Varanasi, previously known as Benaras has been a centre of production of handloom silk since centuries. The Varanasi silk fabrics have been eulogized in scriptures and ancient books both in the Hindu as well as in the Buddhist eras. In spite of the flourishing trade, the weaver of dream sarees was and is still working in pathetic conditions and living a life of abject poverty.
The production technology more or less, has also remained ancient-pit type handloom where the weaver sits with his legs in the pit. The textile industry here is synonymous with silk sari industry as more than ninety five percent of the products are silk saris. During the medieval period skilled Muslim weavers from the West Asian countries came to India along with Moguls. These weavers found Varanasi complementing to their art of intricate pattern of weaving and settled there under the patronage of the then Muslim rulers.
The fusion of Hindu design pattern with the Muslim ones aided by the local climate conducive to silk handloom weaving, put Varanasi at the helm of silk weaving activities. The artistic ingenuity of the artisans and the changing market trends has resulted in a great variety of the Banaras silk fabric. Generally the quality and type of silk fabric indicates the weavers' occupational status and artisanship. The better quality and high priced fabric requires greater artisanship, labour and financial investment. No two sarees are the similar in quality, colour combination, design or pattern. As a result, there can be no uniformity in rates, which has become a cause for rampant exploitation.
Being a pilgrimage city it attracted lots of tourists who provided market to the produce. The Varanasi silk saris are characterised by their intricate pattern of weaving and heavy zari art work.
No authoritative survey has been done so far to ascertain the number of looms and the weavers' thereof. According to a survey conducted by the U.P. Handloom Corporation in 1995-96, it reported 75,313 handlooms and 1758 power looms in the district with number of handloom weavers placed at 1,24,832 and 2645 power looms workers. However, as per industry sources, presently the number of looms and the weavers are many times more than the estimates of UP Handloom Corporation.
Impact of globalisation on the Banarasi Saree Sector and wages
The demand of finished sarees has gone down over the years. Since the 1990s’ the labour wages have declined to about half of what they were earlier. The saree quality has gone up, compared to what they were those days. Also, in earlier days, the sarees used to be of 5 metres, but now they are 6 metres, while wages have not shown any commensurate increase. Also, the power looms are snatching the work from the laps of the weavers. Middlemen and Gaddidars are living like parasites on their earnings.
Shopkeepers on the one hand give difficult designs to weavers and on the other claim that there are no buyers for the finished products. Such excuses using the vulnerability of weavers are often used to further tighten the noose on the necks of the weavers, as any cutbacks in number of orders has a crippling effect on their already precarious economic status. Thus weavers assume a greater onus of getting the work. Also they have additional tasks these days, such as cutting of jacard cardboard designs, which was earlier, not their responsibility.
A weaver sits from 8:00 AM till 6:00 PM for 10 to 12 days and earns approximately Rs. 350/- on one saree, which gets produced in this much time. During this period, he takes help for all the Nari, Dharki and Anta filling needed for the job, from his family – primarily the womenfolk in the household, thus reducing them to the status of unpaid workers. Though important, these tasks are not given the status and value that they deserve, and are usually not included when the pricing of the saree / labour wage fixing is done. According to activist and thinker Ms. Muniza Khan of the Gandhian Institute of Studies, Varanasi, “ The plight of women is such that even if they earn Rs.10/- they do not have the right to spend it. They work, trapped in dark hovels like chicken. Their contribution does not have the kind of recognition that it deserves. Their contribution is not accounted for while the product pricing is done. There has been no work done with women, and for any change to happen in the sector, their education, organisation and struggle for their rights will need utmost priority.”
The story of the raw material is no better. As regards the availability of raw silk, it appears that the industry is going through a phase of crisis. There is often an artificial scarcity of raw material created by traders. If a small weaver was to go to the market to buy silk, then it would be difficult for him/her to buy in larger quantities, by way of buying a gathia (bundle)- which normally has 5-6 kilograms of raw silk. The smaller weavers cannot buy in such huge quantities, because they do not have the purchasing power and because they do not have enough business in which the raw silk, if purchased could be used. This indicates that the interventions by the government co-operatives or community cooperatives in helping the weavers to gain easy access to the most important raw material i.e. silk, has been not of much positive consequence, as the small and marginal weavers are left out in the bargain. They also do not have enough money at their disposal to block it by way of purchase of raw silk at the so-called subsidised rates offered by the cooperative. It is apparent that, the whole structure of the co-operatives is to allow the bigger weavers to take the advantage of the subsidy offered.
Bangalore silk is good but expensive. Earlier it was an important raw material, as it used to be available in abundance, and that too at cheap prices. Prior to 1990, the cost of this silk used to be Rs. 100/- per kg. Now it is available at over Rs 1500/- per kg. The entry of the multinationals is doing harm to the sector. Imported Chinese silk is cheaper. Chinese silk, brought in from Nepal, is available at Rs. 1100/- per kg, and hence it has become the choice of most artisans. While multinational players are being given a free hand to operate, potentially weaver friendly institutions such as cooperatives are being allowed to decay, at the cost of the marginalised weaver.
Surat produces artificial silk thread, which is available at a much lower cost. Also, the Banarasi saree designs are being copied and duplicate Banarsi sarees are being produced, using artificial material. Entry of artificial silk has hurt the sector in terms of reduced business. This puts pressure to reduce the cost of the finished Banarasi saree in the market. As the middlemen and shopkeepers do not forsake their profits, the weakest link, i.e. the saree weaver has to bear the brunt, in terms of reduced wages.
The low economic status of the weavers is due to a number of factors. When the product is substandard or the product loses its demand in the market, the weaver has to sell it at a price that may not even cover his labour cost. In the weaving industry, imitation is not valued. The product with a unique design, pattern and texture commands a high price. As soon as the design is copied, the product gets devalued. The weaver has to bear this loss. Change of product invariably involves substantial investment that affects the weavers adversely. Power operated looms also compound the problem, as an electricity connection is not easy to come by. Moreover, continued declared and undeclared power cuts add to the agony.
Migration to other cities / trades
The exploitation in the sector has reached such serious proportions, the many skilled artisans have left weaving and begun to do other work, such as pulling rickshaws, making incense sticks, peeling and selling green chanas (seasonal work), and the women have begun to do domestic labour in the homes of middle class families in their neighbourhood. In addition, weavers are leaving Varanasi and migrating to Surat. This is due to the better status of weavers in that city, which has a better demand for their products and provides better wages for their work. In fact in Surat, many weavers are ironically joining the ‘duplicate’ Banarasi saree manufacturing process, as it is becoming increasingly economically viable to do that. Influx of thousands of ‘unskilled’ workers into weaving from the rural hinterland due to exigencies in their areas coupled with the abandoning of the sector by rare skilled crafts persons, if left unchecked can sound the death knell of the sector itself, thus depriving humankind of one of its finest traditions.
To strengthen the workers groups and improve the lot of unorganised sector workers, especially women, concentrated efforts are needed from multi-stakeholders, including civil society organisations, govt., workers’ unions, media, corporate sector and others.
Given in Table – 1, is the summary of the main problems affecting the Banarasi Saree Weaving Sector. At a glance, we can also understand the problems, the larger issue involved, the affected sections, the perpetrators and some recommendations to deal with the problems. Detailed recommendations follow the table.
Table – 1 Recommendations to deal with main Problems of the Banarasi Saree Sector.
Problem Issue Affected Perpetrator Recommendations
Poor Wages for weavers, No wages to women for tasks appearing ‘menial’ Fair Trade Weavers and their families. • Gaddidars / Master Weaver.
• society at large.
• other traders. • Establishment / revival of trade unions, cooperatives and other workers organisations.
• Campaign on fair trade amongst patrons.
• Portal of weavers for direct access.
• Direct market access mechanisms, such as ‘artisan haats’ at local and National level
Poor Health of weavers and their families • Health and welfare
• Govern-ance. Weavers/ families. Severity of Impact varies across gender / age / occupation • Employers
• Govt. • Establishment of specialised health care mechanisms.
• Crèches and day care centres.
• Preventive and promotive health programmes / awareness generation.
• Framework to study and deal with occupational health issues.
Poor working conditions • Welfare.
• Enforce-ment of labour laws. Weavers – impact varies across gender. • Gaddidar
• Traders. • Establishment / revival of trade unions, cooperatives and other workers organisations.
• Sensitisation of Govt. office(s) especially enforcement wings of labour commissioners office(s).
Inadequate / costly raw material Fair Trade Weavers • International Trade .
• Local Traders.
• Govt. • Establishment of silk depots for weavers.
• Reforms and transparency in licensing mechanisms.
Low dignity of work, non-recognition of contribution of weavers as ‘artisans’ Dignity Weavers and their families. • Society at large.
• Gaddidars and traders.
• Museum at local and National levels, giving history of Banarasi Saree weaving.
• Educational programmes on mass media.
Poor electric supply Governance Weavers and their families. Government. • Establishment / revival of trade unions, cooperatives and other workers organisations and then-
• Sustained petitioning with the concerned dept. – UPSEB.
Looms Of Doom
A foreign fabric has silenced the looms of the local weavers, reduced them to poverty and killed an art
Raziya Biwi is angry. "My three-year-old son is dying of starvation. My husband lies unconscious beside him. My remaining six children are now beggars. The youngest feeds only on sugar and water as I'm incapable of feeding him." Over the past two years, she and her husband Nurool Haq have done everything from selling her jewellery and a small plot that they owned; the money is gone now and they are starving. "Who knows who will die and who will live?" she ponders miserably.
Raziya and her husband were once the pride of their village. The owner of five looms, he made enough to keep all nine members of his family content. Neighbours recollect how pretty she looked every Id in her best clothes and jewellery. Now she stands in shreds. Nurool is suffering from acute anaemia according to doctors. "But we have no money for the treatment," sighs Raziya. They have been out of business for the last 27 months as there are very few takers for the Varanasi silks they wove for a living.
Three doors away, Mohammed Umair, another weaver, tried being a little more enterprising but to little avail. With no work after his loom owner shut shop and migrated, he began selling his blood. In less than six months, he had sold his blood 13 times. Now suffering from tuberculosis he says, "Sarkar ne to mera khoon bhi kharab kar diya (The government has even contaminated my blood)." Several of Umair's friends from Bajedian village also began selling their blood for cash only to fall afoul of the authorities. "Some doctor leaked the news, we were penalised and the police warned us stating it was illegal," says Rafique, another accomplice.
Others have become even more desperate. In Kotwan village, Ghulam Rasool and Raziya Biwi sold Subhan Ali, their two-month-old son, for Rs 2,000. "At least I knew the buyer—a distant relative who has the means to look after Subhan. The thought that he could feed him was of some consolation," she admits.
Today with their son back at home, the couple earns from a vegetable shop in the village. "No matter what happens, I'm not going back to becoming a weaver," says Ghulam who feels obliged to the government for getting his son back and paying him a grant of Rs 10,000. "This is a stray case where political leaders intervened as the villagers had created a ruckus about the family's dire straits. But no leader looked into the real problem because of which people are now starving to death in almost all villages," says Atique Ansari, general secretary, Weaver's Association, Varanasi.
The weavers' troubles began way back in 1995-1998 when the Deve Gowda government imposed a ban on Chinese silk yarns. The idea was that Varanasi saris would only be woven from silk yarns from Bangalore. Out of habit or because of its superior quality, some weavers started smuggling Chinese yarn into the holy town. Realising that their need for Chinese yarn would only grow, the weavers demanded an ogl (open general license).
A chronic power shortage was also crippling their activity but one of the most telling blows was delivered five years ago when the government allowed the free import of Chinese plain crepe fabrics. "This decision brought the entire business to a standstill. Now most customers prefer crepe silk to the traditional Varanasi silk because of its smooth appearance and cheaper price," explains Rajan Bahal, general secretary of Varanasi Vastra Udyog.
The flaws of Varanasi silk—relating to colour, texture and durability—are not found in Chinese crepe since they are woven in automated looms. "With power availability and government subsidies, the Chinese can afford to sell the finished product at a lower price, giving the traditional Varanasi silk sari tough competition.Chinese silk traders brought cheap yarn to the local market and decided to replicate Varanasi silk by hiring some weavers from Varanasi," explains Atique AnsariHe adds that the middle and lower middle class prefers synthetic saris from Surat at one-tenth the price of a Varanasi silk sari. The continuous tussle between the Bangalore and Karnataka silk lobby as well as government indifference towards import policy has led to this plight.
In fact, the art of weaving these saris now faces extinction. In Mughal times both Hindu concepts and Muslim ideas were fused to create unique aesthetic designs. The weavers weave the basic texture of the sari on handlooms and powerlooms—both cottage industries where the entire family is usually involved. Normally one person weaves while two others work at revolving rings to roll bundles of the yarn. They create a Varanasi speciality yarn motifs.
To create these designs, the artist first draws out the entire concept on a graph paper. He then creates small punch cards through which colour threads are passed at different stage as the cards hang on the sides of the loom. Depending on the design, these cards are paddled in a systematic way so that the right pattern and colours are picked up during the main weaving. For a single design, hundreds of such perforated cards are required. A normal sari takes anywhere from 15 days to six months depending on the complexity of the design.
But today an estimated five lakh weavers and their families in Varanasi district are looking for an alternative. Over half have been forced to take up menial jobs like pulling rickshaws. Several have opened tea stalls and paan shops. Others like Abdul Wahi of Rewri Talab and Abdul Ghani of Maltibagh have closed their flourishing businesses and migrated to Bangalore and Hyderabad where they work in looms and help in dyeing and embroidery work. "At least they are better off, but you need money to migrate and contacts too. Here we are all left to starve and die," says Uma Shankar of Madhiapur village whose two children, nine-year-old Chandan and seven-year-old Malka, are undergoing treatment for malnourishment.
An NGO led by Lenin Raghuvanshi is helping the children. "But how many such cases can we attend to?" asks Lenin. According to his conservative estimates, 19 weavers have died from starvation in the past 24 months.
"When reports of farmers' deaths reach Parliament, immediate action is taken. But when weavers are dying in Varanasi, no voice is heard in Parliament," says Raghuvanshi. The plight of silk sari weavers in Varanasi unfortunately seems to come to the fore only before elections. Once electioneering ends, the promises too fade and the poor weavers are left to fend for themselves. And the cityfolk are left wondering why leaders are so insensitive to one of the oldest arts of the country.
Weavers in UP:
5lacs in Varanasi, 2lacs in Mubarakpur(Azamgarh) in majority.
Other areas:Meerut,Tanda(Ambedkar Nagar),Mau.