October 01, 2023

National Convention of Handloom Workers

R Karumalaiyan

AS part of its continuous efforts to strengthen and expand its grassroots and organisational activities across various segments of the working population, the CITU secretariat organised a national convention of handloom workers.

Representatives from handloom unions from all major handloom cloth producing states were invited to participate in the convention, to discuss their problems and plan for future course of actions among the handloom workers.

The national convention of handloom workers took place on September 22, 2023, at the Sundarayya Vignana Kendra in Hyderabad. The convention commenced with the hoisting of the red flag by CITU President K Hemalata, followed by revolutionary songs performed by Telangana troupe. The presidium, composed of R Singaravelu (Tamil Nadu), Arakkan Balan (Kerala), and Pillalamarri Balakrishna (Andhra Pradesh), leaders representing key handloom centres, presided over the convention.

The opening inaugural session witnessed a substantial turnout of handloom workers hailing from the prominent handloom centres throughout the state of Telangana. V Shanthi Kumar, president of the Telangana State Handloom Workers' Union, delivered the welcome address. The open session was addressed by K Hemalata, M Saibabu, CITU treasurer, Ch Seetharamulu, former MLC, and Paladugu Bhaskar, general secretary of CITU in Telangana.

The delegate session was attended by 178 representatives from six states: West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, and Telangana. Due to the repression by the ruling BJP against Left parties and trade union activists, the delegates from Tripura were unable to attend the convention.

During this session, R Karumalaiyan, national secretary of CITU, presented a concise report on the handloom sector in general, highlighting the challenging working conditions faced by handloom weavers. He also discussed the state of unionisation in this traditional industry known for its unique designs and textures that have been an integral part of the Indian subcontinent for centuries.

The term ‘handloom’ is defined under the Handlooms Reservation of Articles for Production Act, 1985, as any loom other than a power loom. Handloom encompasses various types of wooden frames employed by skilled artisans to weave fabrics crafted from natural fibers such as cotton, silk, wool, and jute. It represents a cottage industry where all family members participate in the cloth production process, from spinning yarn and applying colors to the actual weaving on the loom. The textiles produced through these looms are commonly referred to as handloom.

The equipment required for this entire process is typically constructed from wood, and in some cases, bamboo, with no reliance on electricity for operation. The entire fabric production process is entirely manual, making it one of the most environment friendly methods of cloth production.

The handloom sector represents one of India's largest unorganised sector economic activities, playing an integral role in rural and semi-rural livelihoods, engaging over 35 lakh individuals. Notably, this sector employs more than 25 lakh female weavers and related workers, making it a significant driver of economic empowerment for women.

With approximately 23.77 lakh looms, the handloom industry plays a crucial role in India's economy, catering to both domestic and international markets. Key handloom export hubs include Karur, Panipat, Varanasi, and Kannur, where a diverse range of handloom products such as bed linen, table linen, kitchen linen, toilet linen, floor coverings, embroidered textiles, and curtains are manufactured for export markets. Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu is renowned for its hand-woven silk sarees, while the Mangalagiri sarees produced in the Mangalagiri town of Guntur district are also highly regarded.

The handloom industry primarily exports a wide range of products including fabrics, bed linens, table linens, toilet and kitchen linens, towels, curtains, cushions and pads, tapestries, upholstery, carpets, and floor coverings, among others. The major countries importing handloom products from India include the USA, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the Netherlands, and the UAE.

According to the 4th Handloom Census (2019-20), there are 28.2 lakh handlooms dispersed across various states in India. However, it is worth noting that this number may actually be higher as the census figures may not accurately capture the actual count of handloom weavers. While a significant portion of them is affiliated with cooperative societies, there are still a considerable number who do not have access to any benefits. The census report reveals a significant concentration of handlooms in Assam (47 per cent), followed by West Bengal (13 per cent), Tamil Nadu and Tripura (6 per cent each), and Andhra Pradesh (5 per cent), with the remaining states accounting for 15 per cent.

Since 1985, and particularly following the liberalisation of the 1990s, the handloom sector has confronted several challenges. It has had to contend with competition from inexpensive imports and the replication of designs by power looms. Furthermore, government funding and policy support have significantly dwindled, and the cost of natural fiber yarn has risen substantially. In comparison to artificial fibers, natural fabric costs have surged, rendering them unaffordable for many weavers. Remarkably, the wages of handloom weavers have remained stagnant for the past decade or two. Consequently, numerous weavers have found it impossible to compete with cheaper, synthetic-mixed fabrics, forcing them to abandon weaving and seek unskilled labour jobs, which has plunged many into extreme poverty.

Over time, there has been a decline in the number of employed weavers. According to the Third Handloom Census (1995-96), 65.5 lakh people were engaged in weaving and related activities, but this number dropped to 43 lakh people in 2009-10 (Handloom Census of India, 2009-10) and further decreased to nearly 35 lakhs as per the Fourth Handloom Census in 2018-19. This decline may be attributed to skilled weavers transitioning to other sectors and a lack of interest among younger generations in pursuing traditional professions. Additional challenges include stiff competition from power looms in terms of production capacity, limited access to credit, slow technological advancement, and marketing difficulties, among others.

Most handloom weavers serve as both workers and owners of their handlooms, and they grapple with several primary challenges, including:

1.   Access to affordable raw materials: The availability of raw materials such as yarn, dyes, cotton, silk, and jute is crucial, as their costs have been rising due to production and processing taking place in distant locations.

2.   Lack of sectoral development investment: Insufficient investment in the handloom sector, coupled with the need for essential resources like land, water, and electricity for manufacturing, poses a hindrance to growth.

3.   Enhancing export opportunities: Special measures are required for the import and export of handloom textiles. Handloom products need greater visibility and an expanded market network, both domestically and internationally.

4.   Boosting rural employment: To protect rural jobs and address the sector's challenges effectively, there is a need to allocate a larger budget and implement new programmes aimed at its development.

5.   Promoting sustainability: Encouraging the use of organic cotton and yarn, natural dyes, and advancing loom productivity through research and innovation are essential steps to enhance the value addition of handloom products.

6.   Social welfare and minimum wages: Some groups of handloom weavers find themselves in vulnerable living conditions with no homes or assets. The government must address these issues and enforce the Minimum Wages Act to provide better living standards and job security to these weavers.

In addition to the aforementioned challenges, handloom wage workers consistently grapple with issues such as low wages, absence of guaranteed social security, occupational health concerns, and the often cramped working conditions in their home-based setups.

During their discussions, the delegates highlighted and deliberated upon these issues and problems. The convention subsequently endorsed a comprehensive charter of demands encompassing these issues. It was decided to observe November 16, 2023, as "All India Handloom Workers Demands Day," following an extensive awareness campaign in all handloom centers throughout the country. A 27-member All India Coordination Committee of Handloom Workers' Unions was established, with E Muthukumar from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu, as the convenor.

Delivering the concluding address, CITU President K Hemalata exhorted the delegates to recognise close link between their problems and the policies of the government, particularly in the face of comprehensive attacks on petty production driven by the neoliberal trajectory. She emphasized the need to mobilise workers against anti-people politics and cautioned about the communal divisive strategies employed by the BJP and Sangh Parivar forces.