THE UNSEEN WEAVERS OF DELHI

Chitvan Gill

Delhi was once a thriving center for the hand loom industry. However, the introduction of power looms over the past decades and adverse policy interventions led to the gradual collapse of the industry. Today there are still hidden corners where small clusters of weavers continue to work, but in a state of extreme poverty and distress. Earning much less than the daily wage that is mandated, they struggle to eke out a bare existence. This is true even of the weaving centers, cavernous sheds with complete infrastructure established on large estates by the government, and allotted to weavers’ cooperatives, where the situation is equally abysmal.

Astonishingly, this is happening when there is an apparent boom in khadi and hand loom sales, a growing interest among designers promoting these products, and sustained efforts by the government to promote hand loom and the khadi brand. Unfortunately, while consumers believe they are wearing hand weaves, the reality is that most of what is passed off as hand loom in the market today is mass produced on power looms. And while gigantic marketing outlets make great money and constantly expand their operations, very little trickles down to the real hand loom weaver.

The hand loom industry is the second largest source of employment after agriculture in India. If we are unable to address the problems that are crippling this industry, if we cannot provide succor and relief to the hand loom weaver right here in the capital city, what hope is there for the millions across the country?

Bent over his loom Murtaza practices his craft. He has been living and working here for over two decades. Now, as he approaches his last working years, he faces the prospects of old age, without savings and without any support, on the margins of extreme poverty.

A woman sits outside her makeshift hovel within the premises of a handloom cooperative complex. Once promised proper living quarters, decades later the weavers find themselves in slums, shanties, or living on the factory floor.

 

A life contained:  The work space is where all of life is lived out – kitchen, sleeping quarters, social space. A shed could house dozens of looms, many of them in long disuse. On their scanty ‘piece rate’ earnings, yielding barely over a hundred rupees a day, some of the weavers can’t afford housing even in nearby slums.

Gita prepares bobbins for the looms as her son makes toys out of spindles. The weavers no longer wish for their children to follow them into this once hereditary profession. “We are facing a life of poverty we don’t want our children to suffer too. No one cares for us or this profession any longer.”

Nearby, Gita’s daughter Sanju studies in another corner of the factory floor, which also serves as kitchen and home.

The story repeats itself elsewhere, on another factory floor.

House-proud Mohan Devi poses in what serves as her living space in a small corner of another hand loom shed.

Here in this lost unseen world you encounter stories of suffering borne with a quiet strength and dignity. Mohammad Jaleel has lived here for 33 years. Circumstances forced him to leave his village in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, after his parents’ death. His elder brother sold the family home, leaving Jaleel with nothing. Arriving in Delhi with just his traditional skill, he found lucrative work in the hand loom industry in the early years: “We were given a lot of respect in those days.” Today, he rues the fall of his fortunes and craft, and at 65, lives a life of acute loneliness: “I have no one of my own.”

Ramesh Chandra one of the owners of a cooperative society has his own tale of woe: high costs, few buyers, and months of idle capacity every year.

In another part of the city more stories of loss and cruel reversal of fortunes. Whimsical government policies, completely out of sync with the very people they are intended to benefit, have brought ruin to the thousands of looms and 410 cooperative societies in India’s capital city. Man Singh once ran several hand loom units in Delhi. The business flourished as long as cloth with a count of under 40 knots per inch was reserved for hand looms, but the policy fell into disuse. Competition from power looms, combined with rising prices of yarn, proved lethal. Today, his business is ruined, his looms idle, and he is steeped in debt.

A thick encrustation of cobwebs on delicate strands of thread, eloquent testimony to enduring neglect.

A burst of colour: Two workers at Meeraj Ansari’s hand loom factory, one of the few that has managed a turnaround by catering to current demands and introducing new designs.

Ansari’s young son, Mazhar, is a rare exception, a young man who wants to continue in his father’s hand loom industry. This, perhaps, gives hope for a new generation.

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