Dec 26, 2008
Chinese silk is gradually flooding Indian markets giving the country’s centuries-old handloom industry a run for money. Cheap imitations and lack of government support have forced hundreds of artisans to abandon their traditional profession.
Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh: Legend has it that India’s famed handloom silk industry began around 300 A.D. after a Chinese princess smuggled out the eggs of the silkworm moth and the seeds of the mulberry tree in her headdress.
More than 1,700 years later, China is threatening to swamp the industry - through dumping, cheap imitations and a proliferation of automated looms.
India has several centres associated with silk weaving, but nowhere is the threat felt more than in this holy city on the banks of the Ganges river, where for centuries artisans have woven the intricate, multi-hued Banarsi sari that is an essential part of every Hindu bride’s trousseau.
Row after row of handlooms sit idle in the city’s Pili Kothi area and the inactivity is punctuated only by the occasional whir and click of a stray weaver still struggling to execute an order for the nine-yard length of shimmering silk that is often edged with gold thread.
Rajnikant, director of the Human Welfare Association, a voluntary organisation working with weavers in Varanasi, explains that until a decade ago the silk weaving industry provided livelihoods for about 700,000 people in this city. This has now been reduced to less than 250,000 people struggling on with vastly reduced incomes.
A significant reason for is attributed to indiscriminate imports and mechanisation. According to the Planning Commission of India, in 2006-07 around 9,258 tonnes of silk worth over Rs six billion (120 million US dollars) was imported from China.
As a result, cocoon prices crashed and nearly 49,000 hectares of mulberry crop had to be uprooted from farms in southern Karnataka state.
In mid-2005, the Indian government moved to impose anti-dumping duties on imports of Chinese raw silk, but imports including contraband began to flood in through third countries like Bangladesh and Nepal with traders taking advantage of the fact that India imposes no import curbs on these impoverished neighbouring countries. And then the duties did not cover silk fabrics.
"When the government finally imposed an anti-dumping duty on silk yarn, imports of bulk silk fabrics from China increased but no anti-dumping duty was placed on this. It became easy for unscrupulous local manufacturers to convert this imported fabric into cheap imitations of Banarsi saris,’’ said Rajnikant.
Threat to traditional craft
Customer preferences for the fine but vastly cheaper, machine-woven Chinese crepes that started flooding the Indian market sounded the death knell of the traditional handloom Banarsi sari. Only a handful of discerning buyers could tell the difference or were prepared to pay high prices for the genuine item.
Unfortunately for the weavers, the import surge took place at a time when handlooms were already facing a threat from power looms whose owners were using computers to closely copy traditional handloom designs, right down to the flaws, and pass them off as handloom products on unsuspecting customers.
Also, around the same time, embroidery machines began to be imported from China, making the women engaged in embroidery lose their livelihood as manufacturers and traders sold machine-embroidered cloth as hand embroidery.
But worst of all, imitation Banarsi silk saris began appearing out of China. It was soon discovered that enterprising Chinese manufacturers were actually hiring weavers from Varanasi to advise them on the intricacies of design and colour.
India with its labour problems and power shortages and lack of subsidies was simply no match for the production skills and marketing savvy of China.
And, Rajnikant explained, the Indian weavers did not have subsidies or other support of their government as did the Chinese.
Weavers were left with little choice but to abandon their centuries-old profession in droves, although many said they were happy to leave behind an exploitative structure in which they could not ever win.
Aminuddin, an activist who lives in Nakhighat area of Varanasi, says: "Rates given to weavers were so low that they couldn’t survive. Most government funds also reach only those in the trade and who are already prosperous. Official committees and delegates never bother to meet poor weavers".
According to Mohammed Sharif Ansari, a weaver, at least 47 members of the community were known to have committed suicide over the past year in and around Varanasi but no official ever bothered to visit the families or offer compensation. "Visiting officials listen only to the views of rich traders and exporters".
The real tragedy
Razia Begum, a member of the weavers’ community in Lohta village, says that women, who made an important contribution to the industry suffered the most. "The working conditions of weavers have deteriorated so much that when they complete a sari they do not know whether they'll be able to get enough to meet the minimum needs of the family and also start work on a new piece".
Ainul Haq, a weaver who need medical care and has small children to support said he spent time trying to avail grants from the government. "I did not get any money even though some grants were approved".
According to Jaya Jaitly, politician and New Delhi-based expert on handicrafts, efforts to protect silk weavers and their craft needed to focus on several fronts. "Demand for the quality products of handloom weavers certainly exists, but we've to find ways to link this demand to protecting the livelihood of handloom weavers,’’ she said.
"There is widespread recognition, here and in export markets, about the superior craft of handlooms. However, buyers need to be more assertive in demanding that the product they are buying is a genuine handloom product. It will help to introduce a handloom market certifying genuineness of product," said Rajnikant.
In the view of Kumar Gautam, a researcher with the Delhi-based Centre for Trade and Development, what will really help at this point is a “geographical indication status for the Banarsi sari’”.
"’The real tragedy," said Aminuddin, "is that there are so many government schemes begun in the name of helping weavers but none of them actually benefits them".
According to the chairman of the government’s Central Silk Board (CSB), H. Hanumanthappa, the situation was a complex one and involved many interests. For example, the anti-dumping duty, whose main purpose was to safeguard the interests of sericulture farmers and weavers, has affected the competitiveness of India’s silk exporters.
The CSB has moved to get the anti-dumping duty on raw silk extended for five more years after it expires in December 2008 although the duty has not helped improve overall silk production.
According to Hanumanthappa prospects for exporters in the near term were dim anyway because of reduced demand from the United States and Europe, as result of the global financial meltdown. The industry, he said, is faced with a situation where it will have to axe between 500,000 to one million jobs over the next few years.