According to the Third National Handloom Census of Handloom Weavers and Allied Workers 2010, nearly 27.83 lakh handloom households are engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87% are located in rural areas and remaining 13 % in urban areas. The handloom sector is second largest source of employment in the country, next only to agriculture. It provides employment for 12.5 million people and is the largest rural employment provider next to agriculture.
Approximately, one out of 12 households in India derives its primary income from handloom sector, according to Macharla Mohan Rao, founding president of National Handloom Weavers Union.* In Andhra Pradesh alone, there are about 3,20,000 handlooms providing employment to about 5,00,000 families directly and 20,00,000 families indirectly (Narasimha Reddy, 2006 **). Major handloom centres in the state include Chirala, Mangalagiri, Pedana, Ponduru, Polavaram, Pochamapalli, Puttapaka, Gadwal, Dharamvaram, Emmiganur, Madhavaram, and Narayanpet spread across coastal Andhra, Rayalaseema and Telangana.
Chirala is a natural cluster that existed for centuries. It also exhibited resilience in adapting to the changing conditions of the market and underwent many changes in economy, occupational pattern, social composition and organisation of the handloom units. The complex nature of the crisis affecting handloom sector requires a multi dimensional. “A thorough understanding of the characteristics of the handloom industry is of the utmost urgency and importance” and the challenge is engaging with different perspectives to redefine the handloom industry in contemporary terms (Niranjan and Vinayan, 2001). Niranjan and Vinanyan identified three prominent perspectives viz., i) the governmental view of a traditional industry in decline, ii) the academic’s view of the industry’s continued resilience, and iii) the weaver’s own perception of day-to-day problems of livelihood and survival.
This paper analyses poverty and its consequences vis-a-vis access to social safeguards or lack of it. The research design comprised of household survey, interviews with stakeholders- different categories of weavers, master weavers, activists, authorities and NGOs in Chirala. The household survey covering 1941 households in 10 villages was focused on understanding of the weaver’s family, occupation pattern, economic status, living conditions, status of children, access to basic amenities and social safeguards. Key findings of the study are discussed in the following section.
Situational Analysis – A profile of the weavers
Household survey covered 1941 households from ten select villages of Vetapalem mandal in Prakasam district. Sample villages are predominantly inhabited by weavers and those in allied activities. Population of the villages varied from 271 to 2185 or 81 to 665 households. Chirala cluster villages, being predominantly the home for handlooms, are predominantly inhabited by backward castes viz., Padmashali, Devanga, Pattusali and Thugatlu belonging to Backward Caste (BC) category. BC households constitute 84.60 % of the total population followed by 4.89 % Scheduled Tribes, 4.64% Other castes, 4.02 % Scheduled Castes and 1.85% minorities.
Average household size is 3.37 among the select ten villages. Sample villages have almost equal distribution of female and male population although some villages have more males (Bhavanarushipeta, Thotavaripalem Weavers Colony, Vignewara Coilony and Sai Nagar) while some villages have more females (Ayodhya Nagar, Amcharla Mohan Rao Colony and Gurvaiah Colony).
Villages vary in terms of infrastructure facilities, socio economic conditions, tenurial security and environmental conditions among other factors. For instance, Thotavaripalem weavers’ colony, situated on the banks of canal is poor in sanitation and the housing mainly comprises huts inhabited by shed workers of lower economic status. Macharla Mohan Rao Colony and Guruvaiah Colony are of recent origin while other villages are older habitations. Details of the distribution of population by caste and gender across sample villages is furnished in Table 1.
Children aged 0 to 14 years constitute 1422 population which is 21.73 % of total population. One out of every five members of the sample villages is a child. Thotavaripalem has highest child population while Gurvaiah colony has lowest number of children.
Literacy among the weavers communities is as low as 40.25 % among those aged <45 years. There is gradual increase among the younger population. Gender differences are consistent with loower literacy copmpared the male counterparts. Education among the children is relatively better than the aged members of the community. While literacy among males aged <45 is 42.76% while it is 96.33% among boys aged 6to 14 years. Among females of <45 is 37.6% and 92.95% among girls.
Occupational pattern of the Chirala cluster
Around two thirds of the population in Chirala cluster depend on weaving and allied works. Around one third (33.38%) households depend agricultural labour and other works. Aquaculture/ fish ponds have also become popular in the recent decades. There is also small section which is employed in commercial and government offices.
Income and sources
Net income of weavers is much lower than the incomes of households engaged in non weaving occupations in the Chirala cluster. Average income of the households in the select villages of the study is Rs 35,604 per annum while it is Rs 21,704 for weavers and Rs 56,162 for non weavers. Income in the form of government assistance and loans is another source of income for the weavers to survive. In fact it is a liability but that is inevitable for them to survive the crisis period which is almost regular feature. While total income for 1941 households was Rs 691.08 lakhs or an average of Rs 35,604 per annum, there is additional support from the government and loans to the tune of Rs 242.67 lakh. Loans form 25.88% of the total ‘income’ of the households.
The gross income from wages and loans and government support is Rs 933.75 lakh for 1941 households which is Rs 48,107 per household. That amount is used for household expenses (Rs 35,232), clearing of loans (Rs 2,341) and savings for emergencies (Rs 10,534).
Chirala handloom sector
Those who are helpless or have no other alternatives (lack of skills, poor health, indebtedness) are found in handloom sector in Chirala. Handloom weavers of Chirala are essentially those who are engaged in producing handloom products with their skilled labour and looms at home with the help of one or more members of the family. It is a home-based family enterprise.
Handloom weaving consists of several activities. Handloom sector depends on the organised structure of pre-loom activities or processes like dyeing, warp preparation, sizing, etc done with specific wage rate and some people specifically engaged in such activities in Chirala. There is also gender division in the handloom activities in Chirala.
Several allied works are part of weaving process and some of these activities require full time service. They include Padugu, kandelu, atchu, allu, aasu, and yarn to laddies which engage 1 for every four weavers. Around 19% of the 1158 weaving sector are dependent on these allied services.
Weavers vary by the degree of independence and ownership of the loom. Literature on modes and relations of production in handloom weaving offers different categories or types of weavers. Although there are eight categories altogether, the predominant type of weavers is those working for master weavers, followed by shed workers, independent weavers and master weavers. There are 943 weavers working for master weavers, 8 shed workers, 8 independent weavers of whom 5 are master weavers in the ten villages surveyed.
Wages and living conditions of the weavers
Household income of weaver community also includes the ‘loans availed form formal and informal sources’ without which there is no way of leading the life. Total amount of incomes form wages for 1941 households was Rs 933.75 lakhs or Rs 48,107 per annum for each household. Of that they spent Rs 35,232 on food, medicare and education and house maintenance expenses of the family. They had Rs 10,534 towards clearing other loans or meeting emergencies. These are average figures and the weavers and especially the poorer households had nothing left beyond meeting food expenses of bare survival.
Income of the Households and loans
Weaver Credit Card was promised to be given to 3000 weavers in Chirala. Under this scheme the weavers with credit card can be provided up to 200,000 loan. But the local banks are providing only Rs 25,000 to 50,000. A separate bank for the handloom sector was also announced to make credit available to the weavers so that they are not caught in intergenerational debt trap.
There are a few weavers who are also small master weavers. Mr Karra Venkateswara Rao of Mohan Rao Colony is one such person. He came to this village from Rajahmundry on makara sankranti of 1994. He was the first inhabitant of this colony. In twenty years he became an entrepreneur and weaver. Today he makes a living by weaving, running cable TV, farming in 3 acre leased land. He has 2 sons who studied up to Class VIII and Class X. Both are married and live here as part of the joint family. Sons earn about Rs 3500 each and Venkateswara Rao earns about Rs 6000 from weaving. Out of total earning of Rs 13000 from weaving they spend about 4000 towards allied services. His earnings from all other works are also important source of his income. He sells his products in Chennai. He does not eat or spend a rupee in Chennai. He eats the food he takes from home. He leaves in the morning for Chennai and returns by night train. He completes his work and meets all traders to update about fashions and rates in the market. He is also active in the agitations of the weavers and was part of the 10 day padayatra of 492 km to Hyderabad from January 30 to February 10, 2014.
Housing and sanitation
House of a weaver is both a residence and ‘factory’. Home and worksite combination in a small 12 X 12 or smaller single room is the typical house. One or two such rooms serve as work site with the loom and kitchen and bed room all-in-one. Crowding and lack of privacy affect rest and education of children. Hygiene and comfort are major causalities in the weavers housing. Poverty and space constraints are major problems of housing in weavers colonies. Weavers colonies also have similar small house-cum-workshed in the region. Houses of master weavers have spacious houses with separate rooms for kitchen, dining, rest and space to chat with guests.
A typical weaver’s house has loom and kitchen and bedroom in the same room which has a TV, fan and electricity. Kitchen has basic utensils and stove. Cooking is done sometimes in the open.
Three out of every four surveyed households have own house. Remaining 22.51% of the households live in rented houses typical of slums or workers colonies in cities. More than half (53.99%) the houses are pucca with RCC slab, followed by traditional tiled houses (39.57%) and thatched huts (6.44%).
Most of the houses (89.85%) have power supply, which is essential for the nature of work that continues beyond sun set. Some households also have inverter so that work doesn’t suffer due to power cuts. Households without electricity account for 10.15%. It is mainly old age couples or single women who do limited work and are extremely poor to have power connection. Some of the weavers who work in sheds also have no power connection at home, they are limited.
Drinking water is mainly form bore wells. They constitute 97.99% of the surveyed households and the remaining 2.01% depend on ROPs and OHSRs.
Households having inverters and using ROPs or OHSRs may be considered relatively better off.
Cooking fuel reflects both economic status of the households and the rural environment of the region as well as compulsions of the occupational time schedule. About two thirds (62.55%) of the households have LPG connections and 89.62% of them use LPG. Other forms of cooking fuel like wood, kerosene are also seen among not only the remaining one third of the households but also as substitutes/ supplementary source among those who have LPG.
Sanitation is a serious concern with only 63.83% households having individual latrines. Of them only 89.99% are using the latrines. Open defecation is practised in many villages. Poor usage of latrines is reported to be due to preference for meeting the colleagues as they go in small groups for attending natural calls. That’s the only time when they get to meet neighbours and talk for a few moments otherwise the whole wakeful hours are spent ion the loom pit or household works.
Work and living conditions
Weavers’ community in Chirala has two main endogamous groups viz., Padmashali and Devangula. There are also Thugatlu and Pattushali communities. Inter-marriage among them is rare. Although weaving is a hereditary occupation of the Padmashalis or Devangula community, there is no bar on others taking up weaving as an occupation. There are a few households belonging to scheduled castes who are also seen engaged in weaving in Chirala. Allied works also have several people from other castes.
The incomes of weavers area is so low that most of their expenditure is on food, food that is mainly rice without any protein. Inadequate nourishing itself is 62.85% of the total family expenditure. Next major head is health care which includes medicines and doctors consultation fee which amount to 5.25%. Customs and traditions account for 5.60% followed by entertainment (5.23%). Expenditure on education for the children is mere 4.03% and the weaver’s expenditure on clothing is 4.07%. The expenditure of the households reveals a bare survival menu as they cannot afford anything better than that. The following Table 4 reveals that standard of life of the weavers which is barely Rs 29 per capita per day!
Detailed expenditure of the households and the priorities they have to decide to spend the meagre incomes is tough task. More than one fourth of the total expenditure of the household is towards purchase of rice. Conditions of severe deprivation, malnutrition and food shortages are clearly evident form the amount proportion of expenses out of annual expenditure of Rs 35,232 for the family.
Poverty and indebtedness: It is shocking to see how people still live in such abject poverty. Average handloom weaver’s daily expenditure is Rs 29 or an annual expenditure of Rs 35,232 per household of 3.37 average family size.
Weavers’ lives cannot be imagined without debt. Almost all weavers have loans taken from the master weaver, which is recovered by deducting the amount in instalments form the payments made to the weaver. The loan is extending again as the incomes are less than what is required to meet the regular needs of the weaver. Cycle of debt continues and keeps the weaver bound the shackles of the master weaver. Any unforeseen expenses make the weaver take fresh loans. Weaver is free to free away from the master weaver once the loan is cleared, which is possible if the weaver gets a loan from another master weaver. Freedom of the weaver is to move from one master to another. When no fresh loans are available and the debts are high, the weaver sells his assets. Sometimes they are forced to sell the house and looms or any other valuables.
Weavers’ agitation, community mobilisation
Wages have been a controversial subject for the handloom weavers characterised by “putting-out” system. The sector is informal in nature and all operations continue on the basis of informal understandings. Neither the master weaver is as an employer, nor the weaver an employee. “Whom do we fight with (evaripaina kotlaaDathaamu)?”, asked Mrs Jakka Malleswari.
The handloom sector is not registered and the transactions are all informal or illegal. Handloom production is not governed by laws of Commercial Taxes, Income Tax, Labour or Establishments or industries department. The business of production and marketing There has been no minimum wage for the weaver and therefore the piece rates paid to the clothe which is a product of the family enterprise tends to be lower than minimum wage for any work- skilled or unskilled.
Many reports on weavers’ suicides make reference to the incomes of the weavers in Andhra Pradesh. According to a recent study comprising 600 respondents of handloom weavers in Prakasam, East Godavari, Kurnool and Nalgonda districts, the average monthly income is Rs 3,497 (Kasisomayajula, S.R., 2012).
Weavers have been fighting for fair wages and the master weavers evade by claiming poor margins. State government has also been aware of the crisis of handloom weavers owing to the incomes being less than what is needed for minimum standard of living. District officials were instructed to examine the matter and ensure the handloom sector of Chirala is in compliance with law (see box item – Rosaiah assures minimum wages to weavers). Nine years after the assurance of Finance Minister of Government of Andhra Pradesh, the weavers are still waiting for the minimum wages for handloom weavers and making the master weavers accountable under any law.
Activists from weavers’ community have been fighting for fixing minimum wage for the weavers and also making MNREGA applicable to the weavers. Wage incentive for every metre clothe woven is one of the demands of the activists. Besides, their demand is for inclusion of handloom sector for provisions of Provident Fund Act and Employees State Insurance Act 1948.
The crisis in handloom sector is serious as the Third Handloom Weavers Census large scale decline in the weaving population. The government schemes are not reaching the weavers and there are serious flaws in implementation. Corruption is another problem that erodes the benefits that could accrue to the weavers. Weavers in old age require attention as the younger members are not only moving out of handloom sector but also from the villages leaving behind the old and aged members to fend for themselves. Debt and neglect are forcing the old people to continue lives in despair and helplessness. Community support structures need to be explored. Health issues are of serious concern. Both institutional and community measures as well as behavioural changes in food habits, medicare are important concerns. Scope for household interventions in improving nutrition and food security as well as community level measures for food security require attention. Similarly, child labour issues need attention as a small section of the children are out of school and are employed in allied sectors and other occupations to supplement the meagre incomes of the family.
Urgent action is required in exploring the legal spaces for making minimum wages applicable to handloom weavers. Various laws governing trade, labour, social security aspects of the handloom weavers needs urgent action to change the weavers from self employed informal actors of the putting out system into formal and legal enterprise for the welfare of the weavers. Alternative models of collective action through cooperatives also require immediate attention.
Study of ‘Chirala handloom weavers- Crisis and Alternatives’ could not have been completed without the support of Mr Ranga Rao Jashti, Operational Director of ASSIST; Mr Macharla Mohan Rao, the President of Rashtra Chenetha Karmika Samakhya. We are highly grateful to the weavers of the Chirala Cluster for sparing their precious time to share their views during the field study.
Bharath Bhushan Mamidi
Director, Centre for Action Research and People’s Development, Hyderbad
Nisargapriya T S
Research Scholar, Department of Studies and Research in Social Work, Tumkur University
* Vivek S and Aseem Shrivastava, Weft and warp of a crisis, The Hindu, December 10, 2012
** Narasimha Reddy, Weaving woes on the handlooms, India Together, 7 February 2006
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