Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Home-Based Weavers in Varanasi Form a Union in The Struggle To Preserve Their Culture and Livelihood

Author: Prashant Bhagat

Varanasi is an ancient, famous and culturally rich district of Uttar Pradesh State of India. Varanasi is also a holy city which rests on the banks of the Ganges, and home to banarasi saris (Indian dress that women wear) that are woven predominantly on hand looms. They are woven by highly skilled weavers, and are considered some of the finest saris in India, made of finely woven silk and decorated with elaborate embroidery and engravings. Because of these engravings, these saris are relatively heavy. The tradition of weaving these saris is almost 800 years old, and they have been in demand for centuries from almost all parts of India. During the Mughal rule, this art reached its zenith due to the amalgamation of the Indian and Persian design and creativity. Even today the workers weaving these saris are predominantly Muslims. The weaving of saris is a household industry, with members of the family including women and children playing vital supporting roles. However during the past two decades, this art and industry have declined rapidly, leading to severe impoverishment of workers and their families to such an extent that children of these families are facing severe hunger and malnutrition. Yet in the face of this, attempts have been made on the part of the weaving community to get organized in some sort of force to demand justice and their rightful place and respect in the Varanasi society.


Structure and Character of Banarasi Sari Weaving Industry

The full production process from raw material (including silk and other threads for embroidery) to a finished sari, includes an intricate web of many actors such as weavers, master weavers, raw material suppliers, designers (card makers), etc. It is widely believed that the whole structure is fairly feudal in character, where a majority of workers toil to weave the saris and a minority few have total control of markets, raw materials and other resources. These privileged few also behave as 'masters' and exploit the weavers to the fullest.

The total number of workers and families working in this trade is not known exactly, as there has not been any effort to carry out a thorough survey. However unofficial estimates by various voluntary organizations put the total number of workers at about 500,000, a majority of whom have received very little or no education.

Banarasi saris are predominantly woven on a handloom with silk threads. The technology is quite ancient, and there has not been much technological innovation in this sector, although in the past few decades some of the weaving has also been done on power looms. The trade is predominantly controlled by 'Gaddidars' or the traders who have the access to raw materials and the market, and who also sometimes own the looms. The weavers usually fall into one of two categories. Some are self-employed, where they own their own loom and purchase their own raw material, but have no access to the market and have to sell their produce through the trader. Even the access to raw materials is controlled by the traders as weavers do not have enough money to buy the raw materials in bulk, and thus even the independent weavers end up working for the trader. Alternatively, some weavers work as wage labourers at the looms owned by the traders. In either case the weavers are at the mercy of the trader for their livelihood. Weavers earn only 300 to 400 rupees (about US$9 to US$10) on a sari that may take even 15 days to complete, and the traders pay the money only when the sari is sold in the market. Traders often point out defects in the saris either in weaving or in the embroidery just in order to push down the price. Faced with a desperate situation, the weavers often end up taking out loans or advances from the traders and being in a kind of bonded relationship.

Some weavers are also members of a cooperative organization. However, the majority of cooperatives are controlled by the traders themselves. These cooperatives were set up by government to end the isolation of weavers from the market—on one hand providing them with easily accessible raw material, and on the other hand providing them with easy access to the market. However, even this institution has been corrupted and is under the control of the traders themselves who now enjoy even access to more raw materials.


Women and Children
Women and children are exploited in this industry, yet remain invisible, and often unpaid. Women play an important role in all stages of sari preparation yet their contribution is hardly recognized. Women often spin thread, cut thread and do important jobs that are often considered as secondary or menial. The job is highly repetitive and they have to work sitting in uncomfortable positions for long hours sometimes even six to seven hours at once. Women are generally not paid directly, as they help the men in the household. If they are employed by the traders, they are only paid 10 to 15 rupees a day (about USD0.25). They are not allowed to sit on the looms as the general perception is that women cannot weave saris. The intense exploitation of women is subsidizing the whole production of banarasi saris. Their labour is adding value to the product yet it remains unpaid or poorly paid, and thus the cost of production remains low.
Children also help their family members make saris, and they also have to work for long hours in very tiring conditions. Children are also sometimes employed for 'pattern making' and other small jobs which help to speed up the whole process. Children are also sometimes forced to work to pay back loans that their parents or family members may have taken out.


Increasing poverty among weavers in Varanasi
A variety of reasons is given for the decline of the weaving industry since the 1990s. Some blame mechanization. Some criticize the quality of the saris. Some cite other reasons like the WTO and competition from Chinese silk saris. But no proper initiative was taken either by state or central governments to counter this decline. Traders, on the contrary, have continued to make profits, without paying much to the weavers who have ended up in a situation of utmost poverty and destitution. Local media has also neglected the declining process. Over the course of a decade, the hand weavers' situation has become very pitiful, and weavers have started committing suicide because of hunger and poverty. From 2002 until today, about 100 weavers have committed suicide or died of hunger in Varanasi, and a lot are suffering from lung diseases because of silk and cotton fibres. Many are dying from these lung diseases, which are commonly diagnosed as tuberculosis. The children of weavers are suffering from malnutrition and they are forced to work for their meals. Many weavers are supplementing their meager weaving income with other work, such as driving cycle rickshaws.

This informal sector – characterized largely by household production units – has no culture of unions, or in other words they are working in a scattered way and have previously not come together under a common banner. The Muslim section of the community does have community councils, which are involved in settling their social problems. But these councils cannot address the problem of the whole weaving industry because they are religion-based, and they are not political forums.

In India theoretically all citizens – including informal sector workers – are covered by the public health system. But in practice, the public health system is like elephant's teeth: only for show, not for eating. In Varanasi nobody gets proper benefits, unless they have political contacts or are willing to give bribes to get access to medical facilities in government hospitals. Weavers and their families suffer greatly from lack of access to medical treatment for common problems such as lung diseases like tuberculosis. Eighty per cent of weavers' children are underweight and suffer from many diseases.


The formation of a weavers' union

When the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), a membership-based organization, became aware of the suicide of a weaver in 2002 they were shocked because weavers had a reputation for relative prosperity. A fact-finding team visited Varanasi to find the reasons behind the suicide. During this fact-finding mission they interacted with the problems of weavers and the weaving industry. The entire mohalla Baghwanala (one of the weavers' colonies) seemed like a 'ruined forest', meaning no-one could be heard laughing, and not a single face bore a smile. About 50 percent of handlooms were not in working condition because of lack of raw materials and no new orders for new saris.

PVCHR realized that without uniting weavers under a common banner they could not do any fruitful things for them. PVCHR called a core team together for discussing the weavers and their problems, and it was decided to intervene in their problems. Nearly 500 weavers came in contact with PVCHR and they decided that they were in need of a union of weavers, which would struggle to revive the handloom industry and lobby the government for better social security for weavers. Finally Bunkar Dastkaar Adhikaar Manch (BDAM, or Forum of Rights of Weavers and Artisans) was established in 2003 and they elected Mr. Siddique Hasan, a weaver, as Convener of this union.
BDAM is a membership-based union and it is facilitated by PVCHR. The work of BDAM has included both organizing and advocacy. BDAM uses a 'folkway' strategy, which means giving people a chance to speak about their experience in their own way. The role of PVCHR is organizing and documenting what people are talking about and how they are seeing their problems.
BDAM has three primary focus issues: right to health, right to food and revival of the handloom industry.


Health problems

Almost all sari workers suffer from some kind of ailment owing to the very poor working conditions. The looms are often in cluttered places with poor ventilation, and workplaces are very dusty. Weavers and their families often suffer from respiratory ailments from breathing in the dust and fine yarn from the fabric, as well as range of health ailments owing to the lack of nutritious food and excessive workload. Children are suffering from malnutrition.

In light of the failure of the public health system, BDAM and PVCHR have been lobbying the government for improvements. In the last three years, BDAM and PVCHR organized people's tribunals on three occasions, where weavers' stories and opinions could be heard. PVCHR also approached the Planning Commission of India many times and as a result of this lobbying, the government approved a health insurance plan for weavers. Under this scheme, the health expenses of weavers and their families, including husband, wife and up to two children, are covered both in public as well as some designated private hospitals (capped at 15,000 rupees, or approximately US$350, annually). This insurance scheme is implemented by the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India (ICICI Bank). Every weaver contributes 200 rupees annually, and for every weaver an additional 902 rupees is contributed by the Indian Government. This is an achievement of PVCHR and BDAM. But unfortunately, like other government schemes, this also went into the jaw of corruption. Instead of getting benefits from it, weavers have had to struggle through BDAM for fair and honest implementation of the scheme. The most common misuse is that insurance cards of weavers were issued to some other persons who take benefits from the medical insurance. Meanwhile poor weavers did not get the insurance cards nor the health care they were promised. The formation of the BDAM union has helped to expose the cases of corruption and maladministration, and many of the weavers managed to get their insurance card after struggle.


Right to food

Due to the decline of the hand weaving industry, weavers are facing serious poverty and food crises. India has a Public Distribution System (PDS) – characteristic of its socialistic policies of the past (ironically the official name of India is the Socialist Republic of India). In the past, the majority of the public would have access to subsidized food distributed via the PDS. However, since the 1990s with the neoliberal reforms, much of the PDS crumbled to the 'market forces' and the 'Ration Card' that was issued to all families to access the PDS has now become more like an identification card and is used only for administrative purposes. However, in the case of many impoverished communities, the government issues special Ration Cards by which they can have access to subsidized food. This allows poor communities to access basic food stuff at very low price. Weavers are also identified in this category, and on paper can have access to this subsidized food. However, in reality it is different, because corruption in the PDS system ensures that the eligible weavers are not provided with the 'Ration Card' and they and their families continue to suffer from hunger. Instead, fake Ration Cards are provided to people who do not deserve one.

BDAM is trying its best to ensure the food rights of weavers, through monitoring and taking steps against corruption by writing petitions and filing complaints. When members became aware of this corruption, they staged a demonstration at the district headquarters of Varanasi, with bread in their hands. After the demonstration, they started collecting data and stories of individuals who were suffering from hunger. They sent these stories to all relevant authorities, media persons and members of Parliament and legislative councils. It created a discourse in the world of intellectuals and government, which mobilized the government to start doing surveys and providing rations cards.


Struggle to preserve weavers' culture and livelihood
If state government and central government do not come together to support the revival of the hand loom industry, then in the coming decade there may not be a single man or woman in Varanasi remaining engaged in weaving. Weaving is a culture and it has also been a means of livelihood for weavers for centuries. Weavers are artists who are making unique designs that are unmatchable, and there are is still no modern technology which will make saris similar to them. However weavers and their children are dying of hunger and those artists whose hands are accustomed to making antique saris are committing suicide. What kind of irony is this?
These weavers develop their own unique design according to their local ways, and likewise they developed their way of struggling, rather than following the way of any other trade union or political party. Why do they look very different while protesting, demonstrating, or giving memorandums to governments? After spending two years with them I realized that it is because of their identity as weavers. They are not Muslims, and on the other hand they are not Hindu either. They are weavers, and weaving is a culture. It is not a religion, like some other fronts of social struggle. The central issue here is their culture, as well as an occupation and means of livelihood. When the culture of weaving is dying, how will the workers doing the weaving survive? How a community can survive without its culture? That must be like life in a vacuum. It means a land of uncultured people, who have to pass the tunnel of civilization again, in order to be part and parcel of this mainstream, so-called civilized society.

--
Dr. Lenin (Ashoka Fellow and 2007 Gwanju Human Rights Awardee)
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