Grassroots Reachout & Networking in India on Trade & Economics (GRANITE)
West Bengal Second Outreach Meeting
Shantipur, Nadia district, West Bengal, July 22, 2005
CUTS Calcutta Resource Centre (CUTS-CRC) organised the second Outreach Meeting with the handloom weavers in Shantipur, Nadia district, West Bengal on July 22, 2005. The GRANITE team also took in-depth interviews of Kartik Saha, a moneylender (mahajan), Nihar Basak, a weaver and Arati Basak, president of a local women’s group to get an insight into the problems existing in the handloom sector. The venue of the Outreach Meeting was a local club. About 30 participants attended the meeting, out of which 12-13 were women.
The objective of the Outreach Meeting was to understand the livelihood concerns of the weavers and to assess the extent of the problems vis-à-vis globalisation and World Trade Organisation (WTO).
CUTS-CRC informed the handloom weavers a week before the meeting and were informed about the contents and the expected outcome of the meeting.
This was conducted in two phases:
- In-depth interviews; and
- Focus Group Discussion.
Arati Basak, the president of a local women’s group, informed that the inhabitants of the region were mainly migrants from Bangladesh. Some were already skilled in this profession and some have learnt it here. But due to dismal situation of this profession, at present, the weavers were moving on to some other profession. In this context, she cited the example of her husband, Paritosh Basak, who was a weaver and has become an X-ray machine operator. She also discussed the functioning of a Self Help Group (SHG), of which she was the president.
Regarding the production capacity, Nihar Basak shared that with the present technology a weaver could produce at most one saree by working six to seven hours a day and get Rs 50-60 for it. However, they cannot work every day due to frequent health problems. Most of the weavers have had complaints of pains in ankles and knees after continuing this job for some years. Besides, seasonal factors and natural calamities often halt the work.
- He confirmed that the weavers were aware about the local computer aided designing centre in Shantipur. But this facility cannot be availed due to financial constraints, whereas mahajans gave the weavers the designs, which they bought from that centre.
- He also explained their dealing mechanism with the mahajans. The weavers would take orders from the mahajans as against the contract of payment per saree. The weavers do not get full payment against the finished saree at a time. They always get a nominal amount with an assurance of the settlement of balance at a particular time of the year, i.e. after the festive season (October and November). Both the mahajans and the weavers used to maintain accounts. But at the end of the season, usually the mahajans put up an excuse that the retailers rejected the item and pay the weavers less than the actual amount committed.
- The weavers do not have faith in the cooperative mechanisms. He said that benefits have not percolated to the lower strata and only members of the cooperatives gain from this system.
Kartik Saha was basically from Bangladesh and his family migrated to India during 1971 war. He showed other side of the picture viz. the marketing problems and competition faced by the mahajans adding that increased number of traders resulted in reduced profit margin now-a-days.
- He explained that the total process of weaving a saree involves huge workforce.
- The women are involved in this profession in large numbers as the weaving activities could be carried out at the household level.
- The bank loans are almost absent for this sector. However, the loan from private sources is readily available. The traders from whom the mahajans procured the raw materials provided the same on credit.
- He said that they did not know how to export their products. This lack of information created the main obstacle in marketing of their products abroad. But he accepted that there is a demand for these products among the end consumers.
- He confirmed that the handloom product is facing threat from power loom product. The rate of production in the power loom is much higher than that of handloom. The only advantage for the handloom product is that the power looms are still unable to produce the designs that the handloom can.
The Meeting at Shantipur
- The Outreach Meeting continued for almost two hours. In the beginning, the objective of the meeting was clearly stated. The participants, especially the females, actively took part in the interaction.
- Weaving is a traditional skill of Shantipur. The participants reported that any further skill development training is not required. All they needed was the financing and marketing facilities for their products. They opined that schemes like providing loans to individual weavers could not solve the problem alone unless the Government take care of the marketing. Abolition of the middlemen was one of the major requirements, which was flagged by them.
- The attendees confirmed that the production of exportable goods (scurf etc.) helps the weavers to earn more on a daily basis. But the basic problem is that they do not get such assignments frequently.
- The weavers pointed out that development of alternative investment channels (like share market etc.), which provides higher rate of return for investment, has drawn the capital of the mahajans away from the handloom sector.
- The increase in number of weavers has created additional problems for the sector. The increase in supply of labour has increased competition and thus, reduced the wages of weavers.
- Still many weavers are not interested in alternative means of employment. This is a positive indication for the revival of this traditional art of West Bengal.
- While comparing with Fulia sarees (a nearby region famous for manufacturing quality handloom products), the weavers of Shantipur raised few concerns. The products from Fulia were of better quality; this is due to the fact that mahajans from Fulia invested more capital on quality products.
- Firstly, the raw material used for weaving sarees (i.e. thread) was of very good quality.
- Secondly, preference was given to employ the skilled weavers from North Bengal because these weavers stayed at Fulia and worked for the whole year. They took their payment at the end of the year, which enabled the mahajans to invest their (weaver’s) salary elsewhere and earn profit from it. Besides, Fulia also stressed on capturing the export market which has added to the profit margins of the mahajans.
- The women folk put forward that through technological advancement some light machine should be designed. They complained that the machines were too heavy to operate by them.
- The participants argued that the demand for the handloom products, especially the sarees, is going down. This is because the urban as well as the semi-urban consumers prefer salwar kameez to sarees. The emergence of this new trend has adversely affected the weavers.
- The weavers are highly uncertain about their future. They do not have any social benefits like pension (for sustaining themselves) or allowances (to cover their medical expenses).
- The weavers vehemently opposed the government policy of charging electricity bill at commercial rate due to presence of more than three looms. They said this has further added fuel to their miserable condition.
The highlights of the discussions are as follows:
- Initiative should be taken to turn handloom weaving into an organised sector;
- Financing and marketing should be taken care of by the government along with the abolition of middlemen which will allow the percolation of benefits to the end producers;
- Export promoting marketing strategy should be adopted to turn this sector into a major foreign exchange earner in the post quota regime;
- Technical advancement is essential for increase in productivity with better designs;
- Lighter machines should be designed for the women to operate; and
- Diversification of product is required to cater to the varied demands of the consumers.