Kanchipuram District, Tamil Nadu, March 01, 2006

Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), the project partner in Tamil Nadu conducted the Third Outreach Meeting under the GRANITE project at Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu on March 01, 2006. The meeting was organised with the co-operation of Hand-in-Hand, an NGO working on issues of rural development and livelihood promotion in five districts of Tamil Nadu, including Kanchipuram. A total of 55 weavers, of which 90 percent were women, participated in this meeting. These weavers belong to the traditional weaving communities of Kanchipuram.


The objective of the meeting was to bring stakeholders relevant to the handloom industry of the district on a common platform, to discuss the opportunities and challenges in the era of globalisation and World Trade Organisation (WTO) and to share and learn information and opinions with reference to their livelihood. It also intended to study the recent trends and changes in this specific segment by gathering perceptions from the weavers, wholesalers and government officials.

A Brief Profile of the District

Kanchipuram district, situated on the northern East Coast of Tamil Nadu, has a total geographical area of 4,432 square Kilometers and coastline of 57 Km. For administrative reasons, the district has been divided into three revenue divisions comprising of eight talukas with 1214 villages. For development reasons, it is divided into 13 development blocks with 648 village panchayats.

According to 2001 census, the district had a population of 30.38 lakh, which is about 6.76 percent of the total State population. The total workers of the District was 8,92,700 persons forming 38.06 percent of total population. Literacy rate was 66.38 percent of which literacy ratio stood at 77.07 and 55.22 percent for male and female respectively.

About 47 percent population is engaged in agriculture with paddy, sugarcane, groundnut, cereals and pulses) etc., are the main agricultural products. Handloom weaving is one of main occupations and Kanchipuram Silk Sari is what the district is famous for.

Kanchipuram Silk Industry
The Kanchipuram Silk Sari is world famous for its design and workmanship. Along with silk saris, Kanchipuram also specialises in cotton and silk-polyester blended saris. Silk and cotton is sourced from Bangalore and while zari is brought from Surat. The recent development in the designing field shows the introduction of computerised jacquard borders in Kanchipuram Silk Saris. There are 87 Silk and Cotton Societies functioning in Kanchipuram. More than 32000 looms are engaged in this industry, providing livelihood to nearly 50,000 weavers in Kanchipuram. These societies have been producing goods worth over Rs 100 crore every year. Most of the weavers live in very close quarters to each other. Some of the society members live in houses cum workshop built for them by Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO) while non-members live in rented/own houses. In all there were only around 10 participants who were members of the cooperative society and the rest were tied to private silk manufacturers.

Proceedings of the Outreach Meeting
The Outreach Meeting focused on the handloom silk industry of Kanchipuram, as this specific handloom segment is one of India’s traditional home-based industries.

The Outreach Meeting started with brief introduction about the GRANITE Project followed by a general introductions of the attendees. Almost all the participants belonged to self-help groups (SHGs) formed by Hand-in Hand.

Highlight of the Discussion

  • On an average, a weaver’s household contains a minimum of one loom to a maximum of four looms. The membership to the Society now has been closed due to increase in the number of idle looms. A weaver requires an average of 15-20 days to weave a six-yard (5.48 metre) silk sari. In a cooperative society, weavers get productive employment only for 15-20 days a month. Upon completion of one piece, a weaver is very seldom given the material required for the next sari because of excess stock that is piled up in the co-operative societies. Due to poor marketing form co-operative societies, products are sold at a discount or production is stopped. Hence, the weavers are forced into idleness for a good half month and the pay of Rs.100 a day is all the income they get for the entire month. On the contrary, the privately run silk houses pay much lesser but give regular work, which brings them income throughout the month. However, the society pays the weavers on time whereas the private silk houses delay payment.
  • The volume of work has also decreased recently as the prices for silk yarn and zari have shot up. This year’s Monsoon affected the sourcing of silk yarn, which led to low production. The Zari prices have also been steadily on the rise due to gold prices. This has affected the designs and the prices of the final products. Many weavers are weaving small border saris using single ply zari instead of the traditional 3-ply zari. Kanchipuram Silk Sari is facing stiff competition from the new breed of polyester blended power loom saris called ‘Apoorva’ saris manufactured in Karnataka. as they are lightweight and very inexpensive. To counter the competition, the weavers and producers have to be innovative and diversify their product range. However, some patrons of pure Kanchipuram Silk Sari have been keeping the business going. In the changing scenario, the weavers need to learn new designs and methods. Yet, some weavers are not able to adapt to this change as there has been no training given to them, and learning new designs means preparing new design sheets, which is an expensive undertaking.
  • An important reason for weavers to move away from complex traditional designs is the abolition of child labour. Children were an integral part of the weaving process, as they could untangle and separate the yarn with their nimble fingers against a very low wages. Now weavers are forced to hire adults for simple low skill jobs and there are no takers for this job resulting in a decline of ‘Pitni Joints’ or traditional contrast border saris.
  • At the mention of globalisation, international trade and exports etc, most weavers drew a blank. While some of them knew that due to low production of silk, India was importing silk from China but they were neither able to explain the pros and cons of such imports nor they were able to articulate the effects of such imports on their livelihoods. They said that the Chinese silk was too soft to be used in weaving Kanchipuram Silk Saris. However, they were very confident that nothing could affect their market niche, as they could not extend the Apoorva silk competition episode to Chinese imports. Some of the more immediate concerns for the non-member weavers were higher wages, insurance, short term loans and savings scheme etc.
  • Due to hard labour and poor income, almost all the weavers were of the opnion that they would never allow their children to enter into this profession.

Interviews and Interactions

Velan, Managing Partner Nachiammaiachi Silk Centre, Kanchipuram

  • Velan observed that though Tamil Nadu has silk centres in other parts of the state Kanchipuram has always been the leader due to its design, colours, weaving techniques, and most importantly quality which is determined by the durability of the saris. He informed that consumers’ preferences have also contributed to the fall in sale of silk saris as many of them like the Apoorva silks variety. Velan also mentioned the competition factor from Bangalore-based power loom silk industries that produce low cost products. In spite of changing consumer preference, there still exists a demand for traditional silk saris, he added.
  • In the changing scenario, the government orders to increase wages by 30 percent have also contributed to the existing problems. He informed that private silk manufactures feel that wages have been on the rise whereas productivity has been very slow. Many weavers are not ready to weave designs according the demands of the market and they do not realise the competitive needs. Hence, they do not co-operate with the wholesale silk houses and there is a huge gap between consumer preferences and weavers co-operation
  • He observed that rise in the prices of raw silk, which have gone from Rs 1,200 per kg to Rs 1,800 per kg, have hit the production process. Rise in the prices of zari also have affected badly. According to Velan, wholesale producers opined that an increase in wages can be handled by shifting the cost difference to the consumer but an increase in the raw material cost has to be borne by them.
    Dipak Rao proprietor Achutarao Silks, Kanchipuram

Dipak Rao proprietor Achutarao Silks, Kanchipuram

  • Dipak observed that one major area of concern is the change in designs. The traditional ‘Korvai’ designs are no longer easily available as this is extremely labour intensive in which children are most often used for this design. The abolition of child labour has been like a whiplash on the silk industry. Many weavers are not ready to weave complicated designs due to this labour shortage. He fears that Kanchipuram weavers will not be able to meet the growing demand for silk saris as they are reluctant to continue with traditional design and demand more wages. For Dipak, computerisation of designs has also contributed to the slow decline of traditional designs even though weaving of new designs are more complicated as the weavers have to first learn the techniques and then make new jacquard boards at their own cost, which are quite expensive.
  • He informed that the co-operative societies have failed in promoting handloom silk products because they are mired in corruption and swindling. In fact, the societies and government policies are responsible for spoiling the weavers by creating an environment that breeds laziness, reluctance and greed. Dipak quoted the example of weavers from Dharmavaram, Andhra Pradesh who are not traditional weavers but have learnt weaving in a short span of time, and hence able to produce exact replica of Kanchipuram Silk Sari in a shorter duration, better technology and lower wages. He explained that unless the weavers of Kanchipuram change their work culture and wake up to competition, they would loose out to small yet upcoming enterprises.
  • He asked the government to encourage export of silk products. At present, only silk houses such as Nalli and Kumaran who have set up their own stores overseas have been able to export. The Handloom Export Promotion Council (HEPC) is not very active and its officials attend exhibitions all over the world but never transfer the knowledge to intermediaries. New trends and designs are seldom shared with producers and weavers. Silk home furnishings are in demand, however, neither the weavers are ready to diversify nor the intermediaries like the wholesalers posses the know-how to market the products. This diversification has met with a fair amount of success in small pockets where the weavers are supported financially and technologically by the organisation/company. This change has to be mass-based, and not limited to small pockets.
  • He opined that government has to support the modernisation of the handloom segment, including technology upgradation. The government schemes are being implemented, but not followed up consistently. The Central Silk Board (CSB) must play an active role in regulating the price of raw silk, especially in times of crisis.
  • The Handloom Protection Act has to be implemented with far greater determination and with a view to uplift the handloom industry from its present state.
  • Import of silk from China must be regulated and traditional varieties of silk must be used and thus protected. Only the government is in a position to ensure this and protect the handloom silk industry.

Mr V N Govindarajan, Assistant Director, Weavers’ Service Centre (WSC), Kanchipuram

Though WSC concentrated only on three aspects: weaving, design and dyeing; no efforts were taken to integrate these aspects within the framework of WTO. Developments on the technology upgradation front seems to be very slow and training of weavers appears more of a formality than a concerted effort directed towards the improving the sector.

Other Observations
  • In comparison to handloom cotton weavers in other parts of Tamil Nadu, the silk weavers of Kanchipuram seem to be in a better position, as they weave a high value product as against a lungi or a cotton sari, which are low value products. Hence, they get better salaries compared to the handloom weavers.
  • Though there have been changes in consumer preferences and competition from powerloom silk-polyester blended saris, Kanchipuram Silk continues to have a strong demand.
  • Increase in raw material prices such as raw silk and zari have affected the industry. The CBS and the Tamil Nadu Zari Limited need to play a far more active role in addressing these problems.
  • The programmes organised by the weaver’s service centre are not geared up towards meeting the challenges thrown up by post Multi-Fibre Arrangement (MFA).