Sunday, March 15, 2009

What is bigger tragedy: Clash or penury?

What is bigger tragedy: Clash or penury?
14 Mar 2009, 2142 hrs IST, TNN

VARANASI: What Bajardiha- one of the most densely populated areas in Varanasi- witnessed during Holi festival was really a tragic incident that claimed two lives and left many injured. The wound may heal with the passage of time, but what exactly would continue to prick the minds is the pathetic and deteriorating condition of the local natives- mostly weavers, who have been struggling for survival, particularly after the slump in the weaving industry.

The natives of the area with a population of about one lakh are bound to live in appalling condition and facing evils like malnutrition, hunger, poverty and unemployment. Though, government-sponsored programmes, like handloom weaver cluster programme, are there to improve their condition, they continue to live in penury.

"We have started mini cluster programme for the handloom weavers in Bajardiha area to improve their economic condition," said assistant director (handloom) KP Verma when contacted on Saturday. According to him, along with Bajardiha, the mini cluster programme is also going on in other areas like Saraiyya, Lallapura (in city) and Harsoh (in Araziline block), Sarai Mohana (in Chiraigaon block) and Dulhipur (Chandauli). The size of each cluster is 300-500 handlooms.

Besides, three other clusters are in operation under the Integrated Handloom Cluster Development (IHCD) programme sponsored by the office of development commissioner (handloom), Union ministry of textiles. An Ahmedabad-based entrepreneurship development institute of India- an autonomous body- is working for the cluster development of weavers. "We have targeted existing 5,000 looms in Ramnagar, Lohata and Kotwa areas of the district for their development," informed Pramod Srivastava, associate faculty of the institute and handloom cluster development.

Verma informed that the Central government had decided to begin a mega cluster programme for handloom weavers in Varanasi with an investment of Rs 70 crore. "This programme will be started at only two places in the country Varanasi in UP and Shivsagar in Orissa," Verma told TOI, adding that the baseline survey and diagnostic study of the project had been completed. The mega cluster programme, which would cover around 25,000 handloom weavers, would be run under public-private partnership, he informed.

Besides the development programme, the government also runs welfare programmes for weavers like health insurance scheme and Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana. "We have distributed health insurance cards to 85,000 weavers in the district, while 10,000 weavers have been covered under Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana," Verma informed.

With these development and welfare programmes, it seems that the problems of weavers are going to end. But, in reality, the condition of most of them is still pathetic.

According to a rough estimate, around 60 per cent weavers have abandoned their traditional occupation and either migrated to other cities in search of livelihood as unskilled labourers or became rickshaw-pullers or brick-kiln workers due to the prevailing slump in the industry. Even officials admit that thousands of handloom units in Varanasi have been closed. As per the weaver's census (conducted in 1995-96), there were 1.24 lakh weavers and 75,000 handlooms in the district. It has been estimated that about 60,000 handlooms are currently in operation.

According to Dr Rajnikant, president of Human Welfare Association, an NGO working for the weaver community, the handloom industry had been a source of livelihood for around 10 lakh people in the region. Another member of NGO- Peoples Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR)- Lenin Raghuvanshi held the policies of state and Central governments responsible for the weavers plight. The PVCHR has documented suicide cases within the weaver community and identified 47 suicide deaths that occurred between 2003 and 2007. About half of the suicide cases were related to hunger and malnutrition. Approximately another 30 per cent of the suicides were related to poverty and economic hardships. "All the suicides could be linked to the shame created by such poor conditions that leave weavers unable to care for their families and hence they opt to end their life instead," said Raghuvanshi.

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