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Over the last 15 years, weavers in Varanasi have suffered along with the general decline of the Varanasi weaving industry. The preeminence of the illustrious Banarasi sari has diminished with the increased popularity of synthetic and imported substitutes. Varanasi weavers, already operating in a feudal employment and product distribution system, have confronted significantly reduced opportunities in this market.
Under these conditions, health problems, malnutrition and poverty have spread throughout the weaver community. In response, many weavers became despondent. Depression has emerged as a frequent affliction as more weavers are unable to provide for their families, and has lead to an increase in weaver suicides.
The Varanasi-based People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) has begun documenting suicide deaths amongst weavers. Examining individual cases reveals that these deaths are usually a response of weavers to their disempowerment and inability to provide for their families.
PVCHR has also worked to combat the social issues that lead to weaver suicide by partnering with and helping to organize the weaver community.
This has helped some weavers empower themselves with a sense of community and increased access to health services, combating the growing threats of social hopelessness and suicide. Other Varanasi weavers have reluctantly accepted their decline, and many have shifted to non-skilled positions in other industries, such as driving cycle rickshaws.
In this report we examine some of the motivating factors behind the weavers' plight. We also consider individual case studies from PVCHR's field work, which offer an insight into the societal challenges weavers cope with on a daily basis.