Shed a tear for Varanasi’s famed handloom weavers (Feature)

June 22nd, 2008 - 1:38 pm ICT by IANS  

By Darshan Desai
Varanasi, June 20 (IANS) At the age of two, Shaheena looks just a few months old and weighs an apologetic three kilogram. She lives in a dark, cave-like room in the Dhannipur area of this pilgrim town. There are at least 12 other children like her in the area, all of them hungry and appearing to be waiting for death. They are the children of weavers whose handlooms once used to churn out shimmering Benarasi silk saris.

Some 300,000 such weavers in Varanasi, along with their families, are struggling hard to make ends meet as the handloom industry struggles to survive.

Shaheena’s 30-year-old father Mohammad Rustam, for instance, lives in utter penury. The handloom at his house - a self-made room of bricks - lies still for most days and the work he gets can earn him a maximum of Rs.1,300.

“Food? On some days we eat lunch and on some days dinner. I don’t remember exactly when we had two square meals a day,” says Zahira Mohammad, his wife.

The assault by cheaper, fine polyester passed off as silk from Surat in south Gujarat, Bangalore in south India and China has spelt doom for these handloom weavers who hardly average a monthly income of Rs.1,200.

“With the abolition of quantitative restrictions and falling import duties in the wake of the economic liberalisation since the 1990s, the Varanasi silk sari weavers are facing stiff competition from cheap fabric, especially from China,” Siddique Hassan, convenor of the Bunkar Dastkar Adhikar Manch, told IANS.

The Adhikar Manch is an organisation to fight for the rights of weavers.

Hassan says little concrete assistance has come by from the Uttar Pradesh government, in terms of marketing support.

Industrialist Ashok Kapur points out: “The sari is going out of fashion and being replaced by dresses.

“Besides this, there is more demand for polyester and ready silk like the one which comes from China. Trends are changing, there are few who wish to wait for a Rs.3,000 worth of pure silk sari that would take some time to produce at a handloom.”

It’s a vicious cycle. Most of the weavers today operate through middlemen, instead of selling directly to shopkeepers. So while a weaver gets paid about Rs.300 per sari, the same sells in the market for nothing less than Rs.2,000.
But a shrinking market doesn’t give them enough contracts.

The case of Shahbuddin, the two-year-old son of weaver Mohammad Idris who died last month, is striking. He too was suffering from malnutrition and weighed six kg when he died.

On May 14, volunteers of the Varanasi-based People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) took Shahbuddin to Renuka Srivastava, associated with the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), who diagnosed him as suffering from severe malnutrition.

“We immediately took him to the district hospital and one of our volunteers also donated blood to Shahbuddin but it was too late. He died. All our pleas to the government authorities fall on deaf ears,” said Lenin Raghuvanshi, who heads PVCHR.

IANS has the medical reports of the 13 other children in Dhannipur who have been certified as severely malnourished by ICDS officials. The parents of these children went to meet the Varanasi district magistrate May 24, but to no avail.

“The government would never agree to a hunger death,” said Raghuvanshi.

Mohammad Idris makes some Rs.1,000 a month from whatever weaving work he gets. He has another son, nine-year-old Mainuddin, who helps him with some additional money - Rs.150 a month, doing embroidery on saris. He also looks weak and obviously ill fed. His sister Rubina, at four, barely looks two years old.

“The government has a convenient tool to dismiss a hunger death as one caused by disease,” says Raghuvanshi, who claims to have reported 42 starvation deaths of weavers in Varanasi district over the past few years.

“I have reported these deaths to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission as I see little hope in the state government taking a holistic view of the issue,” he says.

Most of the expert artisans of handloom and embroidery have either migrated to cities like Bangalore, Surat, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Delhi or shifted to other unskilled professions.

“Not less than 40 percent have migrated, those who have stayed back don’t have the money to travel to any of these places and do sundry jobs,” says Siddique Hassan.

Mohammad Naseem’s is a case in point. A skilled artisan, he used to make Rs.75 a day till his income plummeted to less than half and he had to look for better avenues.

He became a rickshaw-puller and now takes home Rs.75 or more every evening. He is not the only one - hundreds of weavers like him have turned to rickshaw-pulling.

(Darshan Desai can be contacted at darshan.d@ians.in)

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