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How bad has the handloom sector been hit by the pandemic? What are the immediate concerns?

We are staring at livelihood crisis for weavers
The handloom sector consisting of 4.33 million weavers has been on a downslide for a while and the pandemic has only worsened matters. The big question now is - can it survive the pandemic? Fashion designers from the industry discuss the challenges


Due to the pandemic, we have had a hiccup in the raw material end-to-end process. We deal with 'ryndia' (eri silk), a natural fibre, and our producers are at the village level. There is shortage of raw materials since weavers are now concentrating on urgent economic activities for their homes.

We have a workforce of five tailors (permanent), 15 part-time weavers and four interns. Earlier, we were fulfilling orders and paying the part-timers on a commission basis. Now, payments have been halved for permanent workers, and we have not been able to make other payments.

The staff mainly the kaarigars / tailors working with us have been a part of our team for years. They are not being able to report for work; nor can they work from home, since there is no provision for it.

The bleak reality is that handloom weavers do not have the infrastructure or the saved capital to tide over this crisis, unless design houses and designers or NGOs help out. From my personal standpoint, even though we have not cancelled any of our woven orders, but due to the unavailability of raw materials like yarn or dyestuff the weavers have reluctantly stopped work.

More than the lockdown, it is the shutdown of all export channels which is worrisome. Whether or not Gudi Mudi will be able to function with the earlier level of self-reliance depends on two factors: resumption of exports and the related logistic services and the recovery of the global economy, more importantly the global sustainable fashion industry, to restore demand for handloom textiles to earlier levels. So, unless Gudi Mudi Khadi is able to find alternative marketing avenues, especially boosting domestic sales, it will be difficult for it to sustain the livelihoods of 245 artisans throughout the year.

In many weaving villages, 60-70 per cent of the population relies on weaving as a livelihood and although many orders are coming in, the availability of raw materials is low as most need to be transported locally, which is difficult during the lockdown.

The markets are impacted due to low demand and this is impacting the business, but we are ensuring a steady income for our weavers working from home despite all this since their livelihood is connected directly to the craft.

Our production has come to a standstill. We stopped operations a week before the lockdown was officially announced, as the circumstances that arose from covid-19 already had an effect. We are currently unable to make or cater to the timelines planned, not just for our retail customers but also towards our wholesale orders. We have fabrics that were dispatched to us prior to the lockdown that have been withheld by the courier services as well as garments that were out on delivery in the week before the lockdown officially went under way.

The handloom and handicraft sectors have been hardest hit. With the lockdown, the weaving and crafts communities have been left with looming uncertainties and anxieties. The abrupt halt to their economic activities has threatened their livelihoods.

Raw materials, workers (weavers) and markets are interconnected in the handloom industry. Amid lockdown with no raw material supply to weave, we are staring at a livelihood crisis for weavers. For instance, my Kota weaver gets his yarn from Tamil Nadu and his zari from Gujarat. Till he doesn't have access to those, he is not accepting work orders from any master weaver / private buyer / designer.

With the sector employing the highest number of people after agriculture, the weavers' community is bound to feel the enormous ripples caused by the crisis as it hits their steady flow of work and remuneration.

During the lockdown, shops remained closed. Even if restrictions are slowly relaxed and there is some progress on the supply side, the possibility of a resilient demand is bleak. It is in human nature to become more tight-fisted, spending only on essentials and therefore reducing spend on products.

The pandemic has affected all of us, making times uncertain. We had already procured stocks for the next few months. The markets have been closed; we have taken this pause to readjust and realign ourselves, and are hopeful about seeing our orders through, not only today but also for the next few years as recovery will be slow.

In a way, the current situation has allowed for children to spend more time at home with their parents who may be weavers, learning more about this generational craft, perhaps developing an interest, and this will continue as smaller clusters are created to work from home.

The pandemic will continue to affect us for some time from every angle possible. As everything is shut, business and cashflow as well as liquidity are at an all-time low. Revenues are nil, but not the expenses. I have a team of 26 people in Ahmedabad and at our company-owned stores in Mumbai and Delhi. Almost the same number of artisans and weavers in various clusters rely on us directly or indirectly. To support them is the utmost priority, but the big question is for how long I can go on without revenues.

The lockdown has affected our sales as our stores are closed. But the good thing about handlooms is that they are not produced on a mass scale and a family of two in a contained loom handles it. So, work continues and what was happening before the lockdown continues even during the lockdown.

The weavers are self-quarantined and we have asked them to abide by all the protocols the government and health department have asked us to follow, which they are doing with utmost commitment. There are sufficient raw materials available, which we usually planned for months as we are in the business of hand-woven clothing. We also have a pipeline of orders that our loyal customers seek through our social media and email contacts.

This article was first published in the July 2020 edition of the print magazine.

Published on: 15/07/2020

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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