled Dr. Khan.

CJP secretary Teesta Setalvad summed it up saying that it was about time that all Indians came together to save this industry that represents a unique heritage of our nation. “This report should start a campaign that addresses not only the policy ignorance but also the slashing of the budgetary allocation for this sector. We need to empower the weavers and small enterprises so that they become independent in the true sense,” said Setalvad. She also urged the Grihastas (Master Weavers) and Gaddidars (Shop owners) to commit to paying weavers and artisans, including women workers a dignified wage.

The entire report may be read here.


Purvanchal: Silence of the Looms

Curtain raiser: The Warp and Weft of Despair in Purvanchal

Lockdown Impact: Filled forms, have Bunkar Card, yet got no help from gov’t

Lockdown impact: “Those who once greeted me with ‘salaam’, don’t even talk to me any more”

Lockdown impact: Religion-based discrimination rampant in Varanasi?

Lockdown impact: Unemployed fathers, abused mothers and daughters deprived of education

Lockdown impact: Lungi weavers left in the lurch

Lockdown impact: A Zardozi artisan vows to never teach his children his craft

Lockdown Impact: President’s award winning Aquaculture scholar sells fish for a living

Lockdown Impact: Crushing debt, mounting bills

Lockdown Impact: Weaver family drowning in debt

Lockdown Impact: Weavers forced to become tea sellers!

Lockdown Impact: Weavers forced to become tea sellers!





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