Silence of the looms

A Srinivas | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on November 26, 2017

Title: A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in IndiaAuthors: Meena Menon, UzrammaPublisher: OUP IndiaPrice: ₹750

A vivid account of how India’s cotton growers and weavers have been ravaged by colonialism and its after-effects

This book is a comprehensive work on the economic history of India’s cotton sector, particularly its growing and handloom weaving aspects. While tracing its journey through the ages, it elaborates on contemporary concerns such as Bt cotton and farmers’ suicides, citing a wealth of official records and interviews. It is at once both an accomplished academic and journalistic work.

For perhaps a thousand years, roughly 900 CE to 1900 CE, India was one of the world’s prosperous countries, as its cotton cloth was in immense demand the world over and draped by kings and commoners alike; this was before British Rule turned the tables on India’s weavers and cotton growers.

During its flourishing years, India’s cotton cloth-making was a decentralised activity. A variety of desi cottons were grown in abundance, from which a range of yarn was made to make fabrics for diverse needs. India comfortably clothed the world, and provided work around the year to the artisans and oil presses.

“Yarn had been made from locally grown cotton, and also from cotton brought from far away. People spun yarn when they were not working in the fields at planting or harvesting times. At those times, yarn prices were high as less yarn was available; at other times, when there was no farm work, everyone spun, and there was plenty of yarn, so that prices went down,” the book explains. Khadi was not merely a symbol of self-reliance; it drove the pre-British Indian economy. Cotton was to India what oil is to West Asia.

Old threads

India seemed to enjoy the upper hand in the cotton fabric trade, as it traded what the world could scarcely do without, for gold, silver and altogether less essential items. Meanwhile, England’s weavers could not match Indian cloth for both price and quality. Colonialism, or the use of political power to secure new markets, emerged as an imperative to address this imbalance.

The nascent textile industry, and prior to that for England’s own weavers who eventually disappeared under the technological onslaught, lobbied effectively to get duties imposed on Indian fabrics. England would flood India with cloth that was cheap because it was subsidised, driving India’s weavers to ruin. Britain’s exports also led to a permanent change in the varieties of cotton grown in India, a crucial, often overlooked fact.

British looms needed long stapled cotton, whereas India’s cotton despite producing superior cloth was of the short-stapled variety. American varieties were favoured since the British era and efforts were made to supplant Indian varieties with American ones. Indian growers were bound by law, the Cotton Frauds Act, to surrender their produce at market yards, and these would be baled and spun into yarn, for the benefit of the mills. The weaver was deprived of yarn, both in terms of quantity and the requisite quality for making different types of cloth, just as his produce was robbed of a market through import curbs and dumping of machine made cloth. Standardised, centralised production of yarn meant that “When the weavers went to buy the yarn the dealer would not sell them small quantities of different yarns... the weavers had no choice to buy large quantities of one kind of yarn to make a single product... The problem of yarn thus killed any hopes of selling cloth locally, as large quantities of a single product could not be sold in local markets.”

Weavers and growers gradually submitted to larger, distant forces beyond their control — traders, transporters and moneylenders who controlled access to markets and finance. By forcing farmers to produce long-stapled varieties and by producing a kind of yarn unfit for handloom weaving, “Industrial spinning technology... does not serve the interest of either the farmer or the hand-weaver of cotton.” Since it is transport-intensive and energy-inefficient, “it is time to... build a decentralised cotton textile industry for the future”. Small-scale dispersed cotton yarn spinning can bridge the gap between the cotton farmer and hand-weaver of cotton, the book suggests. The profound irony here is that the spinning industry today is in a mess, accounting for a large share of NPAs, thanks to yarn overproduction and vagaries of the global market. As the book argues, it is at the epicentre of the crisis in cotton. It is perhaps because the Gandhians lost the argument pretty early on that India continued with its fascination for American varieties even after independence.

Khadi and beyond

An aspect that the book does not go into is the ambivalence of Jawaharlal Nehru and BR Ambedkar towards khadi. They saw it as a symbol not of independence, but of perpetuation of feudalism in village society. Those critical of the khadi drive included Rabindranath Tagore, who is believed to have told Gandhiji that slavery to a small machine is just as bad as to a bigger one. The Marxists have argued that the change was tragic but inevitable. Somehow, Gandhiji, despite his leading by example, failed to convince his political fellow travellers that khadi was not merely a symbol of self-reliance but a potential driver of creative employment.

India’s obsessive embrace of hybrids led to the rise of the American bollworm, and with it alarming levels of pesticide use. In its account of the Bt cotton experience, the book steers clear of the environmental debate, but points out that the benefits of Bt in terms of yield and output are not established by data, as the yield/output spurt precedes the actual spread of Bt, while the decline in output performance since 2011-12 is noticeable and officially acknowledged.

Today, the wheel has come full circle. Bt cotton is not the pest-resistant wonder it was touted to be, with the pink bollworm proving to be the new scourge. The high cost of seeds has been a cause of controversy, negating the lower cost on pesticide.

The book challenges the theory that farmers opted for transgenic cotton, saying other varieties were not available in the market. It argues that indebtedness and the fact of farmers being “at the vortex of factors, none of which are in her/his control”, were behind the over three lakh suicides of farmers in the Vidarbha belt since 1995 (National Crime Records Bureau data); Bt cotton may have aggravated these conditions, even if it did not cause them in the first place.

Sadly, it is only now that the research establishment is acknowledging the pest-resistant virtues of Indian desi varieties.

The book does not, however, deal with a basic question, if not contradiction: Can khadi become a mass-produced wage good as in the days of Gandhiji, or will it be an niche market affair? The book, in fact, seems uncritical of khadi going the latter way, in a way acknowledging that the game of economies of scale has already been lost to synthetics and powerlooms (although this may not necessarily be true).

Its diagnosis, that the yarn industry needs to be overhauled, seems correct, but how is that supposed to happen? It’s ironic that the powerlooms of Surat and Tiruppur are today in the doldrums, thanks to GST. Whether GST will address just their woes or spare a thought for handloom, which still accounts for some 12 per cent of India’s textile output, remains to be seen.

Published on November 26, 2017
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor