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February 26, 1999


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Business Commentary/ Darryl D'Monte

Small is Beautiful

Reading Rajni Bakshi’s recent book, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi (Penguin India), this columnist was initially filled with sadness. She has documented the stories of people who have made it their life's mission to uplift rural communities. They are at once remarkable and ordinary: people like you and me who have turned their backs on security and embarked on arduous journeys in quest of social justice. They would be called the 'New Gandhians' but that is probably an epithet that they would find embarrassing.

The sadness grew out of a feeling that theirs may be a lost cause -- could these brave men and women, on the verge of the 21st century, in an era where the world’s economies are globalised, arrest travellers on the conventional path and point to a different destination altogether?

Even if they had succeeded beyond all expectations in their chosen vocations, what guarantee is there that their charisma will be inherited, once they pass away? This is the question asked about Baba Amte, arguably the best- known contemporary Gandhian, who figures in this book. Can their experiments be replicated in larger areas so as to make a difference?

I was only half-way through the book that the realisation dawned that these were leaders whose ideas have perhaps an even greater significance today. The much-vaunted Asian Tigers, exemplars of ascendant capitalism, have shown that the foundations of market-run economies are shaky.

If George Soros himself, an avowed speculator on a global scale, has "recanted" to a great extent, it is surely time that all countries took a hard look at the runaway growth of liberalisation in all spheres and in many instances, reimposed the social security nets that only the State can foster.

Bakshi begins her book with an idyllic description of Bapu’s simple domain in Wardha, which happens to be, quite serendipitously, in the very heart of the country. When Gandhi was "at work" in his ashram here, he would run his charkha, if not writing. Other inmates also learned to spin – including Madeleine Slade, later christened Miraben. There was a photograph of her standing with Gandhi and a group of cheering women workers from textile mills in Lancashire in 1931. It was from this ashram that Gandhi also spun his ideas about creating a different, self-reliant civilisation. The differences he had with Nehru and many others about the nature of industrialisation are resurrected today with post-industrial societies and jobless growth. A figure in the book like Professor T Karunakaran, a technologist par excellence, turned his back on an IIT education and strived indefatigably at setting up village work centres where weavers, among others, would eliminate various hurdles and exploitative middlemen.

The references to spinning and weaving in the book struck a chord : this columnist is currently engaged in writing a book on the redevelopment of Mumbai's textile mill lands when many people are writing off the textile industry as an activity whose time has gone. Mill owners and many unionists alike hold powerlooms largely responsible for this state of affairs, since these undercut the wages of composite mills (which spin, weave and process cloth) and work longer hours to boot. Mill owners also hold the government’s policy of reserving certain sectors for the handloom sector as an archaic relic which is holding back the progress of the modern textile industry. Indeed, handlooms are seen as a subsistence occupation, the output of which has no major market.

A decade ago, the government's handloom census found that there were up to 2.5 million people in the country dependant on weaving by hand and another 1 million engaged in related activities. According to weavers organisations, the figure is much higher: they believe there are 20 million weavers working on 3 million handlooms and an equal number of men, women and children (unlike mills and powerlooms) involved in operations before and after weaving. Even if the figures are somewhere in between, this is a huge source of employment, which is why the government has reserved certain articles for handloom production, imposed quota and product restrictions on mills and attempted to discourage the growth of powerlooms.

As one commentator, K Srinivasulu, points out, it was under Rajiv Gandhi, the original economic "liberaliser," that a new textile policy was introduced in 1985, where the emphasis shifted to productivity, rather than employment. Even so, it recognised the need "to preserve the distinctive and unique role of the handlooms to enable them to realise their full potential and ensure higher earnings to the weavers." An act was passed the same year to reserve items for this sector, but it was challenged by the powerful mill and powerloom lobbies and only in 1993 did the Supreme Court uphold it. Characteristically, instead of implementing the act, the post-liberalisation regime set up a committee to examine the reservations.

It is almost literally suicidal to write off the handloom industry in such a cavalier manner, since so many people are engaged in it. In 1974, the Sivaraman committee set up by the Planning Commission found that every powerloom renders six handlooms redundant, on each of which there are an average of 2.4 workers. This means that every job created in the powerloom sector displaces nearly 14 handloom weavers. Given the phenomenal increase in the number of powerlooms in the last two decades, Srinivasulu estimates that 4 million handloom workers were rendered jobless per year. The handloom census also found that there were 330,000 weavers without looms.

Another factor was the rise in prices of raw materials, in the wake of the liberalisation drive to boost exports of yarn and cotton. Weavers in Andhra, where 110 died by suicide or starvation in 1991, hold the high price of yarn responsible for the crisis. Cotton, which accounts for the bulk of handloom products, also presents problems. Historically, India was known throughout the world for its textiles and it provided employment at each stage of production. According to another commentator, C Shambu Prasad, the colonial policy of branding deshi varieties of cotton as "inferior", because they were short staple, in contrast to the American long-staple variety, for which all British textile machinery was designed, lies at the heart of the deindustrialisation of this country. American varieties were unsuitable for cottage manufacture. And yet, Dacca muslin was short-stapled and produced the finest fabric ever made.

Colonialism broke the back of weavers and taxed indigenous cloth manufacture, to ensure that India became a market for British textiles. The import of machine-made yarn severed the connection between cotton cultivation, spinning and weaving. After Independence, there was misplaced emphasis on becoming self-reliant in long staples, which retarded the textile industry as a whole further. The suicides of 300 cotton farmers in Andhra last year due to indebtedness is part of this depressing saga.

It was the khadi movement started by Gandhi that attempted to resist this trend. As it is said, "khadi is more of a thought than a cloth." By insisting on hand-spun yarn in decentralised manufacture, he provided a technology to refashion a system of cottage production. Scientific research done from the 1920s onwards on how to use indigenous varieties was ignored and this could have been validated in farmers fields rather than in the laboratory. Even an American scholar in 1928 pointed to how hand processing of cotton fibre tended to preserve its strength. However, the khadi movement declined post-Independence due to its bureaucratisation.

Considering that the average Indian has only some 26 sq metres of cloth of all kinds available to wear and use today, the need for a Gandhian revival of the handloom industry appears paramount. This technology is not only labour-intensive and decentralised, but is highly region-specific and is capable of styles and variations which mills are not capable of. These products also happen to be in great demand in the world market today. It calls for rethinking of many of the assumptions which we have made regarding the industrialisation process a whole, which has ignored entire sections of society and left them very much as they were in the 19th century.

Darryl D'Monte

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