India’s handloom sector has been in a state of crisis for many years but in the past few months, the industry has been facing an unprecedented sea of economic and social challenges. The global economic slowdown that countries are currently reeling under has severely impacted the livelihood of millions of artisans across India. Globally, the retail industry is experiencing a sharp decline in business as consumers are either refusing to spend or are unable to spend. This change in consumer behaviour in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic is partially a result of rising unemployment and steps taken by employers to cut down on wages.
Several retail companies are actively considering either liquifying their businesses or declaring bankruptcy. The financial state in which retail businesses globally find themselves in today has direct consequences for Indian artisans who supply them their products. An alarming number of artisans and weavers are reporting that they are unable to sustain themselves and their production process due to lack of income.
According to some commentators, the present situation has egregiously worsened with the government’s decision to abolish both the All India Handlooms Board (AIHB) and All India Handicraft Board. The AIHB was established to facilitate the Central Government in formulating policies and schemes that would promote the development of the handloom sector. It was also supposed to aid the government in creating new employment opportunities within the sector and devise welfare schemes for artisans.
The Board earlier comprised of several key stakeholders including weavers and artisans, who considered the platform a forum where workers could raise their problems. On July 27th, however, the Indian government abolished the Board in order to promote what government officials call “a leaner government”. This decision has been widely criticised for not including artisans in the decision-making process and for destroying the last platform where handloom sector workers could assert their rights and seek accountability.
According to government sources, the decision was taken to help achieve “minimum government and maximum governance.” The move was criticised by individuals like Laila Taybji, founder of Dastakar, for dismantling the last forum where workers could raise their concerns. Others embraced the decision by observing that the AIHB was a toothless tiger that achieved little on the ground in terms of ensuring workers’ welfare.
Interestingly, the move to abolish AIHB was taken days after the Prime Minister’s Independence day speech in which he encouraged citizens to become “vocal for local” by buying products made in India. This, according to the Prime Minister, would help India become “atmanirbhar” or self-reliant. In order to adequately anticipate the possible consequence of such a drastic step on poor handloom workers, we must look briefly at the existing economic conditions in which handloom workers currently find themselves in.
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