SynopsisThe handloom sector is a big employer, contributes a chunk to exports and is deeply ingrained with the rural economy. In the age of automation, we have to find ways to keep the segment relevant.
A glimpse at the performance of handloom exports over the years from India shows a worrying trend: exports fell from Rs 2,353.33 crore in FY16 to Rs 2,245.33 crore in FY20, according to data from Handloom Export Promotion Council (HEPC).
The importance of the handloom sector can be obscure for the casual observer. It employs 35.23 lakh weavers and allied workers, making it one of the largest economic activities after agriculture, according to the annual report of the Ministry of Textiles 2020-21. Almost 95% of the world’s handwoven fabric comes from India. Handloom exports earned Rs 2,248 crore in 2019-20 and Rs 650 crore in 2020-21 (upto September), it added. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2012–17) had pegged the handicraft and handloom sector in India as a Rs 24,300-crore industry, contributing nearly Rs 10,000 crore annually in export earnings.
The sector’s roots run deep into the economy. According to the Fourth Handloom Census, 88.7% of the weaver households are in rural areas and 11.3% are in urban areas; nearly 72% of handloom weavers are women. This would mean that any drop in sales in the segment will hit the most vulnerable first.
The government seems to be aware of the impact. In August, on the occasion of the 7th National Handloom Day, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal called for increasing the production capacities of the handloom sector from Rs 60,000 crore to Rs 1.25 lakh crore within three years. He also announced India would try to reach the target of Rs 10,000 crore in handloom exports in the period. Goyal said a committee comprising weavers, trainers, equipment makers, marketing experts and other stakeholders would be constituted to make recommendations and ways to improve the handloom sector.
The sector is also important because it is interlinked with the agrarian economy, employs a lot of women and has a close relationship with the culture and tradition of the land. Because the production process involves traditional methods, it takes more time and effort. These products are more expensive too. So, powerloom products — or those made using machines — have pushed handloom products to obscurity.
How, then, can the government give the sector a helping hand? In an age where automation is increasingly pervading every aspect of our lives, can the handloom sector still remain relevant?
Yes, says Anand Ramanathan, Partner at Deloitte India. “Automation happened even 100 years back. Handlooms still survived. It is more about how we encourage supply. Many of these are dying trades where the next generation has not taken it up and no systematic mechanism exists to do the knowledge transfer as most of these jobs are apprenticeship-based models. So, preserving some of that is the bigger challenge,” he says.
The sector’s challenge is more from the supply side, as it is not seen as being aspirational. Ramanathan says that technology can play a huge role in enabling this sector. “Bringing in more technology will be a big signal indicating aspiration to the next generation. Promoting technology investments in this space can give a big boost,” he adds.
The Development Commissioner of Handlooms under the Ministry of Textiles did not respond to an email questionnaire.
Modernising is the answer
A clutch of brands is now trying to take technology to artisans and weavers to help them digitise inventories and operations. Take the case of Noida-based Lal10, an online wholesale marketplace for rural MSMEs, which positions itself as “an Alibaba for Indian artisans”. Maneet Gohil, Founder & CEO, Lal10, says adoption of technology in tier-I and -II cities has drastically improved in the last few quarters, amid the pandemic. “Every month we are seeing an almost 80-90% increase in the seller inflow or requests to get onboarded. We are on a mission of digitising inventories for this community and showcase to cross-border buyers,” he says.
The company also focuses on skilling manufacturers to make products that are more marketable across borders. “The most significant issue for weavers is that if someone is making sarees, they do not know that they can create a curtain from the same material and that product can be far more marketable. They are not aware of the colour shades or patterns, say, a European buyer would find appealing. Traditional weavers do not remain updated about those trends,” he adds.
Lal10’s second level of intervention is to ensure the quality of the products and to make sure these are delivered on time. During the pandemic, however, the supply chain was severely disrupted, there was no work or orders and a lot of artisans took up alternative daily wage jobs for sustenance. “From November last year till June this year, production was extremely slow. Many of the weavers left to take up other jobs. They have now slowly started returning to their trade,” says Nitin Pamnani, co-founder of Gwalior-based D2C platform iTokri.
Challenges and solutions
Pamnani remembers the months of March and April in 2020 as also being extremely difficult. “There was too much darkness all around. We wanted to support the artisans,” he says. The company continued to buy products from the artisans back then despite sales being slow. iTokri ended up having surplus fabric. So, they focused on masks, which were in great demand then, thereby supporting the livelihood of many artisan families.
Pamnani says the main issue that acts as a threat to the handloom craft is not technology but lower production. “Demand is really not the problem here. Artisans want to live with dignity. Why would weavers want to work if they don’t get adequate wages? They are not looking for temporary relief and want to work.”
The Fourth Handloom Census states that 67% of the household’s dependent on handloom earn less than Rs 5,000 and 26% earn Rs 5,001-10,000.
Besides income, issues such as procurement of raw materials and working capital plague the community. Tax laws play up too.
Pamnani welcomes the government’s plan to increase production capacities but adds they need to first recognise the sector. “Before GST, there was a clear bifurcation under state and VAT laws for handloom products, and the artisans used to get tax benefits as well. But after GST, all textile items (fabrics, garments, bags, etc) were put under one category, which bought handloom and machine-made products under the same tax slabs — 5% on fabrics, 5-12% on garments, and so on. This is unfair for the handloom artists because they now have to directly compete with factories,” he says.
Handloom sector is interlinked with the agrarian economy, employs a lot of women and has a close relationship with the culture and tradition of the land.Such additional costs eat away at their profits. Gohil of Lal10 summarizes the problem at hand: “For the weaver or artisan, raw material, which is the yarn, needs to be procured and they have to go to multiple middlemen for that. These middlemen give a lucrative offer to them but also charge, for example, an interest of 3-4% every month even though they source it from factories or dealers and also charge a mark up on it. So, there is a huge gap which the weavers and artisans are not able to foresee.”
To address this issue, the company ventured into supplying raw materials from Varanasi. They collaborated with factories and dealers making silk yarn and set up an outlet in the city where weavers could come and choose products and order through the company’s mobile application. Gohil adds that this is not the core business for the brand and the main intention is to create solutions that aid this community.
Revival of the craft
The pandemic has, in a sense, helped this category, especially with a rise in consumer conscientiousness. However, the handloom sector needs a bigger push for revival. Mansi Gupta, founder & CEO of artisanal ethnic brand Tjori, says after the pandemic began, there has been an inclination towards sustainability. Customers now prefer using less artificial and more breathable fabrics. “For instance, we launched yoga wear and got an amazing response. It was made using mulmul, which is a breathable cotton kind of handloom fabric. So, I think it is more about utility and comfort playing up now,” she says.
Many of techniques of handloom are dying trades where the next generation has not taken it up. (Pic courtesy- iTokri)Tjori’s Kalamkari — an ancient art form involving hand printing or block printing mostly on cotton fabrics — products have been one of its bestselling collections for the past few years. The second bestseller is Kota Doria, which is a light, woven fabric consisting of tiny woven squares. It is practiced in Rajasthan. Tjori plans to tap into kidswear as it expects a lot of demand in that segment.
Like Gupta, Deloitte’s Ramanathan also says ethnic categories have made a comeback after the Covid outbreak began. “For millennials, social and environmental impact are really critical. But that is not the only requirement. The requirement is like any other sector — bring the technology, cut the middleman and market your product well. These are the skills needed and we should bring them into some sort of organised framework,” he says.
Another way of promoting the craft is looking at it from the perspective of tourism, with a combination of products and services weaved in. Adopting a cluster approach might also be beneficial. Ramanathan suggests identifying clusters for investment, roping in financial institutions for cash and bringing the entire system under an organised framework. “As they organise, they will automatically modernise,” he adds.
The slant for handcrafted products should tilt more towards going up the value chain, increased exports, getting better prices for products and creating more awareness of the legacy of the products. Building up on such aspects will be key to preserving the craftsmanship that is a means of livelihood, pride and dignity for many artisan and weaver families. It will also mean creating a robust ecosystem that takes into account the 35 lakh weavers who form the backbone of this niche sector.
(Edited by Ram Mohan. Illustrations by Mohammad Arshad)
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