Khadi artisans’ struggle for economic emancipation - Hindustan Times

Khadi artisans’ struggle for economic emancipation

Jun 27, 2022 09:00 AM IST

The article has been authored by Akanksha Borawake, former associate, research and Nissy Solomon, honorary trustee, (Research & Programmes), CPPR.

Khadi, as Gandhi envisioned, promotes the philosophy of self-reliance and indigeneity. A fundamental feature of khadi production entailed a constructive development of rural sections via collective action- characterised by local sourcing, local production and selling. Today there is a marked deviation from this philosophy of khadi for many reasons. The current regulatory framework, which is seemingly created to safeguard the interest of artisans, is perceived as restrictive because the artisans have not been getting remunerative prices for their labour.

Spinners account for approximately 78% of the artisans working in the khadi sector. However, spinners and weavers in the sector earn measly amounts for their skilled work.(HT File) PREMIUM
Spinners account for approximately 78% of the artisans working in the khadi sector. However, spinners and weavers in the sector earn measly amounts for their skilled work.(HT File)

The authentic form of khadi is borne out of a completely manual process. From harvesting natural fibres, refining the fibres, to spinning and weaving, the entire process of making khadi is labour intensive and meticulous, requiring intricate skills from the artisans. However, this elaborate art, in the present age does not pay the artisans well enough to keep them in the field. Many skilled artisans have abandoned the craft and joined the textile shops nearby as piece workers to earn better wages. This has collapsed the operations of a village society.

Spinners account for approximately 78% of the artisans working in the khadi sector. However, spinners and weavers in the sector earn measly amounts for their skilled work. On average, spinners earn between 150-200 per day while weavers earn between 250-500 per day. Spinner wages in the sector are even lesser than the wage of an unskilled worker working in the agriculture sector, which is between 362-400 per day. Artisans’ low earnings are perpetuated by the output linked wage system. Artisans earn wages based on their output for the day rather than earning on an hourly/daily/monthly basis. This results in workers working overtime to earn their daily sustenance.

Until 2012, spinners earned only 2 per hank, which translates to daily earnings worth 40 if the spinner produced 20 hanks per day. Although an 8 spindle New Model Charkha (NMC) displays greater productivity and can produce 20 hanks on an average in an 8-hr workday. Traditional charkhas, in comparison, can produce only 2 hanks. With Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC)’s current prescribed minimum wage rate of 7.5 per hank, NMC spinners can earn a spinner about 150 per day. However, for traditional spinners this can mean a lowly daily wage of 15! To earn a sustainable wage, artisans often take their work home and work longer than the average eight hours per day.

The misplaced reliance on higher productivity to earn higher wages also puts increased emphasis on enhanced productivity as the means to achieve improved economic conditions for artisans. As a result, semi-mechanised charkhas are the norm today, as they allow artisans to boost their daily productivity and consequently their daily wages. Ultimately, traditional khadi produced by some Khadi Institutions (KIs) in the country, is sold indiscriminately under the brand name Khadi along with NMC produced khadi. Although output from traditionally spun khadi requires more intensive labour, artisans working on traditional charkhas do not find it sustainable to survive in the market. The manual labour, expertise and use of traditional techniques such as ginning, drawing and straightening, carding and sliver rolling that go into producing genuine khadi do not get their desired monetary value as a unique product in the market.

Owing to paltry wages the new generation of artisans is gradually exiting the sector to seek better employment opportunities. Unless there is more private participation by entities committed to revive the collective spirit of the village, the traditional art of producing khadi will wither away. Spinning is a great opportunity to provide livelihoods to the rural community as it is easy to learn and requires low capital. It is one of the best ways to boost the economy of rural India and advance towards a green economy and self-reliance. The majority of the workforce in the textile industry are women and hence, empowering indigenous khadi fabrics can provide a stable livelihood to women across the board.

The economic emancipation of local community via khadi, as envisaged by Gandhi laid emphasis on value chains to be within village premises- where many different entities ranging from farmers growing cotton, to weavers, spinners, dyers, work together for the greater good. These are critical success factors that sustain khadi production. Many of the erstwhile production centres are now at crossroads for the lack of labour due to the sector being unable to match the wages offered elsewhere. The current business setting has dissolved the previous localised production model which gave artisans greater control over their own art/skill. It has side-lined artisans to merely being daily wage workers. While KIs play an important role in creating employment opportunities for artisans in rural areas, they have increasingly taken on the role of a middleman. The critical steps in the production process are outsourced to spinners, weavers and other artisans, while the business aspect of the value chain including marketing and selling is undertaken by the KIs. With market linked pricing of khadi products, KIs have an opportunity to earn greater revenues which may or may not get transferred to the artisans. In that sense the social objective of KVIC should have a wider scope of ‘empowering artisans’ instead of only “creating employment opportunities”. To truly empower artisans in the khadi sector, their path to becoming sellers of their own products should be made easier to navigate. Today, individual artisans do not need to possess a khadi mark certificate as they sell their products through government certified KIs. However, if artisans form their own village collective decide to sell their own products directly to a customer base, they will have to apply for a khadi mark certificate.

Artisans may be discouraged from undertaking entrepreneurial activities due to this regulation. To effectively empower artisans in rural areas and to ensure their continued employment in the sector, KVIC needs to ease regulatory barriers in place - particularly that of mandatorily acquiring the Khadi tag to sell khadi. Ideally keeping a khadi mark should be voluntary in nature so that artisans can freely form their collective to produce khadi, without having to fear a legal tussle or navigate through cumbersome procedures. While KVIC can advertise widely about their label being the hallmark of authenticity, it should be left to the discretion of final consumers to buy khadi, with or without the label.

Individual artisans should be encouraged to mobilise their resources and form cooperatives or producer companies, that would enhance their bargaining power in the market, ensure fair wages and increased profits for its members. This would allow artisans to access wider markets and sell their products to entities other than KIs, such as popular textile brands that target the sustainable fashion segment and large e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Myntra and Flipkart. Independent artisans stand to benefit immensely from the prospect of domestic and foreign investment arising from the growing acclaim of sustainable fashion.

The freedom to form associations, the freedom to earn livelihood and choose niche buyers without any form of State coercion is the idea of economic freedom consistent with Gandhi’s philosophy. The time is ripe to undo the unintended damages done to the weavers and artisans’ community through much needed reforms in the sector.

The article has been authored by Akanksha Borawake, former associate, research and Nissy Solomon, honorary trustee, (Research & Programmes), CPPR.

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