Sualkuchi, Assam: In the light filtering through the cracks and holes in the thatched bamboo walls of a small tin-roofed room, Chitra Das hunches over a traditional throw shuttle loom. She barely lifts her head as her fingers move carefully across the silk threads that run through the loom.

Originally from a village in Assam’s Baksa district, Das moved to Sualkuchi town in the state’s Kamrup district for work. “I was very young--maybe around 20--when I was forced to earn,” she said.

Das is now “above 35” and learnt the craft of weaving by herself. “I was so fascinated by the beautiful clothes that I really wanted to learn the art of weaving, and I picked it up by observing others,” she said. She lives with her husband, who, like her, is also a weaver.

Assam’s Sualkuchi town is often referred to as the ‘Manchester of Assam’. Situated on the northern banks of the river Brahmaputra, it is renowned for its decades-old heritage of weaving. Here, the majority of the homes have hand-operated looms, which they call taatxaal. A 2015 government article says over a quarter of Sualkuchi’s population are weavers.

It is said that weaving is not just a tradition that is handed down over generations but also a way of life in Sualkuchi. However, over the years, reports speak of how Sualkuchi’s handloom sector is in flux. Availability of cheaper, power-loom alternatives, and challenges from mass products imitating the designs of handloom products have hit demand for the hand-woven silks of Sualkuchi, weavers told IndiaSpend.

About 83% of India’s handloom households are in just seven states, of which the largest is Assam, with 36% of households. The 2019-20 handloom census found that, in Assam, as many as 92% of households earned less than Rs 10,000 a month.

The weaving community in Sualkuchi is diverse, informal, layered and unorganised, and those like Das, who are migrant hired weavers, usually come from smaller towns and villages to Sualkuchi. They live in rented accommodations or with the owners of large handlooms or taatxaals. More than 60% of hired weavers in Sualkuchi are migrants who mostly belong to disadvantaged social categories, says Anamika Das, who has studied the Sualkuchi silk handloom cluster.

These migrant weavers are subjected to long and stringent working hours, meagre earnings, lack of basic government schemes, and health problems triggered by the laborious nature of weaving as an occupation.

Diversity among the weavers and an unorganised handloom cluster

In her paper ‘Handloom Weavers and Lockdown in Sualkuchi Cluster of Assam’ for the Economic and Political Weekly, Anamika Das wrote: “In Sualkuchi, handloom enterprises are a heterogeneous cohort. Owners of large enterprises, referred to as master weavers, operate on an average of seven handlooms with hired weavers. Large enterprises account for 37% of total handloom enterprises.”

Anamika Das told IndiaSpend that the master weavers or those who own large enterprises mainly struggle with the scarcity of silk yarn, and the drop in demand for their handmade products as a result of cheaper garments with traditional designs made in powerlooms. However, according to Anamika Das, “Master weavers are often well-connected with the outside traders like the retailers and wholesalers.”

Hiralal Kalita, a master weaver from Sualkuchi, said the manufactured handloom products from Sualkuchi no longer have a high demand. “Sales have dropped and that is because powerlooms have taken over handlooms. Our items are more expensive because they are labour-intensive, whereas powerloom-created products look the same and are cheaper and therefore, people prefer that,” Kalita said.

In 2013, the Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti, the local weavers’ association, first applied for an official trademark for their products, which they were granted in 2018. It was believed that this could end the rampant circulation of imitations in the market. “But the trademark hasn’t helped either,” Kalita said. “The trademark is copied too.”

Lakhyadhar Deka, a migrant weaver, who says they barely earn Rs 12,000 a month.

Dinesh Mahanta, another weaver from Sualkuchi, said: “I have been in this business for 25 years and I have felt that in the last 10 to 15 years, this business is not doing well at all. We have to buy the raw materials such as silk yarn, which is expensive, but we are not getting paid for our products as much as we are spending on the raw materials.”

Then there are the small enterprises that, on average, own two handlooms that are operated with family labour. Such enterprises are called own-account enterprises (OAEs), and they account for the remaining 63% of the total enterprises in Sualkuchi.

The OAEs usually work on a contract basis with the master weavers. “The OAEs start their production based on credit,” Anamika Das explained. “For instance, for six months they get credit from money lenders or master weavers, and they have to deliver a certain number of clothes within that time period.”

The OAEs too struggle with the scarcity of good quality yarn, and for them the problem is magnified by the fact that they are very small enterprises. Therefore, the OAEs are dependent on the government of Assam’s Yarn Bank for Weavers.

Anamika Das explained that per loom, they get 1.5 kg of yarn for three months, which is not enough; so they end up going to the retail shop and buying more. “For master weavers it doesn’t matter, because they do their business in bulk and for them 1.5 kg yarn is nothing. Personally, I feel they (the government) should increase the quantity of the yarn especially for the OAEs.”

Condition of migrant weavers

Apart from the master weavers and the OAEs, the third kind of weavers are the hired migrant weavers. These are usually hired by the master weavers who have large enterprises and require the additional labour of hired weavers.

According to Chitra Das, the migrant weaver from Baksa district, the Assamese traditional attire, the mekhela saador, takes her about six to seven days to complete. “The time-frame varies. If there are no flowers, and other intricate designs, then less time is required,” she said.

Lakhyadhar Deka, another hired weaver also from Baksa district, was making a blouse on the loom when IndiaSpend met him. He said that migrant workers are not paid on a salary system. “We get paid per garment. So, depending on the detailing and the designs, we get Rs 3,000 or Rs 6,000 per mekhela saador. The one which pays us Rs 6,000 might take up to two weeks. In a month, we don’t end up earning more than Rs 12,000. It’s usually even less than that,” Deka said.

Mrinal Baishya, a master weaver from Sualkuchi, said, “We make minimum profits. Once we sell a piece of garment to the sellers, we have no idea how much they sell it for. Our clothes start from Rs 8,000 and go up to Rs 1 lakh.”

Hiaralal Kalita, the other master weaver IndiaSpend spoke to, said that while production is low, there is a demand for the Sualkuchi silk products, especially of the muga silk variety, in the international market. Many like Kalita now target the international market where there’s a greater demand to generate more revenue. He says he spends around Rs 12 lakh a year on manufacturing and production for export. He sells directly to the sellers, and makes 15-20% more profit in the international export market as compared to the national market.

It is not just the low wages that impact migrant weavers; their working conditions are particularly difficult.

Deka, the migrant weaver, said that they work on the spinning wheel where they place the yarn, and then the threads are shifted to the loom where they begin the weaving process. “Our work is very tiring. But we have to do it because we have to feed our families,” Deka, who lives with his wife and three children, said. His wife, too, is a weaver but isn’t able to put in as many hours as him because she has to cook and take care of the house. “We start from 8 in the morning and go on until we stop for lunch at 1 p.m. Then we start again at 3 p.m. and work till 7 or 9 p.m. We don’t have any days off or holidays at all.”

“Our bodies start aching,” Deka said. “There is no rest for our hands, legs and eyes. We have to be continuously alert. Sometimes we are unable to sleep at night due to the pain in our legs, hands and back.”

According to Chitra Das, whatever money she manages to earn from weaving is her only source of income. “I have not got any support from the government nor have I availed any scheme ever,” she said, adding that she is also not eligible for a ration card because she is a migrant worker. “I am from a different village, that’s why I don’t get it. If I move back home, then perhaps I will get it. But moving back home is not an option for me.”

We have reached out to the Assam government’s Food, Public Distribution and Consumer Affairs department and asked about the implementation of the One Nation One Ration Card scheme and why migrant weavers were unaware about the scheme, and unable to access rations. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Deka said,Even if there are any government schemes for us, we are not aware. We are always busy working.”

Fifty-year-old Boloram Boro, a migrant hired weaver from Barpeta, working on a loom in Sualkuchi town of Assam. He said the local master weavers might be eligible for government schemes, he thinks, hired weavers like him aren't because they are migrants.

Fifty-year-old Boloram Boro, another hired weaver from Barpeta district, has resigned to his fate. He told IndiaSpend that in Sualkuchi, every family has a taatxaal but these are all private enterprises and not government-owned.

“If these would have been under the government, then maybe we would have got something,” Boro said. “I don’t think the government can do anything for us. The master weavers and the weavers who belong to Sualkuchi might be eligible for government schemes, but we aren’t--we just work inside their homes.”

Migrant weavers unable to avail government policies

Anamika Das, the researcher who completed her post doctorate from Ashoka Trust For Research In Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), believes that the “hired weavers” remain the most vulnerable and exploited in the entire weaving ecosystem.

According to Hiralal Kalita, the master weaver, government policies don't get implemented on the ground. “Our weavers don’t even know that there are schemes available for them.”

In 2005, the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana (MGBBY) was introduced by the textile ministry to provide insurance coverage to handloom workers in the case of natural or accidental death, and in cases of total or partial disability. “Now, the MGBBY has been integrated with Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY), which are meant for the general public,” Anamika Das points out. “Such a merger is a blow to the handloom weavers as PMJJBY and PMSBY do not deal with occupation disability, which was one of the sole objectives of MGBBY.”

We have reached out to DL Meena, assistant director in the handloom department of the Union government Ministry of Textiles, via email and phone. We will update the story when we receive a response.

Even the existing policies leave migrant hired weavers out as they do not possess any membership of cooperatives or a weavers’ identification card, Anamika Das said. She suggested that migrant weavers should get a place to stay or maybe a salaried system of pay, and they should be eligible for other basic amenities such as availing anganwadi facilities for their children, and that they should also be included in the public distribution system.

“Sualkuchi is an expensive place, room rent is high,” Anamika Das pointed out. Room rents range from Rs 1,500 to Rs 3,000 for a one room home. “It is difficult for migrant weavers to survive.”

Forty five-year-old Meenu Das, a migrant hired weaver from Pathsala, working on a loom in Sualkuchi, Assam. She asks for more government support for weavers.

Kalita, the master weaver says they also need support in selling their wares, and suggests international/national buyer-seller meets organised by the government for master weavers and entrepreneurs to establish a network, including in the international market; training for weavers to compete internationally; and a government-aided export agency, as not every weaver can export goods on their own.

An officer in the Assam government’s Directorate of Handloom & Textiles said that “handloom expos are organised every now and then where buyers and sellers can network and get a chance to meet”. He said that in June, the Handloom Export Promotion Council (HEPC) will likely organise a buyers and sellers meet, as well as a workshop where weavers from Assam can register with HEPC and learn how to sell their products more efficiently."

Meenu Das, a 45-year-old migrant hired weaver from Pathsala, about 77 km from Sualkuchi, has been provided accommodation by the master weaver under whom she works. Her husband is a daily wage earner and she has a daughter who is in school. “It’s a blessing that we don’t have to pay rent for our room and the electricity bill,” she says.

She, too, is paid on the basis of the number of garments she is able to weave. “I have to send my daughter to school and cook as well, so I can’t work for long on the loom, so maybe two pairs of garments every month,” Das said, adding that body ache, neck and leg pain are very common ailments among the weavers because of the nature of their work.

“We do have financial troubles when work shuts--either mine or my husband’s. When the owner is not doing well, they can’t pay us either,” said Meenu Das, who has been weaving for 25 years now.

She rues that weavers like her haven’t got any support. “We vote regularly but sometimes I wonder what the point of voting is. I am not even eligible for ration here.”

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