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The decline of sericulture in India

Chinese silk yarn's penetration into our traditional handloom clusters is pushing thousands of silk growers to the brink

The Indian market is flooded with silk made in China. (Unsplash)

There can be little dispute that silk is the queen of textiles. Known for its natural lustre, silk-made vestments are invariably considered the height of luxury across the world.

While most people are familiar with the various textiles woven with silk, few may be acquainted with the process involved in the actual production of the raw material.

As is well known silk yarn is extracted from the silkworm (Bombyx Mori). The practice of rearing silkworms is referred to as sericulture and it is claimed to have originated in ancient China during the Neolithic Period. There are four known varieties of silk yarn, mulberry, tussar, muga and eri. India is the only country where all four variants are naturally found.

Mulberry silk is the most commonly used form of silk yarn in the world and India is the largest producer of mulberry silk, after China. The Indian annual production of mulberry silk yarn is estimated at 28,000 tonnes versus China’s 1,70,000 tonnes.

India, however, far outranks China in terms of its consumption of silk. Data suggests India is the world's highest silk consumer, much of which has traditionally been consumed in the handloom space.

The disparity in production of silk yarn is not by any means due to a lack of domestic demand. There is a missed opportunity for India to achieve global dominance in an industry where it enjoys several natural advantages.

For one, India and China are among the only countries that have an established tradition of silk rearing, besides having the requisite climatic conditions and labor force to do so. Also, as mentioned earlier, India’s strong domestic market for silk should have given it a natural advantage over any other player in the world.

Many in the industry would argue that it is not required for a country to produce raw materials to be globally competitive and that silk and silk fabric contribute a small percentage to the world’s textile trade.

What's often forgotten is that some commodities offer a strategic advantage unmatched by others and nations often leverage the same to build a larger basket of goods around it. Take, for instance, the distinct premium attributed to Belgian linen, or Australian merino wool or Egyptian cotton , Thai silk or India's pashmina.

Silk and silk-based products have no substitute in the global luxury trade and would present India an invaluable natural advantage over rest of the world in terms of achieving dominance across the luxury value chain.

The China competition

Historically, India has viewed Chinese silk as competition. While for decades Indian tariff on Chinese silk imports has been as high as 33%, in recent years the duties have been lowered to 5%, making the entry of Chinese silk yarn into India all the more easier.

Its decimation of India’s indigenous silk industry poses a grave threat to India’s textile industry on many fronts. Chinese manipulation of global silk prices is made easier by the extent of its domination and control on this commodity.

The first casualty of this were the hundreds of thousands of small decentralized and organized power loom silk weavers in and around India’s silk capital, Bengaluru. Once famous for their flawless silk chiffons, and plain taffetas (who can forget the allure of Binny silk and Chamundi chiffon) the industry was rendered defunct by aggressive pricing by Chinese mills. This was ironically mirrored by an increased consumption in India of these very fabrics as a base for embroidery and printing even as China gradually increased its prices for both the raw material, raw silk, and the intermediary product, plain silk fabric.

The use of Chinese silk in power looms is an old practice, given the superior performance of Chinese yarn on mechanized looms. While Indian sericulture scientists have made several failed attempts to match the grade of Chinese yarn, they hav realized that it would be impossible to substitute Chinese silk yarn entirely in the manufacture of power loom fabrics.

Indian handloom, which accounted for the bulk of the domestic consumption, remained a vanguard of Indian sericulture, refusing to use Chinese silk. In recent times, however, the penetration of Chinese silk yarn into India’s traditional handloom clusters has assumed dramatic proportions and wiped out the last remaining captive market for India’s sericulture industry. From Varanasi to Chanderi, from Phulia to Pochampally, clusters have switched to the use of Chinese silk.

Even handloom producers are switching to the Chinese produce, citing cheaper yarn prices—a trend that should worry policymakers. This trend has long-term ramifications beyond the loss of jobs.

A handloom weaver accustomed to weaving silk is seldom likely to switch to other materials like cotton or linen. They are more likely to abandon the practice of weaving if Indian silk products are found to be unviable in the long run. That indigenous silk products shall invariably become unviable due to increased raw material costs is already demonstrated by the demise of India’s silk power loom industry. Once the indigenous handloom silk industry is wiped out, the market shall be ripe for cheap power loom substitutes from China.

K.H. Radharaman is the chief executive officer and principal designer of The House of Angadi.

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