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Life hanging on a silk thread

Aug 06, 2012

For over 25,000 migrant women of Sualkuchi, the largest silk village in the Kamrup district of Assam, India, who work as contractual weavers, it is nearly impossible to raise their voices against the exploitation they experience since they are not covered by any organised union.

Sualkuchi: Pronita Brahma, 25, is one of over 25,000 migrant women, mostly from the Bodo tribe, who migrate seasonally to Sualkuchi, the largest silk village in lower Assam's Kamrup district, to work as a contractual weaver. Sualkuchi has a century old tradition of silk weaving.

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An expert weaver, Pronita first migrated to this silk cloth producing pocket from Mohoripara village, around 65 kilometres away, about 10 years ago. Like most of her counterparts, Pronita is unmarried and lives in cramped rented dormitories in conditions that are far from congenial or healthy. Today, Pronita supports a family of five back home.

Villages like Mohoripara in Kamrup as well as others in lower Assam's Baksa and Barpeta districts, which are mostly inhabited by the Bodos, are very poor. The families of these migrating women are either landless or possess a small holding that can barely provide them with square meals. Employment and livelihood opportunities are very limited and that has pushed a sizable number of the villagers to migrate. Those with weaving skills normally migrate to Sualkuchi only to return after eight to nine months in order to either work in their own fields or as contracted agricultural labour. Later, once the money is over it’s back to weaving.

A Sualkuchi weaver can only expect to earn anything between Rs 2,500 and Rs 4,000 a month by working on a traditional loom, and after paying for the rented accommodation as well as other living and transportation expenses, very little is left. Not covered by any organised union, they don’t even know how to raise their voices against the exploitation they experience.

Most women take loans in advance from their employers and end up working almost as bonded labour in order to pay them off. A weaver gets Rs 700 for a chador and Rs 300 for a mekhla – the two-piece mekhla-chador makes up the traditional attire of the Assamese women. It takes three to five days to weave a chador, depending on it design and the motifs used.

Generally, the women come to Sualkuchi for a few years and then with the bits of money they manage to save, they start life afresh in their own villages – sometimes in different occupations. But because of the stagnation of wages and the spiraling prices of essential commodities, they can hardly save very much any more.

Pronita's employer, Manoj Kalita, while admitting that women weavers work under very tough conditions, argues that the status of loom owners is no better. An owner of 16 looms, he believes, people like him have been able to provide some social security to these migrant women, although they may have failed to give them economic security. Observes Kalita, “A sizeable number of them have settled here permanently, marrying local boys. Once they were proud of their status as expert weavers, now they prefer to work in urban areas as sales girls or in our low-paid sectors.”

Kalita understands why women weavers have drifted to other occupations. “When we used to pay the weavers Rs 500 for a piece of chador, the price for a kilo of dal was only Rs 18. Now we pay them Rs 700, but the price of dal has gone up to Rs 64,” he says.

The problem, according to him, lies in the fact that most consumers of silk products have a fixed budget. At the same time, the price of silk yarn has increased because of the lack of policy direction on the part of the government. Neither does the Assam government subsidise the yarn nor does it help in its procurement. Without such interventions, profit margins for loom owners are falling, which is why they cannot pay the women weavers a better rate.

Although it is one of most prolific centres for silk-weaving, Sualkuchi has to depend on its raw-materials on outside markets. Its weavers traditionally weave pat (mulberry) and muga silk. The pat silk-thread comes from Bangalore, and loom-owners are forced to pay whatever price the businessmen there quote. As for golden muga silk-thread – although it is procured locally, it remains expensive since the demand far outstrips supply. Mulberry silk costs over Rs 1,800 per kilogram while muga can range anywhere between Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000 per kilogram.

But what could help to turn around this otherwise adverse situation is a device, known as the Chaneki, which has been introduced by the Central Silk Board (CSB) as part of its loom upgradation programme. The innovative device, which costs around Rs 5,000, has been designed by Dipak Bharali, a science graduate who comes from a silk village himself, with the aim of maximising the weaving skills of the women and increasing the productivity of looms. The Chaneki helps save on time – almost by half - in threading the weft thread bobbins for spot design or motif making. On traditional looms, weavers are required to insert the weft thread manually to make a particular design. This takes time and often the weft thread snaps and has to be replaced.

Says Bharali, who, incidentally, received the President's State Award in 2009 for this innovation, “Being born into a weavers' family, I was always thinking of ways to help them. But I knew this would be impossible to achieve on traditional looms, unless some upgradation was done. Chaneki is the result of the experimentation which took several years.” The device was further improved under the guidance of Professor A.K. Das of the design department of IIT, Guwahati, and with financial assistance from the National Innovation Foundation.

Soon after the decision of CSB to make the Chaneki available for loom owners at a subsidised rate of 80 per cent in March 2012, it has brought about remarkable changes, not only for weavers and but also for owners. The device has reached around 400 weavers in Sualkuchi so far.

Pronita is upbeat about the new devise and hopes to increase her earnings – not because of a wage rise but because of a rise in her productivity, “It is for the first time in my life as a weaver that such a transformation has happened. Not only does the device help me save time, it ensures greater productivity. I can now think of saving some money finally.”

Perhaps, in time, women like her can go back to their villages, practice their craft, go in for product diversification, and emerge as entrepreneurs in their own right. Meanwhile, Bharali hopes to carry on doing his bit to help women like Pronita to realise their dreams as a weaving professional. He is now looking to design computerised designs and motifs.

Says Bharali, “I want to urgently improve the economic conditions of weavers here so that weaving becomes a sustainable and profitable venture for them. They are the key persons who can make or break this entire industry. The survival of a tradition of weaving that goes back a century depends on them. This means we need to keep working at developing weaver friendly upgradation techniques.”

Pronita’s long-term career as a weaver depends crucially on precisely such a mission. Otherwise, it may just not make sense for women like her to leave their families for such long spells and sweat it out on the looms of Sualkuchi.

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