Once a major source of employment in the industry-starved Kerala, the handloom textile sector is in doldrums because of various factors forcing weavers to shift to other jobs to earn a living.
Till 1995, about 500,000 people were engaged in the sector despite facing serious problems like low productivity, inadequate working capital, weak marketing line and competition from the mill sector. But today the number has come down drastically to less than 200,000 with more than 50 per cent of the cooperative societies closing down in the last decade.
According to E Sureshan, secretary of a cooperative society's unit in Kakkodi near Kozhikode, there are two types -- factory and cottage -- in the handloom sector.
Those working in factories were enjoying all kinds of benefits like Provident Fund and ESI, but 'weavers who get less than Rs 100 a day and struggle to meet both the ends are leaving the cottage type to take up other suitable jobs'.
'If at all we are still surviving in the field, it is due to the support given by the the Left Democratic Front government,' he said pointing out to the substantial allocation made in the state budget last week. The societies have to come together to work out a comprehensive wage revision for the weavers, he said.
Not long before, handloom industry occupied a prominent place in the country's economy next only to agriculture.
Being one of the largest producers of handloom, Kerala was next only to Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh with exports reaching countries including Norway, France, Britain and several European nations.
'Those days are gone. . ..Today we are no more in a position to meet the export demand,' says Konneri Society secretary, T T Koya Moideen.
Stating that the weavers were facing a stiff challenge from the powerloom sector, he says though people like to purchase handloom material, there was no proper encouragement to them. 'Powerloom goods are offered at cheaper rates and we are not able to compete with them as we need better manforce.
'Over 120 weavers were working in our society till four years before. . .But the number has now come down by half.' Despite the government introducing several welfare measures, there were no shor-term measures that would provide immediate relief, he says.
The societies were also overburdened having availed huge loans from the banks and the government should consider writing them off if the industry had to survive in the coming days, Moideen said.
Hantex regional manager N K Bhaskaran said there was a huge demand for handloom goods across the state and the government had also proposed to promote handloom clothes as uniform for school children.
'Even now, in jails, hospitals and several government offices, handloom cloth is used as common uniform', he said.
Handloom industry is popular in Thiruvananthapuram, Palakkad, Kannur and Kozhikode in the state but sources in the societies say that the production trend was in the red in all the districts.
Says Cooperative Society inspector K M Pavithran 'the societies brought in over Rs 2 crore (Rs 20 million) as profit last year and that was solely due to the support extended by the state government'.
'The government has come forward to incur all the expenses to hold handloom melas which the societies had to bear earlier', he said, adding while there was good market for the product, the workers were not so keen to continue for want of better wages.
&On an average, a handloom weaver earns around Rs 100 a day which in present day's condition cannot help to meet a family's requirement even to the bare minimum, he said.
'Now that the government has allocated more funds for the handloom sector in the budget, we only hope that the industry can be revived fast to regain the past glory of the state as a frontrunner in the field', he added.