Lack of Chinese silk imports & the anti-China mood in the country has hurt their business hard
Gloom is palpable among thousands of families of weavers in Telangana’s erstwhile districts of Warangal and Nalgonda which produce Pochampalli Ikkat silk sarees of international repute.
All the weavers have been rendered jobless for three months. They lost an income of Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000 a month. For two months, the government supplied free ration.
Many master weavers are finding it difficult to get financial assistance, even loans, as trade has come to a grinding halt. The future looks uncertain for weavers.
The lives of the weavers have been torn apart as they are out of work and out of money.
“The demand for silk sarees is almost nil. It’s a terrible crisis. Our master weavers are not able to say how long it would last. We can’t go back to our Dharmavaram, nor can we stay put here,” says Siddanatham Nagarjuna, 38, a migrant weaver from Dharmavaram, Andhra Pradesh.
Like Nagarjuna, dozens of weavers that this journalist interacted with, do not see a ray of hope on the horizon.
"Our looms are lying idle. There is no other work to do and master weavers are not able to provide them with the work. Their food consumption levels also have fallen as families fell out of employment. Many are on the verge of starvation. We represented our case to KTR (K Taraka Rama Rao), minister of IT and Jagadeesh Reddy, a minister from the district. This did not elicit any satisfactory response," said Pochampalli's Valandas Praveen, 31, who took to weaving after completing his Bachelors' Degree.“We are caught up in a vicious circle. Unless there is a demand from the market, the stocks cannot be cleared, until the stocks are cleared, the master weavers won't give us the work. We will have to starve until we get the work,” another weaver, Ganji Viswantham said.
In their heydays, these villages, known for Ikkat sarees (tie and die art), attracted migrant weavers from faraway places in Telugu states. The centuries-old unique textile art tradition has earned the Geographical Indication (GI) tag as well.
“We are caught up in a vicious circle. Unless there is a demand from the market, the stocks cannot be cleared, until the stocks are cleared, the master weavers won't give us the work. We will have to starve until we get the work,” another weaver, Ganji Viswantham said.
In their heydays, these villages, known for Ikkat sarees (tie and die art), attracted migrant weavers from faraway places in Telugu states.
The centuries-old unique textile art tradition has earned the Geographical Indication (GI) tag as well.
Weaving is the second most important employment provider in Telangana after agriculture. There is hardly any village in the state which does not have weavers.
Pochampalli, which evolved the Ikkat art as a brand, is one of the important hubs in India for silk and cotton sarees, lehangas, and blouses.
Now, the cottage industry, which has been a lifeline for weavers in the area, is passing through an unprecedented crisis following the outbreak of COVID-19.
The traditional occupation has come under a three-pronged attack.
The first one came in the form of China banning silk exports due to the COVID-19 spread in the Wuhan region.
Then came the lockdown in India which coincided with the marriage season in the country, when silk sarees sales normally reach the peak.
Now, the threat of banning Chinese imports is looming.
Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has been insisting on the ban on the import of Chinese silk and silk products to promote the local silk industry. But Indian silk production is far too inadequate to meet the demand in the country.
The worry of the weavers is that any ban or increase of tariff to discourage the imports would further worsen the life of these weavers. Some master weavers are foreseeing a price hike from Rs 3500 per kg to Rs 5000 to Rs 6000 with the escalation of tension in Indo-China relations.
As many as 35,000 to 40,000 families are dependent on Ikkat weaving. Like the pharma and electronics industry, the Indian handloom silk industry is also heavily dependent on Chinese imports.
“China silk is not only cheaper. With its much desirable smoothness, it is eminently suitable for handlooms especially Pochampalli variety. 70% to 80% of the silk we use is from China,” said Thadka Ramesh, convenor of Cheneta Joint Action Committee (Cheneta JAC).
“The first assault on the profession came in the form of stoppage of imports by India against the backdrop of Corona eruption in Wuhan, which pushed the prices of raw silk from Rs 3000 per kg to Rs 4500 per kg. This happened in December.
We had to put up with it with the hope that it would be offset by the increased sales in the ensuing marriage season between March and May, the months of lockdown. However, the lockdown in India has dealt the second serious blow in the form of closing down of Indian markets.
This way the important marriage season passed off with zero sales hitting the Pochampalli Ikkat saree sales hard,” Ramesh explained to The Lede.
Normally thousands of retail traders descend on the villages to purchase the sarees directly from the weavers and master weavers. The nationwide lockdown robbed the weavers of this business too. Independent weavers have suffered huge losses as people put off marriages to future dates.
Chilkuru Srinivas, a master weaver from Chandur, a village near Nalgonda town says all his looms are lying idle, affecting the livelihood of weavers.
“The demand for Pochampalli Ikkat sarees comes mainly from metropolitan cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi. Unfortunately, it is these cities that are badly affected by COVID-19. With malls and shops remaining closed in these cities since March, the huge stock has got piled up with master weavers. Unless the stock is lifted, we cannot afford to offer work to weavers,” Srinivas told The Lede.
According to Srinivas who hails from a traditional weavers’ family, the stocks worth Rs 200 crore have piled up with master weavers in the area and majority of the weavers depend on them for their livelihood. He said officials have estimated that as much as Rs 90 crore worth stock is lying with master weavers of Pochampalli village alone.
Not just weavers, the distributors are affected too.
Dasari Vaikuntam is a small-time businessman of silk sarees. He operates from home. He purchases sarees from master weavers from Pochampalli area and sells the sarees in his colony in Hyderabad besides supplying to a dozen smaller shops in Telangana capital.
He says he has been in terrible crisis for three months as COVID-19 devastated his small business. Hailing from a weaver’s family from a village near Warangal, he relocated himself to Hyderabad to start the business.
But Coronavirus struck him hard.
“It was expected that business will resume once the lockdown was relaxed. It has been proven wrong. It has been more than two weeks, the business has not picked up as the people are scared of stirring out of homes. Malls and shops are empty.
Another reason for the absence of demand for sarees is that the fear of Corona forced the people to abandon all family functions and celebrations,” Vaikuntam said.
Both Ramesh and Srinivas are of the opinion that government intervention is the only option to rescue the weavers from the crisis. They recalled how the government had helped weavers when the power loom sector was in dire straits.
Similarly, the free sarees scheme has come as a boon to the weavers of Sircilla area. They both want an extension of similar treatment to the Pochampalli Ikkat weavers in this hour of crisis.
“The government can purchase the entire stock from the master weavers. The bailout package doesn’t require more than Rs 200 crore to 300 crore and is not a big amount for the government. Another way is that the sarees can be gifted to the beneficiaries as part of the Kalyana Lakshmi scheme. The sarees can also be sold to all employees of the government at subsidised rates during festivals. This won’t put any burden on the exchequer,” they said.
As an immediate measure, they want monthly financial assistance of Rs 8000 per family for the next six months to cope with the financial bankruptcy.
Talking about the subsidy now being offered by the government to purchase raw material, Thadka Ramesh said unless simplified, the scheme would not be of much use to the weaver.
At present, each geo-tagged weaver has to wait for six months after the purchase to get his subsidy reimbursed.
“Government should dispense with this cumbersome process and allow the weaver to purchase from government depots at subsidised rates upon producing valid Aadhar card,” Ramesh said.