As oblivion looms over weavers, a group is speaking for their survival

Topics Weavers | Weekend Reads | Handloom

National Federation of Handlooms and Handicrafts
The silken sheen of a Banarasi sari, the gossamer lightness of Chanderi, the robust weaves of Nagaland and the stunning double ikats of Gujarat — these are just a few among India’s impressive repertoire of handwoven textiles that face an uncertain future. On the one hand, they bear the brunt of steadily decreasing government support — as per statistics from the Ministry of Textiles, the funds set aside for the Handloom Weavers Comprehensive Welfare Scheme have halved from Rs 20 crore in 2019-20 to Rs 10 crore in 2020-21. On the other hand, craftspeople find themselves unable to compete with the cheaper and faster machine and powerloom alternatives in a price-sensitive market. “Because of these factors, the livelihood of over a crore Indian weavers and artisans is in danger,” says Macherla Mohan Rao, who spearheads the National Federation of Handlooms and Handicrafts (NFHH). 

This collective of NGOs and craftspeople from across India is creating interfaces where they can explain their concerns to legislators and policymakers. Their advocacy seems to have worked: in the last parliamentary session, Rao estimates that over 130 MPs raised questions pertaining to the handloom and handicraft sectors in both houses. The issues raised ranged from whether the government had devised policies to extend housing schemes to weavers and craftspeople and if it had increased the number of beneficiaries of the health insurance scheme (the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana) to broader questions about GST revenues from the crafts and handloom sectors. “This is a way of getting our voice across to people who can actually make a difference,” says Rao.

NFHH grew out of Rao’s own experiences in 2016. “My family members are all weavers in Chirala, Andhra Pradesh,” he says. “Over the years, I have seen the younger generation’s disillusionment with the sector, and today, with the unemployment crisis, many of them want to return home to work for the want of other, better jobs.” NFHH advocates for more policies and schemes to benefit craftspeople. “Many weavers are uneducated and rely solely on their skills that have been passed on to them by their previous generations,” he says. “It is our and the government’s responsibility to preserve this traditional knowledge.”

NFHH is also advocating for legislative amendments to strengthen the position of handloom weavers. The Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985 states that 11 types of traditional textiles must be exclusively produced by handloom alone. “However, the powerloom lobby violates this law with impunity,” says Rao. Powerloom textiles are much cheaper and faster to produce. “They have severely affected the livelihoods of handloom weavers, many of whom are being forced out of business in different pockets of the country,” he says. “This is bad for consumers too, who are often misled into buying powerloom fabric being sold under the guise of handloom!” The Federation has also drawn attention to intellectual property rights violations of handloom and handicraft producers through the large-scale duplication of their products by powerlooms and mechanisation.

Rao believes that at this juncture, reviving the once-vibrant Indian handicraft and handloom sector (the second largest employer in India after agriculture) could be a critical step in developing a more robust economy. Handicraft exports increased by 80 per cent from Rs 19,190.17 crore in 2012-13 to Rs 34,394.30 crore in 2016-17. “It is time that the government recognised our contributions and supported us,” he says. “It will be good for everyone.”

Meanwhile, NFHH, which runs on a skeleton staff of three full-time employees and an annual budget of Rs 70 lakh, is gearing up for its seventh round table conference in Delhi’s Constitution Club on March 17, 2020. “This is all we can do,” says Rao, who depends on individual donations to cover NFHH’s office expenses. “It’s time the unheard, urgent voices of India’s creative sector are heard.”

To follow or contribute to NFHH’s work, find them on Facebook or contribute to their crowdfunding page

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