The handloom and textile sector, once emblematic of our national aspiration, is in need of a big makeover.
The textile industry is India’s second largest employment generator, with millions of artisans working in the rural part of the country. As of 2016, the sector was worth $137 billion, employing over 40 million households directly or indirectly. And the industry continues to grow. While these numbers are impressive, we are yet to realise the full potential of the industry. There are several steps the government can take to give heritage textiles and handloom a new lease of life.
For starters, it's a well known fact that the average handloom weaver doesn't make enough money. While an artisan who works with chikankari might get ₹500 a day, a weaver who works with khana fabric in Karnataka may earn ₹250. The disparity in wage has often little to do with variances in skill and more with factors beyond the control of the artisan, such as market access and perceived value of their product.
A simple way to reduce the gap could be to enhance opportunities for artisans and integrate their products into the global supply chain. This could include measures like setting up integrated apparel parks near existing centres of handloom manufacture, and providing suitable financial incentives in the initial years to apparel manufacturers to purchase hand-made fabrics.
The perceived value of our handloom products is often not on a par with their artisanal quality. Partially handmade products created in European or other Asian countries are priced higher than the fully handmade products produced in India. In other words, handmade products in our country suffer from a social identity complex that undermines their true market value.
The government can address this issue by ensuring that handlooms are treated the same way our art or historical monuments are. More textile-based crafts should be made part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, which will bring them the attention they deserve.
The other significant measure would be the establishment of multiple world-class regional textile museums that would provide suitable representation to India’s diverse textiles and crafts.
Each year, cities like New York, Paris, Shanghai and Frankfurt host some of the world’s largest textile and garment trade shows. India, too, should do something similar here, presenting the wide variety of textiles we have.
Besides authorities, individual entrepreneurs also need to step up and offer more help to artisans. They need to bring more innovation in design and manufacturing practices to help support the craftspeople.
What's more, a more democratic and less decentralised approach to policy advocacy and lesser emphasis on social hierarchies within the trade could help produce greater dividends for all stakeholders.
K.H. Radharaman is the founder-creative director of The House of Angadi.
Also Read: Revive the weave on National Handloom Day