Research Findings by Nesar Ahmed - JANUARY 2007
Some of the major findings of the study can be summarized as follows:
The industry is facing a severe crisis of declining demand and competition from powerloom and imported fabric. This has impacted the handloom weavers the most. There wages and net income have declined. In absolute terms, it is now half of what it was five years ago. Payments to weavers are often not made immediately and given through a post-dated check.
The structure of the industry has undergone major changes during the last 15 years. Most of the weavers are now wageworkers, working for a master weaver or a trader and are totally cut-off from the market. The design function has also gone from their hands to the master weavers or local designers employed by the traders.
The Muslim small-traders have become gaddedars – large traders - with the help of benefits from the cooperatives and some of them are directly exporting various textiles, including saris.
The import of silk fabric has increased during the last decade, which has adversely impacted the industry. These fabrics as well as powerloom fabric is converted into sari after doing embroidery work on it, which is still much cheaper compared to an authentic Banarasi sari.
Increasing prices of raw material is a key concern for the traders as well as the common weavers.
Cooperatives are mostly controlled by traders and, in some cases, by people who are not even associated with the handloom sector in any way. Most of the weavers we interacted with are not members of any functioning cooperatives.
There are local level initiatives to face the crisis. The weavers’ organizations are struggling at the local level against exploitation of weavers by the traders. At the same time these organizations are also aware of the larger issues of trade liberalization and WTO rules which are impacting the industry and are actively opposing such initiatives.
The traders have their own organizations and are also making their efforts for policy changes and getting maximum benefits.
The Banarasi silk sari has three unique features which distinguish it from other saris. First, the yarn it uses is high quality silk yarn from Karnataka. Though now the Chinese imported silk is also being used they are not of the same quality.
Secondly, weavers claim that the saris woven on handlooms are of much better quality, not only in terms of design and motif but also in terms of weaving quality and durability, than those that are copied on powerloom.
And, third and the most important, the artistry of Varanasi weavers in designing the saris is unique to the cluster. The challenge is to present these saris as a brand, highlighting these three features. The efforts to put labels like Silk Mark and Handloom Mark, if implemented properly, can help to establish the distinctive identity of the Banarasi saris in mainstream markets.
However, effort to promote Banarasi saris as unique products has to involve all the stakeholders in the cluster collectively. Lack of ownership amongst stakeholders is a significant bottleneck. Though the traders are making profits selling Banarasi Saris, they do not seem to invest in improving production in the area. For them running their business and getting orders is what matters most. Most of them deal in a range of textile products (powerloom products, handloom products, made-ups etc. of both silk and non-silk yarn) and have inadequate incentive to invest in improving handloom quality and production to regain lost market share.
The weavers, who are the real stakeholders and take ownership of the weaving occupation (“our forefathers have been doing it, how can we leave it” or “it is our forefathers’ occupation”), are into weaving more by compulsion than choice. Additionally, these poor weavers are cut-off from the market and are too unorganized to make any difference. They lack resources, access to market, credit and raw material and any form of organization to have an effect on the market.
The need is to create and promote structures that organize the weavers to collectively engage with the market; provide them with quality raw materials and other facilities; and consequently, enhancing their bargaining power in the production process. Initiating and identifying and promoting such existing organizations should be given the greatest priority.
The value addition in form of embroidery work (zaridozi) seems to be providing opportunity for diversifying and generating employment. As a trader from Madanpura said the Banarasi saris with zaridozi work is more in demand now than the ones without zaridozi work. There is a need to identify such trends and encourage production to take advantage of it.
Such collectives would also enhance the ability of weavers to access market information. Diversification into other products is taking place mostly into the powerloom products. Diversification by the handloom weavers is very limited and is mostly by compulsion and not by choice or any sustained market strategy. There is a need to create structures that enable weavers to access market trends and respond to them accordingly.
At the policy level, the industry needs protection from the cheap import of silk fabric and from the powerloom sector. The act banning powerlooms from producing saris and other items needs to be implemented more seriously.