Open Letter to Mr Piyush Goyal, Handloom Day 2021

Open Letter to Mr Piyush Goyal, Handloom Day 2021

Mindset transformation will become inevitable with digital skilling. Is the textiles ministry ready for woke artisans?

To: Mr. Piyush Goyal,
Honourable Minister of Commerce & Industry, Consumer Affairs & Food, Public Distribution and Textiles
Government of India
New Delhi.

Dear Sir,

Since open letters are seldom written in the ink of amazement, their unsealed nature signals their purpose. Today is National Handloom Day, an occasion for the government and especially in the Ministry of Textiles to celebrate Swadeshi or what has been smartly branded as “Atmanirbhar”. This is also the day when a yarn of thoughts opens up for those of us in the media who document the trials and triumphs of the Indian handloom industry.

A few weeks back, for a podcast on this platform, I interviewed a Kutchi karigar named Pabiben Rabari. No stranger to Zoom webinars, Instagram videos (@pabiben) and camera angles, Pabiben from Bhadrohi village in the Anjar taluka of Kutch put “pehchaan” (recognition) on top of her wishlist when asked what would really gratify the karigar community. She chose “pehchaan” even above consistent means of livelihood through embroidery or bharatkaam as they call it, which she has been practicing ever since she was an adolescent.


Vekuvolu Dozo, a Naga loin weaver part of Antaran, a Tata Trust Initiative that aims to bridge the gap betwen artisans and customers by bringing them online.

Not every karigar, weaver and artisan in this country might agree with her. Especially in 2021 when, given the shredding of the crafts economy in the wake of the pandemic, the loss of orders and crafts bazaars, many in the sector are grappling with issues of irregular work, diminished wages, uncertain healthcare and the overnight pressure to become digitally savvy and sell “online”.

“Recognition” is too subtle an ask in this schism, some may say, when the most a trained karigar would earn was ₹18,000 a month in good times. Many would make much less. Even highly skilled mastercraftspersons earn peanuts compared to fashion designers, design or export houses who recruit them. But all this you know.

It is however, the loss of the individuality of thousands of highly skilled people in complex supply chains creating “handmade from India” that has begun to irk a section of them. Even as the world recognises India’s handwoven creations, and ironically associates them with a hallowed image of poor rural weavers, back home we know only a handful of names. Including those weavers and karigars, without whom the very identity, meaning and profitability of Indian fashion would be fractured.


A still from Pra-Kashi, a silk, gold and silver exhibition hosted in Delhi’s National Museum in 2019.

So my argument is encased precisely in the aspiration of Pabiben and what a dozen weavers told us on record last year—after the ministry you now lead disbanded the All India Handicrafts and All India Handloom boards in July 2020 without once consulting the artisans who were a part of them. My letter may rake in a number of disillusionments around the handloom economy, but it is aimed to drive home the point of dignity, value, recognition and inclusion of the weaver and craftsperson.

The “Pehchaan” Manifesto

From Kashmir to Andhra Pradesh, Kutch to West Bengal and Odisha, every weaver or artisan we spoke to last year about the All India Handloom Board said pretty much the same thing. To paraphrase: “We were not even aware about the existence of such a board. And in any case, the government doesn’t really care about our opinion or our well-being.” A majority reported that they had no bunkar (weaver) health insurance cards. Others expressed how they struggled with illogical pre-conditions to get a Handloom Mark. “Our application was rejected as the cotton count in our Jamdani was more than the prescribed limit of 100 counts. We produce extremely fine muslin in 150-250 counts using handspun, handwoven techniques. The Government benchmarking system disregards these traditional techniques,” said Rajib Debnath, 37, a sixth generation muslin Jamdani weaver and entrepreneur whose father is a national awardee. Debnath emphatically added that he believes that “beneficiaries of handloom schemes are cooperatives, societies, NGOs and not the weavers.”

If you are interested in a passionate litany of hurt handloom workers, here is the full story.


Arun Vankar, a Bhuj based artisan currently working at local brand Kalori.

Which is why unknown perhaps even to herself, Pabiben’s is really a plea to free the karigar community from the anonymity that surrounds them. Asking for recognition denotes a mindset shift. Let us hope it is the beginning of a new movement of assertion among artisans. At least, it is the first sign of the realisation that the drone noise around development of the handloom and crafts sector which spikes now and then with ministerial or policy changes, then flattens out like a tired runner, might be ignoring the finer, psychologically superior, self-actualising needs of artisans.

Modernisation is Not Just Mechanisation

No government can expect to modernise a sector with new, mechanised looms, faster carding and yarn spooling machines, digital skilling and entrepreneurial development or putting karigars on e-commerce platforms while forgetting that all these interventions will, after all, influence the minds of those working in the warp and weft of the industry. Digital infrastructure is as much about the linkage of supply chains from producer to consumer as it is about exposure to global-local communication. It has the potential to revolutionise the handloom sector but it will also revolutionise the craftsperson’s attitude. It will reveal the vast and deep inequality that surrounds what they do and where they stand in the pecking order. The difficult truth is that, the status of the weaver remains that of a labourer, or of a “migrant” when and if they are counted in urban India. Not a design collaborator whose knowledge of traditional design and handloom skills carries on the burden of a unique legacy. Whose work deserves to be copyrighted so that it is not plagiarised by small and big businesses, retailers and micro-enterprises.


Photo: Kora Design Collaborative

Members of a natural fibre product-making cluster in Srikakulam.

What about their dignity and equality in the crafts economy that comes from worker rights, the right to protest and disagree. That is a byproduct of social security, safety nets, health insurance. Giving them legal protection if their contracts with designers or fashion houses are dishonoured or cancelled. How about taking them into the fold of inclusivity, sustainability, disability friendly environments, climate change dialogues, same sex relationships, protection from violation, abuse, sexual harassment at the workplace, giving mental health support—ideas that supposedly define society and arts, culture and democracy in India?

The Handout Attitude

I do not work in the sector at a grassroots level. But having reported from the field for many years, I observe a frustrating lack of change in the “handout” nature of approach by the government towards craftspersons. The word is borrowed of course from Niti Aayog’s Draft Policy 2021 for migrants which urges the abolishment of this approach to enable real empowerment that counts as housing, pensions, education, and equal wages for male and female workers.

That is the kind of promise weavers and craftspeople deserve. A commitment to free them from stereotypes of “noble, skilled, humble” cogs in the wheels of our textile industry and instead recognise them as professionals.


A Chanderi weaver at Chanderiyaan center of DEF.

There is nothing that you do not know that I can tell you about the post COVID-19 situation of the crafts economy. But what I do want to repeat is that the loss of crafts bazaars, even if it is temporary has hurt the social matrix of the handloom industry deeply. It has taken away bonhomie, touch and feel, human connect, eye contact and personal communication, the use of language, the joy of exchanging metaphors and sipping chai that is the gel of the crafts ecosystem. According to the Fourth All India Handloom Census of 2019-2020, 31 lakh people work in the handloom and weaving sector in India. 88 per cent are based in rural areas. By ostensibly modernising them through “digitalisation”, we are actually distancing them even more. Not that digitalisation comes to them in the snap of fingers. Not that being on e-commerce marketplaces takes away the woes and rentals of maintaining large warehouses in cities. Not that anyone can teach them product photography, pricing or how to compete with the most progressive designer marketing campaign on Instagram overnight.

So the call for “recognition” is really a blend of many things that are missing—the signature of a weaver on a creation, policies that make it mandatory for the media or any public usage to identify craftspeople by names in photo captions instead of their weaving clusters or skills. Including them as advisors and equals when they are hired by organisations or design houses to fulfill CSR obligations or for image building.


Next year marks the 75th Year of Indian Independence. Time perhaps to straddle an industry strengthening approach for the handloom industry alongside an Inclusivity Cell inside your ministry that works on other equally important needs of craftspeople as human minds.

Time also to commission a statue of a bunkar (a real weaver,identifiable by name) at a public monument in Lutyens Delhi?

Banner: Piyush Goyal, the Minister of Commerce & Industry, Consumer Affairs & Food & Public Distribution and Textiles. Credit: