J Saroopa spins yarn for a living, earning Rs 2,000 at a handloom society at Huzurabad assembly constituency. She is hopeful that her income will rise to Rs 15,000 in the near future -- the income level promised to 82,438 registered handloom weavers and ancillaries by the Telangana government in the 2017 state budget.
In the past four years, the handloom and textile sector in Telangana has witnessed the launch of a dedicated Textile and Apparel Policy (T-Tap) and schemes in the form of both subsidy and welfare. However, the benefits of these state government initiatives have been criticised by the weavers for being pro power loom. The benefits that the welfare schemes have to offer are also yet to trickle down in the industry chain.
Handloom weavers in the state are aware that support from the centre is decreasing, which is why they are hoping that political parties contesting state elections on December 7 will extend their support to the sector. But so far, no political party has mentioned the weavers in their manifestos, and the weavers are acutely aware of this fact.
Saroopa has been spinning yard for over two decades, and the daily exposure to cotton dust has made her asthmatic. Saroopa used to have health insurance through the Mahatma Gandhi Bunkar Yojana, a central health insurance scheme that was stopped in 2015-16. The weavers have been instead asked to enrol in a centre-sponsored life insurance and accident scheme, but neither offer health insurance to the weavers.
Saroopa, who spins yarn from 8 am to 5 pm and is one amongst 450 weavers at the Huzurabad handloom weaversâ€™ cooperative society, says, â€śBoth my daughters are educated but they do not wish to join the handloom due to low pay.â€ť
Government playing favourites
After coming to power, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) government waived loans of Rs 59 crore of weavers from 2010 to 2017. They announced incentives, training and marketing facilities. The state government even roped in actor Samantha as a handloom brand ambassador for the state.
KT Rama Rao, the handloom and textile minister for the state, allocated Rs 1,200 crore in the 2017 state budget for both the handloom and power loom. Subsidies on chemicals, yarn and colours were also increased from 30% to 50%.
â€śAll these initiatives helped the power loom sector more than handloom,â€ť says N Vaikuntum, manager at the Huzurabad handloom cooperative society, who views the state government as pro power loom. He points out that subsidy for power, interest, transport, and rent, along with assistance for capital, infrastructure and operating among other incentives under T-TAP help power looms keep their production costs low. There are as many as 49,112 power looms in the state.
And he understands why the government is playing favourites. â€śIf we make one lungi in an hour the power loom makes 10 lungis. This is the same reason why the Bathukarma sarees contract went to Siricilla power loom weavers and not even part of that contract came to the handloom weavers. They are able to flood the market with their products in a short time,â€ť he added.
Aside from the competition from power looms, the handloom weavers have been struggling to keep the cost of their end products low since the centre stopped the 20% rebate on handloom products in 2017. â€ťEarlier the state and the centre used to share and subsume 20% of our product costs, but that too has stopped. This has made our products more expensive than an already cheaper power loom product. We need the state to step in and make the market viable for us,â€ť a society manager said. The 5% Goods and Service Tax (GST) has not helped, and the state government reimburses 100% of state GST for power loom, but not for handloom.
When the centre stopped the rebate, the state government hiked the yarn subsidy scheme from 20% to 40%. But the subsidy has not reached the weavers for the past one year and is only extended to weavers who are part of societies.
â€śThe officials say there are some technical issues as a result of which the subsidy will only be available from January next year for some weaver societies. The subsidy was supposed to begin from January this year,â€ť said Vaikuntum.
Encroachment of power looms
P Tirupathi, a Huzurabad weaver, often accompanies his society members to handloom exhibitions across the state. But even that these exclusive handloom exhibitions, power loom products get featured, he laments.
â€śWho do we go and complaint to?â€ť asks Tirupathi, who is demanding that the handlooms department be made separate from the textile department, a demand that as been voiced by other weavers as well.
Saraswathi K, who works closely with weaver societies to ensure they get into exhibitions where only handloom products are sold, said, â€śMost buyers can't make out the difference between a power loom and handloom product. In most of the places, where power loom products are being sold as handloom, this has hit the weavers. Even at exhibitions, be it state or national, 60 to 70% of stalls get taken up by power loom people. There is no control by the department to sell power loom.â€ť She points to the lack of political unity among the weavers as a reason for their low bargaining power. â€śThe weavers are not a united front, they are scattered across several districts and are represented only though societies. This has affected their bargaining power with the state government. But on the other hand there is a strong lobby for power loom in the state,â€ť she added.
Click here to follow TNM's coverage of the Telangana Assembly Elections 2018.