India's weaving industry falls victim to globalization

Deutsche Presse-Agentur

The weaver and his art - symbols of the Indian freedom movement and the national flag which still must be made only of "khadi" hand-spun yarn - are now almost pariah in the populous South Asian country due to globalization.

Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation, who mobilized self- reliance by promoting the use of hand-spun cloth, would be distraught were he alive today.

Hundreds of thousands of looms have been rendered idle as cheap Chinese yarn and silk fabrics deluge Indian markets, throwing scores of weavers who used to make the iconic Benarasi silk sari, out of work.

According to Siddique Hassan, organizer for the Weaver and Artisans Rights Front (WARF), 1 million of India's 5 million weavers have lost their jobs. Most have taken to either pulling rickshaws or begging.

Weaver Tariq Wahid said wages have come down by half as work conditions have deteriorated.

Cotton handloom weavers in southern India have also been hit by government policies which abolished export restrictions on cotton and cotton yarn.

Lenin Raghuvanshi of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights which works with weavers said global trade liberalization has most affected those who make traditional items like saris, dhotis (a drape worn by Indian men), bedsheets and shawls.

Out of 38 million people employed in the textile sector, 12.5 million are in the declining part of the sector.

Hanuman Rawat of Action Aid International, which has launched a "Trade Justice" campaign, said thousands of weavers have become jobless in India's southern Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh states, as the number of idle looms rose from 19,256 in 1985 to 66,835 in 2000.

Ram Upendra Das, an economist at the Delhi-based economic think- tank Research and Information System (RIS), is concerned that trade should promote development and not unemployment.

He said India, which is negotiating trade agreements with several countries and regional groupings, will have to be careful about rules of origin as products from third countries could surreptitiously enter Indian markets and adversely impact on traditional sectors.

An example of this is that until a few years ago, Chinese goods were finding their way into the country through Nepal with which India had a preferential trading arrangement.

Conceding the weavers' plight, Textile Ministry Development Commissioner BK Sinha said the government has intervened and launched schemes for the welfare of weavers in seven states.

The schemes provide for the funding of looms and accessories, the upgrading of weavers' skills, a health insurance policy and an integrated handloom cluster scheme for the "holistic" development of the weavers, Sinha said.

He said government incentives have ensured a 5-per-cent growth in production in the last six months.

But WARF's Hassan rubbishes the government claim, saying, "We have been hearing the assurances of handloom clusters and design institutes but there is nothing on the ground."

To safeguard the interests of weavers, Hassan has urged the government not to be forced by "rich countries" at the upcoming WTO negotiations in Hong Kong mid-December to open up trade in industrial goods and services.

Weavers fear that import tariffs on silk could be slashed further under the non-agricultural market access negotiations, a key part of WTO meeting, deepening the crisis in such traditional sectors of mass employment.

"Our craft is dying. Give us work, not alms. We do not want to beg,"
Hassan said.

Action Aid has recommended that the current negotiating text be rejected and the negotiations be halted.

It has urged the WTO members to conduct an independent assessment of the development and environmental impact of the negotiations and come out with a negotiating text that puts the interests of developing countries at its core.

Meanwhile, India's weavers continue to suffer with at least 39 committing suicide or dying of starvation over the last two years.

More than 70 years after Gandhi, clad in a dhoti and shawl made from hand-spun cloth, arrived in England to protect the livelihoods of Indian weavers, the wheel has turned full circle.

"Gandhi once said the masses lose their freedom when they lose their charkha (spinning wheel)," Hassan said.

The WTO round in Hong Kong looks set to decide how many more Indian charkhas will be lost to trade liberalization.