Market pressures on an ancient art
In India, economic recession threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of handloom weavers, who make 90% of Indian silk products
Silk has a long history in India, where it is considered a symbol of royalty and prestige, a "pure fabric" used for all religious, ritual and ceremonial occasions. The first Indian silk, spun as early as 1725 B.C., was produced not by the domesticated Bombyx mori silkworm, fed on mulberry leaves, but from the cocoons of indigenous Tussah, Eri and Muga moths.
Today, India is the world's second largest producer of silk, the largest consumer of silk and silk products, and the largest importer of raw mulberry silk. However, domestic silk textile producers are facing intense competition from China, and India's share in global trade in silk has been declining. The ongoing global economic recession has taken a further toll on the industry, with orders of silk goods from Europe and the USA reportedly down by almost 50% in 2008.
Age-old designs. The downturn affects hundreds of thousands of handloom silk weavers across the country. An estimated 90% of India's silk products are made on handlooms, using age-old designs and styles distinctive to different geographical locations. Among them are Pochampalli silk saris, produced in the village of Pochampalli and surrounding areas in the Nalgonda district of Andhra Pradesh, where weavers are participating in a project aimed at modernizing production practices and strengthening their links to markets.
The 10 000 weavers in Nalgonda district are famous for their tie-and-dye designs, which are hand woven using a technique called ikat (see example at left). Their main products are silk and cotton saris, cotton bed sheets, dress material, furnishings and body wraps. After showing steady growth for more than half a century, the local handloom weaving industry entered a crisis early this decade. Unable to compete in an increasingly free market following China's admission to the World Trade Organisation, a large number of weavers lost their livelihoods.
As part of the project with Oxfam India, the NGO Chetana Society identified key factors that were impeding market access for Pochampalli weavers. First, there was a "design gap" – the weavers were producing fabrics with obsolete designs and with no reference to seasonal fashion forecasts. They also had little contact with the Ministry of Textiles' Weavers Services Centres, which help transfer technological advances to the handloom sector, or with India's National Institute of Fashion Technology.
There was little sharing of market information or bulk purchasing of inputs. Pochampalli's handloom technology was outdated and labour-intensive, making it difficult to maintain uniform quality, which led to overpriced fabrics and low productivity.
The low level of value addition meant that most weavers earned subsistence wages. In addition, weavers were completely dependent on intermediaries called Master Weavers, who stifled entrepreneurship and discouraged young people from joining the weaving profession.
India's "other silks"
India produces all five commercial types of silk – not only that from mulberry silkworms, but four other types extracted from silkmoth cocoons often collected in the wild:
Tussah – produced by the Antheraea mylitta moth, is extracted from the cocoon after the moth has left
Oak tussah – produced by the Antheraea pernyi moth (above) originally from southern China
Eri – produced by the moth Philosamia ricini in northeast India
Muga – produced in Assam by the moth Antheraea assama, has a shimmering golden colour
Product development. Through the project, the Pochampalli weavers have been organized into groups and cooperatives for training courses that upgrade their skills in design, dyeing, pre-loom, post-loom and quality processes, and have been linked to the government Weavers Services Centres. A company – Chenetha Colour Weaves – has been established with Oxfam assistance to support product development and to market the silk and cotton products of some 280 weaving families.
The company says its strategy has broken the "stranglehold" of Master Weavers on the industry, and allowed the emergence of local leaders, 50% them women. A crucial component of the project is "advocacy for change", which enhances the market for handloom products by raising consumer awareness and presses for Government policies that promote the handloom sector.
To revive India's silk industry, the Ministry of Textiles' Central Silk Board has increased technology cooperation with Japan, plans to raise raw silk production from the current 18 000 tonnes to 26 000 tonnes by the end of 2012, and has launched a "Silk mark" as a quality assurance label for pure Indian silk products.
D. Narasimha Reddy
and Sudha Kishore
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