The Bathukamma sari scheme, started in 2017 by the Telangana government aimed to encourage handloom and power loom weavers and workers in Rajanna Sircilla.

Workers in a textile unit working on Bathukamma sarisImage Courtesy: PTI
news Ground Report Saturday, October 09, 2021 - 12:52

You can hear the clattering of looms a lane away from 45-year-old Venkata Das’s home in Chenetha Colony in Rajanna Sircilla town, Telangana. As you get nearer, the sound becomes louder. In a cramped and dimly lit shed adjoining his home, you find Das hard at work on eight shuttle looms. The room still smells damp from the heavy rains that flooded his workspace ten days ago.

The rains that lashed the Rajanna Sircilla district and inundated several low-lying areas forced many weavers in the region to stop work temporarily. When TNM visited the area on September 30, the waters had receded, and with no time to lose, Das and other weavers were working overtime on their looms to complete the pending orders of Bathukamma saris.

Venkata Das working at his small unit

The sari order was placed by the Telangana government, which in 2017, started distributing saris every year to women above the age of 18, belonging to weaker sections of society, on the occasion of Bathukamma, which is celebrated between October 6 and 14. Also known as the floral festival, it is celebrated in Telangana and some parts of Andhra, where women gather to create flower arrangements and sing special songs.

According to the Handlooms and Textiles department, this year, the state will be distributing 1.08 crore saris. A total of Rs 333 crore will be spent as part of the initiative to produce saris in 30 new designs and in 20 different colours. Compared to 225 varieties last year, this time 810 varieties will be distributed.

“The saris this year look grand and we are sure the women who are given the same will appreciate it. There is so much hard work and effort that goes into each sari,” said Mettakola Sagar, Assistant Director of Handlooms and Textiles at Sircilla.

Upgrading of looms

However, the weavers aren’t very happy with the government's decision to introduce new designs and patterns this year. Previously the saris had been plain and came in a few different colours.

Now to implement the designs on the saris, the weavers have had to install Jacquard and Dobby technology on their looms, which is an expensive affair. Venkata Das, who has an order to weave 7,200 metres (one saree plus blouse is 6.3 metres), couldn’t afford to buy the technology. It would cost him around Rs 15,000 per loom and as he owns 8 looms, he would have to spend Rs 1.2 lakh in total. So, he borrowed the necessary equipment from the owner of a bigger weaving unit nearby.

The Jacquard and Dobby technology installed on the looms

Speaking to TNM, Venkata Das said, “Even if I work all day, I will hardly make a profit this time. I had to repair the motors of the looms as they had all stopped working after the rainwater inundated my shed.” Added to this, he has to repay the person who loaned him the upgrades for the looms, either in installments or by parting with a share of his profits.

“My body hurts from the long hours of work that I have to put in. Every evening I have a fever due to this. I have no option but to carry on working,” he said. Das will earn Rs 8.50/ metre on this order. But he already has a debt of Rs 1.2 lakh, which he is struggling to repay. He said that due to his children’s increasing school fees and the price of essentials going up his expenses have also mounted.

An image taken while Das worked on his loom

Few streets away from Das’s workshop, the distinctive sound of the looms can be heard. This is the unit from where Das borrowed the Dobby technology. Inside a large space, there are 40 looms that workers are continuously monitoring. The owner of the unit, who was referred to as ‘master’ by Das, had upgraded 14 of the 40 looms with the new technology.

Master, who did not wish to be named, was in his office, which is in the corner of the unit, when TNM visited. Dressed in a well-ironed white khadi shirt and sporting numerous rings on his fingers, he sat at a table with a pile of accounts in front of him.

Master too, shared his grievances about the Bathukamma sari scheme this year and the new designs that have to be weaved. He said, “The government needs to do away with the idea of printed saris or they will have to increase the per metre rate that is given to us.” If neither is done he said that he won’t take up orders next year.

He explained why weaving these saris isn’t feasible for the weavers. “Last year I was able to deliver 9 lakh meters, this year I have barely touched 3 lakh meters. This is because patterns and designs on saris take time, the work slows down and the output substantially decreases,” he said.

Moreover, the upgrades made to the looms are expensive, and not all weavers are trained to use these looms. “To make it worse, not all the workers know how to work with this technology. Only those who have previously worked in textile companies in other states know the mechanism. This makes getting labour very difficult,” he further said.

A collage of the Bathukamma saris with designs on the border

While Master and owners of bigger units were able to afford the upgrades that needed to be installed, small-time weavers were hit hard this year and many had to resort to selling some of their looms to meet expenses.

Venkata Das sold two of his looms for Rs 20,000 each. “I had to sell the looms as scrap. I had no other option. I can’t afford to hire a worker, and I needed money, so I decided to sell them,” he said.

Sari scheme lowered suicide rates

When the Telangana government had initiated the Bathukamma sari scheme five years ago, Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao had announced that he started the scheme to encourage handloom and power loom weavers and workers in the region.

An image taken inside a weaving unit in Sircilla's Shanthinagar

Rajanna Sircilla district has a large presence of people from the Padmashali or the weaver community. Pre-2015, suicides were very common among the people of the community due to rising debts and the inability to make money from handloom sarees.

According to statistics accessed from the department, 27 weavers in this district alone died by suicide in 2015. In 2017, the year the Bathukamma sari scheme was announced, seven weavers died by suicide. In the following years, the numbers gradually decreased and so far, in 2021, there has not been a single suicide in the district.

Many of the weavers TNM spoke to said that up till now, the sari scheme had improved their lives for the better.

Textile Park weavers and Sircilla town weavers

A short distance from Rajanna Sircilla town is Thungallapalli mandal, where there is a Textile Park. This was set up in the early 2000s and was recently renovated and inaugurated by Minister KT Rama Rao in 2020. Compared to the weavers in town who work on shuttle looms, the large units within the Textile Park use fully automated power looms.  A part of the orders to weave Bathukamma saris is given to these units by the government.

The entrance to the Sircilla Textile Park

The weavers’ union from Rajanna Sircilla town has been opposing this vehemently. “Year after year, the number of metres given to the Textile Park for production is substantially rising. They use fully-automated Rapier power looms and they have a large number of looms. They can also afford to hire more workers. Due to these reasons, they are able to produce more quantity in less time. The officials use this as an excuse to allocate them a part of the order,” said Gajula Satyanarayana, a weaver from Shanthinagar in Rajanna Sircilla town.

According to official statistics from the handloom department, 15,058 looms in Rajanna Sircilla town were given orders to produce 589.30 lakh metres. Meanwhile, the Textile Park has 1,600 looms and was allocated 63.49 lakh metres. The total this year stands at 652.79 lakh meters.

A Rapier power loom inside a textile unit in the park

Satyanarayana further added that the order for saris is given to the weavers in town later in the year, giving them less time to complete it. “This year, we were given the order for Bathukamma saris only in April. With only six months we were unable to meet the large demand. If the officials can place the order at the beginning of the year itself, it will give us ample time to finish and will also ensure we have work throughout the year,” said Satyanarayana.

Damage caused by rains

Not only have the weavers of Rajanna Sircilla town had to contend with having to upgrade the technology on their looms and losing orders to the Textile Park, the heavy rains further added to their woes.

Venkata Das pointing to the level to which water had risen after the heavy rains wreaked havoc in Sircilla

Gajula Satyanarayana’s unit faced the fury of the heavy rains and his entire shed was inundated. “We have incurred an expense of around Rs 1 lakh in replacing the motors of the looms and other repair work. The material given to us for the Bathukamma sari production was soiled in the waters that suddenly rose at the unit. We were barely making any profit this year, and now because of the impact of the rains we have suffered huge losses,” said Satyanarayana.

Gajula Satyanarayana showing saris damaged in the inundation in Shanthinagar 

When the issue was brought to the notice of Mettakola Sagar, Assistant Director of Handlooms and Textiles at Sircilla, he said, “We are procuring the soiled and stained material from the weavers so that they will not have to bear the loss due to the inundation.” He further said they are in talks with the government about reimbursing the additional expenses incurred by the weavers to install Jacquard and Dobby technology on their looms.

But the weavers don’t believe any of this will happen. Doodam Srinivas, a 40-year-old weaver who owns a unit with 64 looms in Shanthinagar said, “We are very sure that they will not procure the material that has been destroyed in the heavy inundation. They keep making several promises but most are not fulfilled. We will only have to bear the loss, the repair costs, the additional costs for upgrading the technology leaving us with absolutely no profits this year.”

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