The powerloom lobby is out to destroy India’s handloom advantage: Ashoke Chatterjee


The powerloom lobby is out to destroy India’s handloom advantage: Ashoke Chatterjee

New Delhi: Speculation that the government plans to amend the handloom Act, which lists goods and textiles reserved for production by traditional craftsmen and weavers and incentives offered to them, has raised consternation in the sector. The speculation comes in the backdrop of efforts by the powerloom lobby to get parity with the handloom sector, which has called on the government to implement the Act in its original spirit. Veteran crafts and design expert Ashoke Chatterjee , former executive director of Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design and ex-president of the Crafts Council of India, spoke about issues related to handlooms. Edited excerpts:

What could be the government’s motivation to amend the handloom Act of 1985, given the emphasis on Make in India?

The motivation is rooted in an entrenched attitude that regards India’s handloom sector as an obsolete “sunset” activity irrelevant to dreams of global economic muscle. The powerloom lobby that accounts for 60% of fabric production (handlooms come next with 15%) wants to blur the differences between powerloom and handloom to claim benefits limited to handlooms. They want a “handmade” image, realizing the massive demand potential. It is done as a masquerade of pity for the “poor” handloom weaver. We thought this nonsense was behind us. But it is back. A meeting called at almost no notice at the ministry of textiles on 10 April to discuss the Act, attended primarily by the powerloom lobby, is the latest warning.


“Make in India”, which seems to be about specialized technologies using cheap labour and official incentives, should instead be about “Design and Make for India and the World”. It should provide non-agricultural jobs in the rural hinterland where they are most needed, with a low carbon footprint, offering sustainable livelihoods and a social safety net for our most vulnerable citizens to create high-demand products at home and across the globe.


A discourse has been building that handlooms are not viable because demand is falling. How factual is this?

It is a myth assiduously being repeated by lobbies out to destroy India’s handloom advantage in the hope that if it is repeated often enough, the country will come to believe it. Why are powerloom lobbyists so eager for their fabric to appear handmade if demand is falling? Designer Ritu Kumar and other fashion leaders have been repeating that India’s hand-crafted textiles are not only in high demand worldwide, but their diversity represents the last the world will see of genuine non-mechanized production of silks, cottons and wools. Handloom exports have risen steadily, even in years of recession. At home, the demand is huge even without strong market mechanisms. At a 2013 conclave in Kolkata to oppose tampering with the handloom Act, design leaders described fabrics handmade in India as “the greatest in the world”. Hardly the basket case some would have us believe.


What is the definition of handloom today given the powerloom lobby’s suggestion to remove saris from the list, and the move to specify types of embroideries and prints included in handlooms?

The Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 is crystal clear: handloom means any loom other than powerloom, and a powerloom is a loom worked by power as defined in the Factories Act, 1948. But the handloom sector is scattered and finds it difficult to function as a lobby. Issues of definition demand attention, including embroidery and printing. Redefinition of handloom would at one stroke convert handlooms into powerlooms, robbing them of their fundamental USP. And yes, there is pressure to remove saris from the list, since saris are the mainstay of the handloom sector! Handloom and khadi marks exist on paper, not at the point of sale to help identify the genuine from the spurious. The future will be much more about branding and merchandising, and less about reservation. All three components of the textile industry—powerloom, handloom, mill—should flourish. Each demands a separate national policy. Pitting one against the other or subsuming one under the other is no solution.


Is the proposed amendment about the politics of the powerloom lobby or are there other hidden agendas involved?

The overwhelming influence of the powerloom lobby, hell- bent on destroying the handloom sector, while simultaneously wanting a “hand” identity for itself reflects a prevailing attitude that gives this lobby its clout. This attitude regards modernity as a rejection of traditional knowledge and skill. That is the basic concern. We faced this attitude in the Crafts Council of India a few years ago, with planners at the top declaring that Indian craft was an irrelevant culture. Derogatory terms like “unorganized” and “drudgery” are applied to time-tested craft systems. They are highly skilled and scientific. Today’s crisis of neglect will return again unless we accept that the jobs India requires, at a rate of at least 10 million a year, can only come from transformations within traditional occupations and skills.


Recent reports suggest that the office of DCH (Development Commissioner for Handlooms) is not serious about the handloom industry and nor are state governments keen to keep it buoyant. How long has this state of affairs been dragging on?

This state of affairs has been a long time coming. The “sunset” syndrome was our wake-up call. The offices of the Development Commissioners for Handlooms and of Handicrafts together represent the second largest source of Indian livelihood after agriculture. Yet, when have these commissioners ever been called to the highest tables of decision-making? There is, or was, a guiding Handloom Board set up decades ago. Today no one knows whether it exists. It had no part in the recent 10 April fiasco. The ministry of textiles, of which these two commissioners are a part, is preoccupied with mechanized fabric production. What can “textiles” care about crafts that use wood, metal, bamboo, stone? Nor does this ministry control “khadi and village industries”. This absurd state of affairs demonstrates the low level of concern about India’s second largest industry.

How true are the allegations that data on the productivity of powerlooms is fudged and employment in the handloom sector deliberately under-reported?

Yes, claims of powerlooms providing employment to nearly six million have been disputed. A recent estimate was of 1.35 million, even on a three-shift basis! Little growth in production is reported over recent years, in stark contrast to handloom production. This requires proper investigation.

More important is the fact that there has been no reliable data for the entire handloom sector for decades—the most telling indicator of its neglect. Ignorance surrounds its importance and contribution to the economy, yet recent guesstimates reach 25 million directly employed. Add ancillary occupations, as well as crafts that authorities ignore: festival crafts, recycling, and even the ubiquitous jharoo, chik and patang. This is changing, thanks to the Economic Census 2012, which included artisans for the first time.