Surat's zari industry has had much lustre. Millions of Indian brides are indebted to Surat because the zari (gold and silver threads) extensively used in the sarees and dress materials they wear come from the city.
Surat has a virtual monopoly of zari making (Varanasi claims a small but negligible share of the market).
Most of the zari produced in Surat goes to Varanasi and other pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In Varanasi, the Surat zari is used in the manufacture of the world famous "Banarasi sarees." It's also used in the "Kanjivaram" sarees produced in south India.
But the industry has to change if it is to survive. A recent report by the Anand-based Institute of Rural Management sounded a clarion call for change.
The outcome of a survey by K.V. Raju, G. Krishnamurthi and Rajagopal of IRMA, the report suggests, among other things that a zari research and development centre be set up at Surat.
Almost closed to other communities (the zari industry is dominated by the Rana community), Surat's zari industry needs to develop new products and markets, improve its dismal working conditions, opt for quality control and standardisation, access inputs at lower costs, upgrade technology, provide training to artisans and seek fresh investments.
The Rs 125 crore (Rs 1.25 billion) industry consists totally of decentralised units - not a single composite zari unit exists in the city. Almost a dozen process are involved in zari manufacturing and a number of cottage and home based units work interdependently to make a complete zari.
Of the 125,000-150,000 people directly involved in Surat's zari industry, 70 per cent are women who operate machines at home.
No one knows precisely how many zari units there are, but industry men say that about 400 big to medium zari units function in the city. According to figures released by the Gujarat government on Tuesday, Surat district had 6,500 zari units, both big and small.
The industry produces both real zari (where gold wires are used) and imitation zari (silver electroplated copper wires, with chemical gold).
According to Shantilal Zariwala, who makes all types of real and imitation zari, imitation zari is priced from Rs 480 to Rs. 1,200 per kg, with prices fluctuating in line with silver prices. Real zari is priced at between Rs 7,500 and Rs 15,000 a kg.
Unquestionably, the industry has a glorious past. "One of the reasons for the development of the zari industry in Surat could be the humid climate here because of the Tapti River and the city's proximity to the Arabian Sea," says Zariwala.
He explains that the humid atmosphere ensures that the core yarn filament used in the zari remains stuck together. Zari thread making and zari cloth weaving date back to more than 300 years but the industry is said to have reached its zenith in the Moghul period.
According to Champaklal Maharajwala, former president of of the Surat Zari Goods Producers Cooperative Society and the Surat Zari Merchant Association, several American writers have heaped praise on the quality and lustre of Indian gold and zari thread.
But the times have changed. "Considering the continuous need for development of new products, processes and designs in the industry, it is imperative that a premier research and development centre exclusively dedicated to zari and allied products be established in Surat," the IRMA report states.
True, the industry has been moving to upgrade itself. Its first R & D project was flagged off last month when the industry hired the Central Electroplating Chemical Research Institute based at Karaikutti in Tamil Nadu to recommend improvements in the quality of sliver electroplating. The cost of the Rs 15 lakh (Rs 1.5 million) project is being shared by the industry (Rs 300,000) and the central government [Rs 12 lakh (Rs 1.2 million)].
The report also strongly calls for setting up a zari industrial estate as industry's processes involve hazardous substances, including potassium cyanide. It uses a lot of electricity. So zari units in residential areas are potential sources of danger to houses in that area.
But the report won't go down well with the industry - it tends to regard all this as unwarranted outside interference in its affairs.
Even so, the industry had better wake up - its 125,000 to 150,000 workers work in unacceptable conditions either in the houses of the zari merchants or in their own homes and are paid very low per piece rates.
The IRMA survey notes that the workers work from 7 am to 11 pm without a break or rest. "It may not be far from the truth to say that many of them may be bonded labourers in a sense.
In fact, the labour practices are no better than those that prevailed in the textile industry in the United Kingdom and European countries during the early days of the industrial revolution," say Raju, Krishnamurthi and Rajagopal.
"Surat's zari industry has seen many ups and downs. The industry is very resilient and has continued to flourish through the centuries," says Ramanbhai Zariwala, a zari manufacturer and member of the All India Handicrafts Board.
But unless it bucks up and modernises now, the industry may well end up losing its sheen.