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Handloom weavers constituting second largest sector in the country, is most neglected by the government. Poverty, impoverishment, unemployment, starvation and indebtedness among weavers are reflected in weavers’ suicides reported from different pockets in the country from time to time. 

One out of 12 households in India derives its primary income from handloom sector. It provides employment for 12.5 million people and is the largest rural employment provider next to agriculture. In Andhra Pradesh  (including Telangana), there are about 320,000 handlooms providing employment to about 500,000 families directly and 2000,000 families indirectly. 

Handloom sector is informal with all transactions based on informal contracts. Handloom production is not governed by laws of Commercial Taxes, Income Tax, Labour or Establishments or industries department. Minimum Wages Act is not applied for the weavers. 

Average handloom weaver’s daily expenditure is one of the country’s lowest, about half a dollar per day! Wages have not increased in the last 15 years and weavers’ households are suffering growing poverty.

  • Problems affecting the handloom sector and weavers in India include:
  • Neglect and Declining budgetary allocations for Handlooms, 
  • Absence of living wage, absence of Minimum Wages Act for the handloom weavers, 
  • Lack of representation of the handloom weavers in legislative bodies both at state and centre, 
  • Growing impoverishment and indebtedness among the handloom weavers, 
  • Child labour and drudgery having adverse impact on the households, 
  • Food insecurity and starvation, 
  • Neglect of weavers’ cooperatives. 

Poverty and vulnerability of the weavers affects the whole family- women, children and dependents. The problem affects the rights of women, children and men, affects right to a decent life with adequate food security, well being and employment. “According to the National Handloom Census of 2009-10, close to 60 per cent of India’s weavers today fall below the poverty line, and 80 per cent face high debts, being at the mercy of intermediaries who also double up as moneylenders, controlling access to both markets and raw materials”.

Living Conditions of the Handloom Weavers 

Average handloom weaver’s daily expenditure is one of the country’s lowest. For instance, in Chirala cluster a weaver’s family lives on Rs 29 or an annual expenditure of Rs 35,232 per household of 3.37 average family size. There have been several estimates of the suicides by different agencies, both government and civil society. According to official estimates there have been about 1000 weavers’ suicides from 2002 to 2012 in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. 

Excerpts from the “Report of the Steering Committee on Handlooms and Handicrafts, Constituted for the Twelfth Five Year Plan (2012 – 2017)”1 

“Almost half of the handloom weavers belong to the most backward and poorer sections of the population. Nearly 47% of all handloom weavers possess Below Poverty Line cards and 10% have Antyodaya Anna Yojana Cards. About 29.4% of all handloom workers have never attended school and 12.7% are educated only up to primary school level. The high incidence of poverty and illiteracy among weaver families is accompanied by poor access to basic necessities including health, water, sanitation, housing and livelihood facilities. This sector derives a majority of its skills and work from women who constitute more than 70% of weavers and workers engaged in this sector” 

“A majority of handloom weavers operate outside the fold of institutionalized financing. Of the total households surveyed in the 3rd Handloom Census, nearly 44.6% were dependent on Master Weavers for their credit requirements, while 13.4% still relied upon moneylenders. Only 14.8% had access to institutionalized sources of credit. Access to institutional financing for rural households was only 7.7%.” 

As per the latest (3rd) Handloom Census of 2009-10, there are 23.77 lakh handlooms in the country, providing employment to 43.32 lakh handloom weavers and ancillary workers. This includes 38.47 lakh adult handloom weavers and ancillary workers, of which 24.72 lakh are engaged full time and 13.75 lakh on part time basis. As per the Census, nearly 27.83 lakh handloom households are engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87% are located in rural areas and remaining 13% in urban areas. The majority (82%) of handloom households are weaver households, which means that at least one member of every such household is engaged in weaving. 

Almost all weavers have loans taken from the master weaver, which is recovered by deducting the amount in installments form the payments made to the weaver. Cycle of debt continues and keeps the weaver bound the shackles of the master weaver. When no fresh loans are available and the debts are high, the weaver sells his assets. Sometimes they are forced to sell the house and looms or any other valuables. 

Master weavers are the middlemen and are organised. Each master weaver has 20 to 100 weavers working for them. There are some big master weavers also who have more than 200 looms where weavers work on piece rate in the worksheds. 

The weavers are poor in health and age faster and fall prey to several health disorders because the normal immune system is severely affected. Any expenditure on medicare further pushes them into indebtedness and affects their access to basic nutrition. Almost 12 hours of work every day has serious impact on the weavers. Exposure to continuous noise and heavy work is reported to be causing sleeping disorders. Lifespan of the weavers is reported to be coming down. Emaciated bodies are common sight. Women are malnourished and children stunted. Joint pains, knee pains and vision are common problems among the weavers.

Weavers’ cooperatives in India

There are 15,317 cooperative societies with 3.98 million weavers and allied workers spread over 20 states in the country of which potentially viable cooperatives are only 6587 cooperatives. Each viable cooperative has about 605 members.  There is great need to revive the cooperatives.

Nine states2  have 95.24% of the weavers and allied workers of the country with each state having 66,490 (Nagaland) to as many 16,43,453 (Assam). Seven big states viz., Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura, and Odisha constitute 91.33 % of the total weavers and allied workers. Ten top states with largest number of potentially viable cooperative societies have 90.63% of the total potentially viable cooperative societies. 

Details of the cooperative societies by States is provided in the Table given below:   

Distribution of cooperative societies in India 

S.No  State No. of cooperative Societies No. of Viable/ Potentially Viable cooperative Societies No. of Weavers & Allied Workers (as per handloom census 2009-10) Average No of Weavers per cooperative Society Average No of Weavers per potentially viable cooperative Society
1 AP & Telangana 1420 628 355838 251 567
2 Assam 2,775 1,261 1643453 592 1303
3 Orissa 720 483 114106 158 236
4 Tamil Nadu 1,224 1,009 352321 288 349
5 Uttar Pradesh 3,860 969 257783 67 266
6 West Bengal 449 398 779103 1735 1958
7 Bihar 1,089 45 43392 40 964
8 Chhattisgarh 270 133 8191 30 62
9 Himachal Pradesh 193 183 13458 70 74
10 Karnataka 658 378 89256 136 236
11 Kerala 758 459 14679 19 32
12 Madhya Pradesh 531 202 14761 28 73
13 Mizoram 162 16 43528 269 2721
14 Rajasthan 396 73 31958 81 438
15 Puducherry 14 9 2803 200 311
16 Tripura 9 9 137177 15242 15242
17 Maharashtra 120 114 3418 28 30
18 Nagaland 8 8 66490 8311 8311
19 Gujarat 176 127 11009 63 87
20 Punjab 485 83 2636 5 32
Total All India 15,317 6,587 3985360 260 605

Dozen states3 of the country constitute 89.40 % of the cooperative societies, 91.57 of potentially viable cooperative societies and 97.40 % of total weavers and allied workers of the country.

Status of Handlooms in Andhra Pradesh as per Handloom Census 2009-10

Handloom sector AP & Telangana All India
No. of Units 176996 27,83,271
No. of Handloom Weavers & Allied Workers 355838 43,31,876
No. of Handlooms 124714 23,77,331

A significant fall in total employment in handloom sectors is noticed from 2nd handloom Census and Third Handloom Census. The total number of weavers declined from 65 lakhs in 1995 (2nd Handloom Census,1995) to 43.32 lakh in 2010 (3rd Handloom Census of 2010).

“Estimates show that of the 21,765 registered Primary Weavers’ Cooperative Societies (which cover only around 15% of the weavers in the country), only 50% are functional and that too, partially. Moreover, about 85% of weavers in the country are outside the cooperative fold, as they work either under Master Weavers/ traders or independently”.

1 VSE Division, Planning Commission, Government of India, May 2, 2012 http://planningcommission.gov.in/aboutus/committee/strgrp12/str_handloom0305.pdf

2 Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Nagaland, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal

3 Andhra Pradesh (including Telangana), Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Nagaland, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal