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Urmul: Weaving Self-Reliance

Urmul Trust is an example of how an agency that concentrates on developmental issues can take up handloom weaving as a major income generation activity.


Weaving Self-Reliance

Urmul Trust is an example of how an agency that concentrates on developmental issues can take up handloom weaving as a

major income generation activity.


rmul Trust was started by Bikanerbased Urmul Dairy (Uttari Rajasthan Milk Union) in 1984 under the leadership of Sanjoy Ghose. The prime objective of the trust was to offer good healthcare services to underprivileged women and children in rural areas. Now the Trust is spread across 561 villages in western Rajasthan region working mainly on development issues such as education, health, microfinance, communication, water, environment and also an income generation programme where the Trust works on handloom embroidery and leatherware production and marketing.

The basic theme of this case study is to illustrate how an agency concentrated on developmental issues has taken up handloom weaving as a major income generation activity and now offers sustainable livelihood to 228 weavers in Bikaner and Jaisalmer districts through

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

two organisations, namely, Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (UMBVS) and Vasundhara Gramothan Samiti (VGS). The case identifies the problems encountered in this journey and the process of involving professionals in overcoming them and creation of market linkages, which had helped to create demand for other products such as leather and embroidery.


In 1987, western Rajasthan region witnessed the worst drought of the century and Bikaner was badly affected by it. This caused migration of men to Gujarat and Delhi in search of employment and women were left with no means of generating livelihood. So, Urmul Trust encouraged 500 women to spin wool into yarn as a drought relief measure. This spinning programme was supported by Save the Children Trust. Walking into the big question: In the local market spun wool was used as raw material for weaving pattus (a narrow strip of cloth woven into two pieces and stitched together) which are worn as shawls. Drought had decreased demand for pattus in the local market and there were no buyers for spun wool. Being new to income generation activity, there was neither longterm vision nor plan with the Trust. When 20 quintals of the spun wool accumulated in two rooms then Sanjoy Ghose, Tarun Tehliwal and Gopi Krishna Joshi, all Urmul Trust associates, searched for means for disposal of the spun wool. Finding the answer: While exploring the possibility of using spun wool in a productive manner Tarun and Gopi Krishna met a few master weavers in a local mela. Although all these master weavers employed 10-15 weavers each and had a prior experience of 10-12 years in this trade, they were still dependent on middle men. During those days master weavers used to supply yarn to employed weavers and then paid wages on a piece rate system of Rs 200 per pattu and sold the finished product in local melas and to some middle men in Jodhpur. These middle men had complete control over the trade and during the offseason used to block the payments by one to two months which used to affect the master weaver’s production cycle. When Urmul Trust asked them to assist in the income generation project, five master weavers based at Phalodi block agreed as the Trust offered them regular salary and employment to their weavers.

A dyeing unit was built at Lunkaransar campus, and dyed wool was supplied to weavers through the master weavers. Using spun wool as raw material, woolen pattus were produced in traditional designs. Meanwhile Urmul Trust approached Dastkar, Delhi for marketing assistance to explore outer markets and received invitation for nature bazar exhibition in 1988. In the first exhibition, the group sold Rs 85,000 to Rs 1,00,000 worth of stock and this boosted everyone’s confidence. In 1989, Urmul Trust did a business analysis and found that: (a) Wool, being high priced material, needed more working capital;

(b) Demand for woollen pattus is seasonal and could not offer year-round employment and the market for them is limited.

Then it was decided to shift from wool to cotton weaving.

II Establishment of StrategicBusiness Units

In the same year Urmul Trust decided to separate income generation programme from other development activities. Master weavers were trained in different managerial functions and asked to work in a target-oriented manner. Five master weavers worked for three years at Trust campus learning the ropes of the trade in marketing, accounting, stock-keeping, production and dyeing.

Since majority of the weavers working in the Trust’s income generation activity are based at Phalodi and Pokhran areas, it was decided to shift the base to Phalodi. In 1991, the unit was registered as “Urmul Marustahli Bunkar Vikas UMBVS” with headquarters at Phalodi. Urmul Trust agreed on the condition that the income generation activity should run with an objective of self-sustainability and no funding support is taken for this activity.

Once the traditional weavers moved to UMBVS, the Trust turned its attention to the non-traditional weavers who had been trained under drought-relief programmes, and were in need of employment. Also, Urmul’s fully equipped dyeing unit was now unused. Urmul Trust decided to take up work with the trained weavers of Surana and Bakhusar villages in Lunkaransar block, for which a separate Trust was registered as VGS Gramothan UMBVS in 1991 with headquarters at Lunkaransar. Differentiating: From the beginning, Urmul Trust made it clear that there should not be any competition among the different units working on income generation activities. Most of the traditional weavers working with UMBVS are highlyskilled and specialised in “kashida” or the ornamentation on the surface of the fabric (the traditional technique famous in Rajasthan). Hence it was decided that UMBVS would produce fabric using kahida technique. VGS’s weavers were non-traditional and trained by Urmul Trust

Figure 1 Urmul Trust (561)

Income Generation Programme Development Documentation
Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (10) Urmul Setu (120) Arid Zone Environment Research and Resource Centre
Vasundhara Gramothan Samiti (7) Urmul Jyothi (43)
Urmul Seemant Urmul Khejadi (8)
Srajamyaham (4) Shanti Maitri Mission (16)
Gramin Vikas Sodh Evam Takniki Kendra (5)
Marushakti (8)
Urmul Seemant (260)
Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (90)
( ) – Number of villages covered.

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006 when there was demand for weavers. These weavers perceived this occupation as a livelihood activity and could weave fabric in plains, stripes and checks. Therefore, both the organisations maintained distinct product portfolios.

The Journey

The hard work of the entire group, the influence of Urmul Trust and induction of professionals in needy times helped UMBVS to grow in the initial years. Even though both the organisations received similar help from parent organisation a few factors such as marketing links of the master weavers and training played a key role in UMBVS’ fast growth.

In the beginning, the only available marketing channel was exhibitions, through which it was difficult to offer regular employment to the weavers as demand was unpredictable. While searching for other avenues, UMBVS’ authorities received production order in a Chennai exhibition for pattus in 1991. Prior work experience of the master weavers helped in executing this order successfully. At the Samiti, management team consisting of master weavers, had a fairly good understanding of the market, which facilitated a quick fine-tuning of the systems.

Rough and Smooth

The journey was not smooth for both organisations but in comparison with VGS, UMBVS faced less hurdles.

The problem at UMBVS began when the organisation took up development activity as the core programme and expanded into 90 villages. The chief executive of the firm prioritised development over the income generation activity and shifted profits earned in income generation activity to development. This had a negative effect on growth from 2000-02 sales and on profits in the year 2001-02. Then Urmul Trust shifted him to Pokhran to work only on developmental issues and appointed Revatha Ram as chief executive.

At VGS, in the initial years, Urmul Sethu provided management support and Urmul Trust pumped in funds towards financial support. In 1993, Urmul received “peethas” export order from UK-based Oxfam fair trade shops. The Trust handed over this project to VGS and the focus was shifted from weaving to peethas production which were major revenue contributors for the next five years. Slowly weavers started withdrawing as there was no regular work.

Figure 2

Design Invention Product designing

Training the

weavers and Production of tailors in new samples in

designs and different sizes

patterns and patterns

Market Testing Sending Introduction samples to of new retail designs and customers products at Urmul mela

Receives bulk In case of low order in case of response withdraws

good response production process

In 1997, Oxfam closed fair trade shops and this project came to a halt. All these years VGS incurred losses. During that time, weavers working for VGS were non-traditional weavers and looked at themselves as beneficiaries and not as partners. Then Urmul Trust inducted Tulasi Ram who had prior experience in turning around Ghosala. And Ashish Kumar Sahu, an IRMA graduate also joined as VGS’ secretary. It was decided not to support VGS through funding money and to work towards selfsustainability. VGS decided to concentrate only on handlooms marketing and employed some traditional weavers from the local villages. Currently, VGS employs 50 weavers and last year sold stock worth Rs 32,60,000. Credit flow: While registering UMBVS, Urmul has given Rs 8,00,000 worth of stock and another Rs 5,00,000 for operating expenses and this acted as seed capital. VGS, during the restructuring in 1998, had Rs 5,00,000 fixed capital on which Rs1,50,000 loan was taken and Urmul Trust gave Rs1,50,000 as repayable loan and this Rs 3,00,000 was used as seed capital. Design and product development: One of the prominent factors that influenced the growth of UMBVS and VGS is introduction of innovative designs in a regular manner. Urmul always roped in National Institute of Design (NID) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) designers who periodically brought a fresh look to product portfolio. This helped Urmul in building a loyal customer base. In the early 1990s, a three-member NID team of P T Girish, Anu and Sunil joined Urmul and laid a strong foundation in design aspect. The unique feature that distinguishes Urmul’s products from those of the competitors is the bright colour palette introduced by Girish. According to Latha Tumuru, an NID alumni who worked with Urmul, “there is a perfect blend between the dyes and local water which no one can produce”.

From 1991 onwards, new designs were introduced once in three years followed by weavers training and market testing. New designs are usually introduced in a big way for the Urmul mela (a big annual exhibition conducted by Urmul Trust to showcase its products).

Production and Logistics

In the western Rajasthan region, majority of weavers own land and alternate between weaving and farming, so both organisations maintain some buffer period. UMBVS currently works with 178 weavers and production orders are taken for 100 weavers’ capacity. Marketing executive Revatha Ram visits the market

Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

once in every six months and takes orders from retail customers. ‘Vyavasthapak’ system: In 1989, Urmul Trust introduced vyavasthapak system where a weaver acts as a supervisor, coordinating the activities of a group consisting 10-15 weavers. In the first week of every month they take dyed yarn, production order and design input and supply them to weavers and act as quality controllers at production stage. Communication regarding the production cycle is regularly conveyed to production incharges. UMBVS pays 7 per cent of the wages as commission and weavers also pay 7 per cent as their earnings to vyavastapaks as commission. Whereas VGS faced a difficulty when vyavastapaks could not control the weavers, by paying commission they started acting as masters. Immediately, VGS revised the system by eliminating weavers’ contribution and now paid 10 per cent of the wages as commission. Quality control: In1991, while shifting from wool to cotton, dyeing was a major problem and UMBVS received Rs 5,00,000 worth of stock back from the retail customers due to colour fastness. Therefore, Girish went back to NID to learn dyeing and after returning, trained a few dyers at UMBVS and VGS. After streamlining the dyeing activities, the biggest problem was to convince the customers about colour fastness. Behra Ram says “we had to wash the samples in front of the retail customers to make them believe in our product”.

The tradition of implementing strict quality control is one of the factors responsible for the success of UMBVS and VGS. In case of weaving defects 50 per cent wages are deducted and for not meeting the delivery schedule 10 per cent of the wages are deducted. This way, the weaver is held responsible for any quality problems. Marketing: The marketing activity of UMBVS and VGS is confined to metros and semi-metros and a major reason for this is the price factor. Urmul products are branded as high-priced and offering good quality. Exhibitions were the only marketing channel available in the beginning but now nearly 70 per cent of the sales is through orders from retail customers.

Because of strict quality measures, product innovation and timely delivery, most of the retail customers place orders regularly. In 2002-03, UMBVS sold Rs 32,41,120 worth of stock to retail customers and participated in 13 exhibitions selling Rs 12,96,912 worth of stock through this channel. As marketing cost is high while selling through exhibitions, UMBVS did not participate in 1997 and 1998. When stock accumulated at the stock-room as production was more than orders, it was decided to use this channel for quick stock disposal. Desert craft: All Urmul’s products are sold under the umbrella of “desert craft”. The Trust runs a retail outlet under this name at Pokhran. Majority of the customers for this shop are from the armed forces. Urmul Trust runs a retail showroom under the name “Abhivyakthi” at its Bikaner campus. It was started in 1991 at Junagarh Fort to serve as the window of desert crafts produced by artisan communities of Urmul. UMBVS and VGS send their stock on consignment to this shop.

IV Future Outlook

Since the domestic market is sluggish, UMBVS is putting a lot of effort into export markets. Here UMBVS is not looking for scale but for organic growth. According to Revatha Ram, “Export markets are always lucrative as they offer volume sales but one has to keep an eye on exchange risk and should build an understanding about the markets”. By next year, UMBVS plans to expand the weavers base from 178 to 200 and thereby reach its sales target.

For VGS, as of now there are no plans to get into exports and it is felt that there is still some space available in the domestic market, which can be filled in. Now, at VGS, Tulasi Ram’s focus is on using e-commerce technologies for expansion into the market.

V Conclusion

In this case a completely new product was created for the outside markets and now, with the focus on exports, the product is moving out of local market. Taking a product out of the local market not only increases the price but also faces the risk of over dependence on unknown markets. Yet, constant innovation not only in design and product but also in organisation of production systems helped both the organisations to build the Urmul brand name in the Indian handlooms market.



Economic and Political Weekly August 5, 2006

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