The Indian textile sector was once the largest and most diverse in the world. However, post independence, growth in the sector declined. Powerlooms replaced handlooms, yarn became more expensive and wages for handloom workers remained low. This has led to weavers in most parts of the country, abandoning this craft. However, the handloom weaving sector in the Kachchh district is witnessing a counter trend. The sector, in this district, has been on continuous rise since the last decade.
To investigate the reasons behind this countertrend, the International Science Council conducted a global study titled ‘Activist-Academic Cogeneration of Knowledge for Environmental Justice’ (ACKnowl-EJ). The study used a participatory analytical tool, the Alternatives Transformation Format, Kalpavriksh on the basis of learnings from Vikalp Sangam, a nation-wide process platform for alternative initiatives in various fields.
Innovative designs, production revive textile value chain
As per the study, a host of factors have aided to the growth of this counter-trend, the most important amongst them being the involvement of Khamir, an institution set up in the early 2000s to facilitate the sustenance of Kachchh’s unique crafts. Innovating on the design and production of textiles, Khamir revived the full ‘value chain’ linked to Kala cotton. The organisation helped these weavers to find a niche market by perfecting the production of exquisite cloth and a range of products from Kala. New handloom and design schools provided formal training to young weavers.
Factors influencing renewed interest
Though this renewed attraction for weaving amongst Kachchh youth has economic motivation, it is also influenced by socio-cultural factors such as the freedom to work from home, continuing the craft heritage, dignity of work, being freedom to explore one’s creativity at convenience.
While women have always been essential to the pre-loom processes, operating a loom has traditionally been a man’s domain. However, now this is changing as women are not only expressing their own creativity by designing handloom products but also dealing with outside world marketing and outreach. In fact, Champa Siju Vankar, a young women from Awadhnagar recently exhibited some of her designs in the United Kingdom as part of an exchange programme.
Tackling economic and ecological issues
However, this upturn in economic livelihoods has created an economic divide between the people of this district. Those with greater access to capital (for buying raw material, stocking produce, etc), or to urban markets such as Kachchh’s capital Bhuj or Mumbai and Delhi and even European consumers, have prospered more.
Additionally, it has also increased the ecological footprint as a major part of these handlooms are now produced on a mass scale for the national and global markets. Moreover, most of the yarn, other than kala cotton is imported. This has increased the fossil fuel footprint. These issues are therefore, becoming a regular part of discussions amongst weavers, traditionally known as the vankars. Senior weavers agree on the need for action especially on the inequality front, e.g. by assisting economically weaker or geographically dispriviliged vankars with greater market access. They also believe that some of the local exchange needs to be revived, including the use of wool from Kachchh’s pastoral populations. However, these weavers are not able to deal with the larger issues of elitist markets and ecological footprint, they need the support of civil society and government policy to tackle these.
If indeed this support is provided, Kachchhi handloom sector would emerge as a shining example of India’s ability to independently tackle issues that hamper its development.