Fourth Handloom Census: Government's Claims Belie Ground Reality

Manas Ranjan Bhowmik ( teaches economics at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Educational and Research Institute, Howrah.
13 December 2019

The Fourth Handloom Census, released by the government in August this year, glosses over the sad state of affairs afflicting the handloom sector in the country while lauding the government’s “successful” welfare policies for lakhs of weavers.

 “Our problem being to form the future, we can only form it on the materials of the past; we must use our heredity, instead of denying it.”

 —T S Eliot 

The Fourth All India Handloom Census, 201920, released by the Ministry of Textiles in August 2019, begins with the above quote underlining the importance of historical knowledge for future generations. The role of heredity is crucial in transferring skills from one generation to another in the handloom sector. But, it would be naive to place the entire responsibility of the current state of affairs of a dynamic sector like handloom weaving on the deeds of the past. It is important for the government and weavers’ organisations to pitch in with timely interventions to act as a bulwark to offset the crises afflicting the handloom industry. The aim of this article is to shed light on the government’s dubious claims about its achievements in uplifting handloom weavers, and to provide a nuanced understanding of the sector.   

Before delving into the specific issues of the sector, the article presents some facts and figures from the 2019 handloom census. The majority of the weaver-households is located in the following four states: Assam (10.9 lakhs), West Bengal (3.4 lakhs), Manipur (2.1 lakhs), and Tamil Nadu (1.7 lakhs). Handloom weaving is still predominantly a rural activity, as 88.7% weaver-households are located in villages. Nearly 72% handloom weavers in the country are female. The average number of person days per year is 208. For the first time, the handloom census report has covered transgender workers as a separate category, and cooperatives and such organisations as non-household units.[1] 

Inherent Contradictions

The latest handloom census report has some inherent contradictions. It claims that the number of households engaged in handloom activities in the country has gone up to 31.5 lakhs from 27.83 lakhs, as per the third handloom census (2009–10) (National Council of Applied Economic Research 2009). The government attributes the rise in the number of households engaged in handloom weaving to the success of its numerous policies targeting handloom weavers. If one goes by the government's claim of effective welfare policies, handloom weaving should have been more lucrative than what it is today. But, the same report also points out that as many as 66% of handloom weavers in the country earn less than Rs 5,000 per month. Therefore, one has to take the claim of effective implementation of welfare policies with a pinch of salt.    

The sudden rise in the number of handloom weavers in the country should be investigated thoroughly because it belies the situation on the ground. One of the important findings of the Third All India Handloom Census, 200910 was that the number of handloom weavers had reduced drastically. In the period between 1995 and 2010, the number of households engaged in handloom weaving had decreased by three lakh. It was observed that the youth from the community were not willing to take up the occupation. What could have possibly happened after 2010 so as to overturn the trend so drastically? This question warrants attention from researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders in the sector.

On the other hand, the production of fabric in the handloom sector fell from 7,104 million square metres in 2013–14 to 5,134 million square metres in 2017–18, as per the Annual Report of the Textile Ministry, 2017–18. Even if we were to concede that the number of weavers is increasing, why do we witness a dip in the cloth production?   

For 2014–15 fiscal year, the budgetary allocation for handloom weaving sector was Rs 621.51 crore. However, it was slashed to Rs 386.09 crore for the 2018–19 fiscal year. It is puzzling to note that, on the one hand, the government is claiming an increase in the number of handloom weavers over the years and, on the other, meagre incomes, decreasing cloth production, and falling budgetary allocations mark the sector. This dichotomy raises serious questions regarding the government claims and the veracity of the data.

Even if we accept the claim of increasing number of handloom weavers, this does not mean everything is fine with the sector. In fact, it only points to the distress in the economy. First, it could be read as the migration of the rural population to alternative employment opportunities owing to the impact of the economic slowdown (Basole 2017); (Himanshu 2018). A portion of this population may be moving towards handloom weaving as employment opportunities in the villages are minimal. Second, the rising number of handloom weavers also bears testimony to the fact that decent job creation is not taking place, especially in rural India. Therefore, people are ready to join any profession even if generates meagre income. Various empirical studies have shown that weavers with lower skill levels, who weave coarser fabrics, are earning extremely meagre incomes.[2] So, the point here is that even if the unemployed flock to the handloom sector without having higher skill level one cannot generate a decent income. The latest findings and the government's claim should be understood keeping this in mind. 

Before moving onto the details of the government’s claims, it is also important to understand the institutional structures of the sector. Broadly, there are three different institutions: independent weavers, master weavers, and cooperatives. Independent weavers purchase, produce, and market the final product on their own. Master weavers supply raw material to other weavers, who, in turn, carry out the production and then deliver the final product to the former. On the other hand, in the case of weavers’ cooperative societies, they supply the input to the weaver-members to carry out production. Finally, cooperatives market the produce.

Claims Bereft of Nuance

In the latest handloom census report, the government makes contradictory claims. While asserting that various developmental schemes rolled out by the government have increased the income of handloom weavers, the report also points out that more than 65% of handloom weavers are unaware of welfare schemes.  

The report reads as follows,

“The survey reveals that majority of the weaver household members are not aware of various schemes available to enable them in the weaver activities of handlooms. Response on lack of awareness on the existing schemes, trainings and other enablers is more than 65% ... insurance penetration (life or health) is very low among weaver households (3.8%). Overall awareness of Weavers Health Insurance Scheme (WHIS) among weavers themselves is extremely low (only 2.6%) and of those who are aware, only 1 in 3 have been covered by the scheme.” (Ministry of Textiles 2019: 15)

Given this level of diametrically opposite claims in the report, it would be difficult to buy the government’s version that the number of handloom weaver-households is increasing due to the successful implementation of the welfare schemes.

Discontinuation of Welfare Schemes

In complete contrast to its claims, the government has either downgraded or done away with existing welfare schemes for handloom weavers. One of the flagship programmes of the Narendra Modi government has been to offer loans to small business enterprises at relatively low interest rates under the Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency (MUDRA).  Handloom weavers are also eligible for MUDRA loans. But, only 23.3% of the weavers across the country possess bank accounts, as per the latest census report. In effect, a large pool of weavers cannot avail MUDRA loans, because the scheme is envisaged as a direct cash transfer to the beneficiary bank accounts. Further, the report does not provide any year-on-year data of weavers who have benefitted from MUDRA loans.

In another significant blow to the handloom weavers’ community, the Modi government downgraded the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana (MGBBY) from 2017, making it redundant. The particular scheme was specifically targeted at handloom weavers by providing them with a dedicated life insurance cover.  Launched in 2005, the scheme originally aimed at providing insurance cover in the case of natural or accidental death and also in the case of partial disability. Since 2017, however, new enrolment under the scheme has been stopped and is only confined to renewals. This scheme has now been subsumed under the two newly launched schemes, Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY).

In effect, from 2017 there has been no dedicated life insurance scheme for handloom weavers. Besides, there is no information yet from the government on the functioning of PMJJBY and PMSBY. As the PMJJBY and PMSBY schemes are meant for the general public, they do not talk about the issue of occupational disability, which had been the case with the earlier version of MGBBY.  

Women Empowerment or Exploitation?

Like other claims, the government’s assertion regarding the empowerment of women engaged in handloom weaving is also dubious.  

On the question of women empowerment, the report says,

“It is a sector that directly addresses women’s empowerment. As per the present census, the sector engages over 23 lakhs female weavers and allied workers. The handloom sector is largely household-based, carried out with labor contributed by the entire family. Therefore, the engagement of a large number of women (over 70% of all weavers and allied workers are female) in any capacity in this sector has ensured direct remunerations for them, thus empowering them through financial independence and improved self-worth both within and outside of their homes.” (Ministry of Textiles, Government of India 2019: 21) 

Yet, as per the authors’ fieldwork[3] and the works of other scholars, the ground reality is very different. Although it is true that women participate in handloom weaving in large numbers, yet, they hardly make enough money, and mostly remain invisible ghost workers. Women mainly take part in the preparatory activities before weaving and rarely receive any monetary compensation. Even if they receive remuneration, the existing patriarchy within weavers’ families is not altered.

Flaws in Data Collection

According to the latest report, 82% of weavers in rural areas work independently, that is, they are self-employed. Here, it is important to note that as per the authors’ field visits in rural areas of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the findings are quite the opposite. Most weavers in these two states work under master weavers or intermediaries, where independence is a myth. Though weavers are working in their own houses, they are tied under putting out arrangements with master weavers. It is the master weavers who take the major share of the profits, and the weavers are paid meagre amounts. Besides, there are two other important issues. First, there is a problem with the categorisation of weavers for data collection, and this is why so many weavers are recorded as independent weavers. Second, the situation in the other states (such as Assam and other northeastern states, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, etc.) could be quite different from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal and very high numbers of independent weavers in those states may influence the aggregate figures. However, the report does not capture this nuance, and categorises the majority of the weavers as financially independent instead.

No concrete data and analyses are provided on the new schemes that were launched after the Modi government came to power in 2014. Instead, the report only confines itself to schemes on cluster development, health benefits, credit provisioning, which have been operational since the United Progressive Alliance government’s first term in office. The census report is conspicuously silent about schemes launched by the current government.

In the non-household category that has been introduced for the first in the latest census report, cooperative societies dominate (70.3%). The states where weavers are organised under a cooperative society or under other non-household units include Goa (95%), Kerala (71%), Puducherry (91%) and Tamil Nadu (56%). This issue is important because the state in which the maximum number of weavers earn more than Rs 5,000 per month is also Goa. Hence, there is a correlation between the number of organised weavers and their earnings. As a silver lining to an otherwise flagging sector, the handloom sector may appear to perform well if weavers come together and organise themselves as a society. The government should focus on connecting local weavers’ organisations in a better way under its cluster development initiatives. Only then, the dual objective of protecting weavers from exploitation by intermediaries and making handloom weaving a viable business model is possible.

Manas Ranjan Bhowmik ( teaches economics at Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda Educational and Research Institute, Howrah.
13 December 2019