The way to popularise handlooms is to show-case it as testimony to our rich cultural heritage.

The Handlooms (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act, 1985, needs to be revisited in view of today’s realities. The Handlooms Act has reserved almost all mass-consumed items to be produced by handlooms since 1985. This reservation continues till date, despite the fact that it would be impossible for us to clothe a billion people economically by using handlooms. Even in 1985, it was an impossible Act to comply with.

The reservation persists in spite of the common knowledge that most mass-consumed items are produced only on powerlooms.

When hank yarn was brought under the excise net in 2002, powerloom units, strangely enough, were up in arms against the order, and openly admitted that bulk of the hank yarn was indeed consumed by them. Bringing hank yarn under excise will affect them adversely, they argued.

More recently, when the Textiles Commissioners’ officers found several thousands of powerlooms making items reserved for handlooms, they too admitted that powerlooms had been making these items for several decades, and, in fact, should continue making them.

Over 75 per cent of the goods exported from the Karur region, through the Handloom Export Promotion Council, too, are made on powerloom or even on shuttle-less looms.

ROLE OF MGNREGA

Reservations also seem redundant in the context of MGNREGA, the rural jobs scheme. As a safety net, MGNREGA has eliminated the need to protect jobs that add no real economic value.

Such an approach of protecting jobs does not exist in other sectors. We are not reserving certain types of mass cultivated crops such as paddy, wheat, groundnut, cotton or sugarcane to be ploughed exclusively by bullock-drawn ploughs to protect traditional jobs. Nor do we insist that national highways be created using manual labour, to protect unskilled jobs done over decades by nomads. We need to protect only those jobs that add economic value. In case the Act is indeed enforced, it would create sub-optimal jobs, leading to inflation.

Handloom produced the handloom way would turn out to be prohibitively expensive for the masses. Enforcement would also create rent-seeking opportunities for the enforcing authorities.

MGNREGA is an excellent safety net. Thanks to it, the withdrawal of support for economically untenable activity need not lead to abject poverty on account of non-availability of alternative jobs.

Continuing with reservation for mass-consumed products, therefore, serves no purpose. Once mass-produced items are de-reserved, we will only have items consumed by the rich for their handicraft value in the reserved category. Handicraft value is intrinsic to handlooms, and cannot become a part of powerlooms.

The Handlooms Act, which exists for the most part only on paper, has far outlived its utility and needs to be scrapped — and with it the hank yarn obligation policy.

FOR THE RICH ONLY

The way to popularise handlooms, thereafter, is to show-case handlooms as testimony to our rich cultural heritage. It is, therefore, important to revive handlooms to produce more intricate fabrics for the super-rich, through a formal engagement with traditional weavers. The handloom weaver should be converted into a respected, highly-paid artisan, from a daily wage earner living in poverty. Only then will our rich heritage of handloom weaving survive and, in fact, flourish.

Handlooms are meant to clothe the millionaires of India, and not the billion Indians. Let us not mandate the flute to stoke the fire in the oven.

(The author is CMD, Loyal Textiles.)

(This article was published on August 1, 2012)
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