The celebration of National Handloom Day this year went beyond mere hashtags. The Ministry of Textiles declared the termination of the handloom, powerloom, wool, jute and silk boards causing widespread chatter, as if these bodies were the only saviours and protectors of these textiles for decades.
Set up by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and later headed by Pupul Jayakar, the All India Handicrafts & Handloom Board flourished when headed by these passionately committed women. In 1990, the textile minister made himself the chairperson and nominated caste and political cronies, forgetting representation from Jammu and Kashmir and the Northeast, and adding one token woman. Many subsequent regimes never held meetings. The Handloom Board never influenced policy, improved approaches or even removed a speck of dust.
A termite-ridden body cannot be renovated as some would wish. It has to be dismantled. But demolitions must lead to building a better institution, not banish the voice of the weavers concerned. It has to be replaced by a well-chosen modern, dynamic, autonomous and inclusive body of genuinely experienced and credible voices from the handloom-weaving chain, including spinners, weavers, dyers, designers, private and public craft institutions, e-market platform providers and experts. The government must also learn to listen, hear dissent, discuss and engage with such bodies without lecturing, nominating or dominating — in short, there should be less government, more people. State handloom boards (wherever they exist) are not enough as their outreach and vision are limited to the state and responses often depend on vote shares. The Centre must be the receptacle for many senior weavers and experts who have national credibility, experience and vision. A national view must be informed by national inputs: Cooperative federalism must mean a chain linking everyone.
More significantly, the Handloom Day announcements at a video meeting by the minister and secretary, textiles laid out an entirely new approach to development. For old hands in the field, these look like a strange mixture of the good, the bad, but are mostly foggy.
Under good, with caveats, would come Atmanirbhar Bharat, which involves the integration of plans with other ministries like Tourism. Other ministries/departments such as the MEA/ICCR, culture, social justice, women & child welfare, minority affairs and KVIC should also be included. All these ministries touch textiles and crafts and often, their functioning results in duplicating and overlapping rather than effectively integrating with the Ministry of Textiles. The prime minister spoke of breaking ministry silos in 2014, but nothing is visible on the ground.
The Handloom Mark is emphasised, but methods for ensuring its purity are not clear. It should not go the way of bogus artisan cards which include tea sellers and traders. National Institute of Fashion Technology students and faculty are to guide nine Weavers’ Service Centres. This is a good move for their resuscitation as many have potential. Highlighting handloom pockets is a positive step, but there is a danger of seeking large “clusters”. How will they be identified and what about important though small pockets of rare skills? Will they fall between the cracks because “small is not beautiful” anymore?
Special promotional campaigns were announced. These are badly needed but not in the form of unimaginative, old-worldly advertisements. Excellent India-centric graphic designer groups have done a much better job and should be promoted, rather than co-opted under the rigid government system. Highly talented and committed professionals from the design community are kept out because they aren’t from NIFT, NID or otherwise “empanelled” repeatedly. These groups did a yeoman job for promoting weavers during COVID-19. Their efforts should not go unnoticed.
Information technology is undoubtedly the new “king”, but if weavers have to avail of all knowledge from a special handloom portal, they need connectivity, computers and digital knowledge. Only the corporate sector or government can rely on IT access for everything. “Maximum Governance, Minimum Government” is still a pipe dream. If you seek government support in any manner, it can be a fly trap and become a “shun government” slogan for weavers and NGOs who have some self-respect. Open-mindedness, less red tape, and inclusiveness are imperative. IT does not guarantee integrity or equality. The worst of the announcements was the declaration of intent to sell handlooms at “the highest price at the highest level” and “not cheap cloth but most expensive cloth”. It sounded almost anti-Gandhian.
The prime minister’s call of “Local to Global” clearly indicates a bottom-up approach from production to marketing. This is the only way migrants will stay home. Local production for local markets is a brilliant strategy and needs encouragement. The poor man’s cloth has been taken over by powerlooms. Selling expensive cloth to the wealthiest will shrink, not expand the market. Instead, many levels of markets have to be targeted with different products for each segment.