More and more handloom weavers are leaving their traditional occupation due to the onslaught of cheaper synthetic fabrics and the failure to access newer markets, says a NGO working with craftspeople.
"The number of weavers is falling. It has fallen by 1-2 million but there are no figures available after 1996. We are trying to get the government to do something," Adarsh Kumar, executive director, All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA), told IANS.
According to Kumar, many weavers were leaving their profession due to "a failure to adapt to new markets.
"Markets have shifted to urban areas and the local markets in rural areas have collapsed."
Earlier, people would weave and sell their products through cooperatives, but with the invasion of cheaper synthetic products they are not able to find a market.
"The cooperatives, the main source through which they sell, have not been able to access newer markets in urban areas," he said.
The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) carried out two handloom censuses - in 1987-88 and in 1995-96. The 1987-88 census put the number of handloom weavers at 4.3 million, while the 1995-96 census put it at 3.4 million. Most of the weavers were in rural areas.
Kumar feels that instead of having a separate handloom census by the (NCAER), the government should make it part of the survey done by the main government statistical agencies - the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) - that feed the census findings into policy making.
"Why not add handloom to their census. We have discussed such points with the government. The time has come for another handloom survey. But it is too far apart (from the last one). We need one every two years."
He said the lack of updated figures affects policies and programmes aimed at helping the weavers as "policy makers have to rely on guesswork and anecdotes rather than hard data".
Seemantini Niranjan of NGO Dastakar Andhra said the "lack of a systematic data-base on dispersed traditional industries like handlooms" has been a major problem.
She said a major contributory factor for the decline is when government marketing apex bodies like APCO (Andhra Pradesh State Handloom Weavers Cooperative) or Boyanika in Orissa fail to pay back primary co-operatives for the handloom products they have purchased. This leads to the cooperatives being unable to pay their weaver members or giving them regular work, "which in turn leads to some weavers either leaving the co-operative and looking elsewhere for work, or leaving the profession altogether and moving towards cities in search of other jobs".
"Most of the weavers are in debt as in many cases they don't get money for what they do," Kumar said.But, Seemantini feels that while many weavers are leaving the profession due to their inability to make ends meet there have been many other entering the sector "from non-traditional weaver castes". This she says "has reinforced our belief in the viability of the sector".
Seemantini told IANS over e-mail that there should be an agency to translate market information for weavers as "weavers have increasingly become distanced from markets, and do not have much of a clue to what is selling, or what to produce".
"Investments in infrastructure is the need of the hour," said Seemantini, "especially in areas like dyeing infrastructure, in yarn access, regulating yarn prices. From our own experience, we believe that if this is done, the market itself will come to the producer."
"We first have to invest on getting a marketable product which has a strong identity, before wasting huge funds on aspects like the handloom mark, though promotion is important."
Dastkar Andhra has been closely associated with weavers, helping them with new technologies, in marketing, design, capacity building and policy research. It began 15 years ago as an offshoot of Delhi Dastkar but became an independent trust working since 1995.
AIACA had recently released a report 'Examining Employment Figures on the Handloom Sector', commissioned by it and conducted by the NCAER, in the capital. Syeda Hameed, member Planning Commission, and Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastakar, were among those who attended the event.
Laila Tyabji said the lack of reliable data collection "reflected the lack of a proactive approach on the part of the government".