SJM and the loom doom at Dubbak by – K Raka Sudhakar Rao
1. The problem
2. SJM’s ( Swadeshi Jagaran Manch’s ) initiative
“You may have heard of cyanide capsules that the LTTE guerrillas carry. This …..is our cyanide capsule,” K Lakshminarayana told us as he showed the white powder in a plastic pouch.
“Just wash down a spoonful of this powder……Death comes quickly and silently. Just 10 grams is what it takes to make a family go to eternal sleep,” Lakshminarayana continued with a nonchalance that comes only when one is a witness to many a neighbourhood suicide.
We stared at the innocent-looking white death with shock and horror.
That was what the handloom weavers call nitrite, a must-use chemical for dying the yarn.
“Death is so simple a solution for most of the handloom weavers – an end to all our woes, a full-stop to all our days of starvation and poverty. And you know what….? Nitrite comes much cheaper….in fact, cheaper than a kilo of rice,” said Lakshminarayana as a quivering voice choked with emotion.
“We keep this nitrate in a locked room and we do not allow the weavers to have an access to it. You never know….anyone can gulp it down in a moment of weakness,” he added as tears welled up in his eyes.
The nitrite that adds colour to the fabrics is also the agent of death for those who make the fabric. Ironic! Isn’t it?
Dubbak – a non-stop death knell
Welcome to Dubbak, the death-bed of once-famed handlooms that till recently clothed the countless Indians. This small town in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh saw over 125 handloom weaver deaths caused either by starvation or by suicide. Dubbak today is a non-stop death knell. Dubbak, for all we know, is symptomatic of all that is wrong with the handloom sector.
Till recently, homes and work stations in Dubbak resonated with the rhythmic cluck cluck of the looms and the weavers churned out yards and yards of clothes that found ready market everywhere. There was so much demand that the weavers had to work in shifts.
There were over 10000 looms Dubbak, neighbouring Lacchapet, Ramakkapet, Habsipur, Chittapur, Dharmajipet, Mote, Challapur, Dumpanapalli and several other villages. Traders from as far as Odisha used to descend in flocks to Dubbak to place orders and give advances.
Siddipet, the nearest town, too was a handloom hub with the countless looms continuously rocking in nearby villages like Chandalapur, Chinna Kodur, Rajagopalpet, Ande, Dhoolmitta, Kasalabad, Ibrahimnagar and Palamatla.
All snakes and no ladders
But, all that is past. Today, hardly a couple of hundreds of looms operate in this town. Market vagaries, shifting choices of fickle customers and above all, lopsided policies and priorities of the powers that be have reduced Dubbak to a poor shadow of its former self. With the Janata Sarees and Janata Dhoti scheme dying a natural death, fund flows dried up for the weavers.
The government obviously has little interest in the survival of the handloom sector. There are no incentives and hardly any protective measures to sustain the weavers. In the government scheme of things, the hapless weaver is left to fend for himself in a game where there are just snakes and snakes and no ladders.
The prices of the yarn, the chief raw material, are sky-rocketing. The per-box price of yarn, which ranged between Rs 1800 and Rs 1900 in December 2009, has shot up to Rs 2600 in just four months. A weaver can make 12 sarees from one box of yarn at the rate of one saree in two days. What the weaver gets out of one saree is Rs 120. Thus a weaver gets up to Rs 1500 for an investment of Rs 2600. In other words, there is a loss of Rs 1100 on every box of yarn. This computation does not include the man-hours put in. It is this inverse economics that is doing the weaver in. It is this imbalance that is sucking the weavers into the bottomless pit of starvation, indebtedness and despair.
What more? Weaving activity calls for the involvement of every member of the weaver’s family. At least seven members have to work at pre-loom and post-loom levels and the wages are unimaginably low. For instance, the wage for spinning of the yarn is an abysmal Rs 5. What a weaver gets is Rs 120 for a saree, which takes at least two days for weaving.
Come to think of it. The wages in the supposedly-sustainable handloom sector is Rs 60 a day, while the daily earnings of an unskilled labourer in the dependency-spawning National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is Rs 125 for just four-hours of work. No wonder! Most weavers now find NREGS more lucrative.
Spectre of starvation
Poverty, lack of work and the spectre of starvation have forced most weavers to migrate. Some landed in power loom companies in neighbouring Sircilla in Karimnagar or Bhivandi and Sholapur in Maharashtra. Many more ended up as hotel workers, masons and casual labourers in cities like Hyderabad, Mumbai and Nizamabad.
“The last bus from Siddipet town is always crowded and most of the commuters are youths from Dubbak, who head home after day-long toil as hotel workers, tailors or salesmen in clothes shops. Most women have taken to rolling of beedis, remunerative but highly hazardous thanks to hours of passive inhaling of raw nicotine,’’ informed Gavvala Anjaiah.
Sadly, with no government support forthcoming, the weavers are forced to approach three Siddipet-based Seths, who virtually control the handloom market in Dubbak. These Seths hardly provide work for half the month.
The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch survey, conducted with the help of management students from several colleges, showed that most families suffer from starvation and most children are under-nourished. Most weavers reside in rented houses in their own villages. Sadly, the youth have stopped working on the looms. It is only the old, who still take to weaving.
“I have been working on the looms from the age of 13. Weaving is nothing short of an addiction for me. Though non-remunerative, I still sit on the loom whenever I find time,” says Ramaswami of Dubbak.
“ I am 75 years old. My limbs are beginning to tremble due to nervous disorder. Yet, I work on the looms. But, none of my sons work on looms. This craft, I am afraid, will vanish with me,” said Allam Gangaram.
When even Dhanis become ‘Dukhis’!!
The SJM survey revealed the existence of a three-tier pyramid in Dubbak. At the top of the pyramid are the moneyed Seths. Dhanis are the intermediaries between the Seths and the weavers. Dhanis are so called as they lend money and provide work to the weavers. But, tough times have forced even the Dhanis to look sideways.
“I used to have 30 looms. Today, there are just 10. 15 of my weavers have migrated and seven had ended their lives,” said Lakshminarayana, one of the very few Dhanis who still work on looms. At the bottom of the pyramid are the weavers and their family members.
The survey further showed that none of the handloom schemes like the project package, integrated handloom rural development scheme, handloom development centres and quality dyeing unit scheme and Deendayal Hathkargha Protsahan Yojana or the welfare schemes like health package schemes, workshed-cum-housing scheme, thrift fund scheme, insurance scheme, margin money for destitute weavers scheme and the loan interest subsidies reach the weavers. Government programmes like the APCO and the cooperative handloom movement too have proved to be nothing more than a zilch for the weavers. Though over 400 oldage pensions have been issued, the Rosaiah Government has now embarked upon ‘weeding’ them out. Though the village has a handloom cluster, it is in the vice-like grip of a handful of politically well-connected officianados.
In most Telangana hamlets, the door frames are adorned with the wooden statuettes of horses on both sides. The survey team noted that most wooden horse statuettes have been uprooted in Dubbak. When asked, the villagers said some people had come all the way from Uttar Pradesh to buy those images. They gave rice for the images, which they would sell as artifacts at premium prices to eager buyers. That the weavers had little qualm disfiguring their doorframes for a morsel of food gives us a measure of poverty and starvation in Dubbak region.
The SJM survey has revealed that;
· Though the weavers are ready to work on the looms, the Dhanis are unable to provide enough work to them
· The loom technology is outmoded and thus has become highly non-remunerative. Loom upgradation has not taken place. There are no Jacquard Looms in Dubbak. The weavers work on unhygienic pit-looms.
· Changing customer needs are not taken into account. There has been no value-addition to the products. Most of the produce is out of sync with the changing textile choices of the customers. There is a dire need of skill upgradation and product diversification.
· The weavers lack credit facility and have no access to the market. The raw material availability too has been a problem.
· Sky-rocketing prices of the yarn have turned the handloom economy topsy turvy. There has been no corresponding rise both in the product price as well as the weavers’ wages.
· The Dubbak weavers have become dispirited and demoralized due to low wages and poverty. This has made a significant number of weavers liquor addicts.
· Most weavers live in rented houses.
· There is no protection from occupational diseases like asthma, tuberculosis, arthritis and skin ailments.
· There aren’t any social security schemes for women, the aged and the infirm.
Ritual of condolence, consolation and empty assurances
It is not that Dubbak has never been on the radar of the politicos. Politicians of all hues and shades did descend every time there was a weaver’s death to enact the ritual of condolence, consolation and solemn assurances that are never intended to be implemented. Camera clicks and news coverage later, they retreated into their cozy and inaccessible lairs. Weavers’ deaths don’t make news anymore now.
The weavers did make efforts to highlight their plight. Every time there was a furore, VIP convoys trooped in, statements were made, study teams constituted and the reports piled up as were empty assurances.
While the power loom crisis in neighbouring Sircilla of Karimnagar has made national headlines and went on to become a powerful poll issue, the deaths in Dubbak never managed to grab political attention. Everyone – ranging from TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu to PRP chief Chiranjeevi – went on political pilgrimages to Sircilla and the Government was forced to implement a special economic assistance package for the weavers. Ex-gratias were announced for the kin of the deceased weavers. But, Dubbak was a different story. Firstly, there was no political will to bail out Dubbak weavers. Secondly, the weavers of Dubbak were vary of police panchnamas (inquests) and thus were robbed of ex-gratias. Only one out of the 125 bereaved families managed to receive ex-gratia.
While Sircilla has a functional Antyodaya Anna Yojana scheme that assures 35 kg of rice per family every month, Dubbak has none. Extending the Anna Yojana to Dubbak would at least keep the wolf of starvation away from the door.
Dubbak would have been immensely benefited if only the Government had set up an apparel park or a garment-making unit on the lines of the one operating in Sircilla.
What needs to done?
Packages, pensions and subsidized rice are but temporary palliatives. What is needed for Dubbak is a concerted and committed engagement not just to alleviate the weavers’ lot, but also to make their work both sustainable as well as remunerative.
The SJM study has primarily identified three core areas that call for concerted action;
· Capital access enhancement for weavers: This calls for special incentive schemes and active partnership for synergy of efforts from both the Government and the non-governmental agencies. Improved access to credit and assured sales in the form of buy-back agreements will also go a long way in empowering the weavers.
· Improved access to trade avenues: This entails provision of B2B, B2C interfaces for the weavers, entrepreneurial development initiatives and provision of market access by involving both public and private partnerships. Currently, the Dubbak weavers are selling their merchandise in nearby weekly shandies at Toopran, Lacchapet, Ramayampet, Dubbak and Cheryal. Their lot would greatly improve if they get to participate in handloom exhibitions and vastra melas.
· Quality improvement and Capacity building: This is something that is a must for the handloom industry in general and for Dubbak in particular. This calls for skill upgradation training programmes and implementation of newer and effective loom technologies. One also notices that there is no product diversification in Dubbak. Handloom handbags, purses, decorative items and others have a ready market in the upmarket segment. Fashion designers from agencies like the NIFT could be involved in design development. Similarly, making of value-added products like stuffed dolls and pillows could be made from the cotton waste from the looms. There is also a dire need for training packages, tour programmes and technology exchange
All these may appear to be both cost-intensive and time-consuming as well. But, it is a trouble worth taking. “The Government, which spends mega bucks on preserving ancient monuments and protecting endangered fauna. Why can’t it protect and preserve handloom industry, which has a hoary tradition of being the second biggest livelihood provider after farming and has had a great role in emancipating India from the British yoke?” asks Appala Prasad, state general secretary of the SJM.
After all, Andhra Pradesh has over 3.30 lakh looms that provide livelihood to over 1.80 crore persons. Isn’t this enough a reason for the Government to come to its rescue?
Dubbak, the SJM engagement
The SJM’s engagement with Dubbak began way back in 2007, when it was in a struggle to better the lot of Sircilla weavers. During the course of the Sircilla survey, several weavers had mentioned about the plight of Dubbak weavers and had underscored the need for some affirmative action.
With the SJM succeeding in forcing the political forces to sit up and take notice of Sircilla’s loom doom as also in getting the government to declare a special economic package for Sircilla, its responsibility grew bigger and the desire to reach out to Dubbak became stronger. Thus began SJM’s foray into Dubbak.
This March, the SJM had formally decided to conduct a comprehensive socio-economic survey of Dubbak’s ailing handloom sector. A preparatory meet was held with local SJM activists to thrash out focal issues. SJM former national convener P Muralidhar Rao, state SJM secretary Appala Prasad, local activist Vadla Raju and others had attended the brainstorming sessions to chart out a road map for further action.
On March 25, the SJM organized an awareness meet at the Vaisya Bhavan in Dubbak, in which over 200 weavers from Dubbak, Lacchapet, Dharmajipet and Ramakkapet recounted their woes. This interface proved to be of great help in developing both micro as well as macro perspective on Dubbak. SJM’s Muralidhar Rao guided the deliberations. This was followed up by preparing a comprehensive questionnaire for conducting the survey. Management students from various prestigious institutions drawn from various parts of Telangana region were roped into for the intensive and extensive house-to-house survey in both Dubbak and Siddipet mandals.
The survey proved to both a shocker and an eye-opener. On several occasions, the students involved in the survey, were moved to tears seeing the plight of the weavers. Many students had vowed to continue their engagement with the SJM.
The survey apart, the SJM organized expert visits to Dubbak. Noted Swadeshi economist Saiprasad visited Dubbak on April 4, while journalists Raka Sudhakar and N Venkatesh toured the area on April 11 and April 25 respectively. They gave wide coverage to the plight of Dubbak weavers. The report by N Venkatesh in Sakshi in particular had evoked empathetic response from the state Government, which later went on to announce a special package to the hapless weavers. The report assumed poignance as Ajja Krishna Hari, one of the starving weavers interviewed by Venkatesh, had died on the same day the story was being aired. This created a state-wide furore, forcing the government to act fast. Besides, the SJM roped in local media, which was all support to the cause and gave wide coverage of both the survey and the plight of the weavers.
Building political consensus
At the political level, the SJM activists had elicited the support of local MLA Ch Mutyam Reddy, former MLA Solipeta Ramalinga Reddy, TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu, local MP Vijaya Shanti, BJP former state chief Bandaru Dattatreya and several other local leaders. Some local Congressmen like Sri B Manohar Rao, who also runs Nava Jyothi, an NGO, had approached minister from the district, Geeta Reddy, for help and support to the weavers. Responding to SJM appeal, Chandrababu Naidu on May 15 demanded a special package for the Dubbak weavers. The SJM activists had met Chandrababu Naidu and Vijaya Shanti a second time on June 3 and June 2 respectively. Vijaya Shanti had informed the SJM that she had written to Union Textile Minister Dayanidhi Maran on the plight of Dubbak weavers. Besides, CPM MLA Julakanti Ranga Reddy, TRS former MLAs Etela Rajender and Harish Rao, former TDP MP Nimmala Kishtappa, TDP MLA dayakar Rao, former union minister Ch Vidyasagar Rao (BJP) and CPI MLA Mallesham were contacted. All these leaders had assured to extend their support and lend their voice for the cause of Dubbak weavers.
At the administrative level, the SJM leaders called on local RDO and the district collector and took up the issue of Dubbak weavers with them. On April 22 and 23, Dubbak weavers had submitted petitions to MRO, RDO and other officials.
All these have forced the Government to sit up and take notice. On April 29, Textiles Minister Balineni Srinivasa Reddy had assured through the media that a Sircilla-type package would be implemented for Dubbak weavers.
Massive public meetings were organized on behalf of the SJM at Lachchapet on April 18 and a huge rally was taken out at Dubbak on May 2. A massive satyagraha at Dubbak on May 22 also shook the Government to the core. Similar meetings was held at Ramakkapet on May 30
While being involved in agitational and organizational approaches, the SJM had also not lost sight of the urgent and immediate needs of the weavers. A host of SJM activists continued to visit Dubbak to boost the weavers’ morale. Among them were SJM state co-conveners P Srinath and Narsimha Naidu.
On April 21, the SJM team had supplied rice bags to the starvation-hit weavers’ families. Later, the Chakri Charitable Trust, being run by noted film music director Chakri, had donated rice and groceries, all worth over Rs 1000 each, to 100 families. Similarly, the Male Chenchu Reddy Memorial Trust had come forward to give monthly pension of Rs 300 to 30 selected families. The employees of the Hyderabad-based AG’s office have begun providing rice to 12 selected families. On May 31, Hyderabad-based Bharati Trust, being run by Hanumath Prasad, had given Rs 10000 to Gavvvala Kalyan of Dubbak to enable him to continue his higher studies.
The SJM had published a preliminary report on the plight of Dubbak weavers on June 5 and released it to the media. Andhra Jyothi, a leading Telugu daily, had carried an abridged version of the report on its edit page on June 9.
This multi-mode campaign by the SJM, which has unleashed a concerted and coordinated effort involving media awareness, cobbling up political consensus, sensitizing general public and creating pressure on the administration on one hand and help and succor in the form of charity work on the other, had proved successful in bringing the plight of Dubbak weavers to the centre-stage of socio-political discourse.
The SJM activists are in constant touch with the Dubbak weavers and are accessing information about the handloom schemes and Dubbak handloom cluster with the help of the Right to Information Act. District SJM co-convener Vadla Raju, district convener V Malla Reddy, Siddipet town convener N Anji Reddy, local leaders Balla Rajesh, Gavvala Dubba Rajam, Kalwa Laxminarayana, Gajula Bhaskar, Rapelli Nagaraju, Ram Narender, Kalwa Rajamouli and others are in constant touch with the Dubbak weaves to instill confidence in them and boost their morale.
The SJM Demands
The following are the demands put forth by the SJM.
· A special package worth Rs 10 crore to Dubbak weavers on the lines of the Sircilla package
· Provision of Rs 1 lakh as ex-gratia to the kin of the handloom weavers who had either committed suicide or died of starvation and handloom work-related diseases. In case provision of ex-gratia is not possible, the Government should grant financial assistance from the CM’s relief fund
· Implementation of Antyodaya Anna Yojana for Dubbak farmers so as to provide them with 35 kg of rice per month.
· Extension of loan waiver schemes and advancement of fresh loans to enable the weavers to procure raw material
· Provision of subsidy for the purchase of yarn
· Provision of market access to handloom products.
· Extension of schemes like Pavala Vaddi (loan at 25 paise interest) and Rajiv Yuvasakthi to weavers. Linking up of handloom weaving work to NREGS
· Provision of old age pension worth Rs 500 to all eligible handloom weavers.
· Ensuring greater transparency in the functioning of the handloom cluster
· Setting up of a government hospital at Dubbak to address the occupational health needs of the weavers.
· Provision of housing facility to all weavers.
· Stricter implementation of handloom related acts and rules.
· Issuance of identity cards to all weavers.
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Those desirous of contributing in the cause of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch are requested to contact Sri Appala Prasad, Orgainsing Secretary, Andhra Pradesh @ firstname.lastname@example.org