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Salem silk handloom weavers struggle

by George Rajasekaran
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The post-lockdown months have not seen a return to normalcy as far as silk handloom weavers in Salem are concerned.  As the countdown has begun for Deepavali festival season sales, they are still under the grips of uncertainty.

What Kancheepuram is for silk saris, Salem is for white silk dhotis and angavastrams – a geographic identity for the products. White Silk (Venpattu) dhotis unique to Salem are produced by the local traditional weaving communities, The silk dhotis of Salem are famed for their lustre, whiteness, technical excellence and novelty of border. It is believed that the water used in the region is responsible for enhancing lustre to raw silk and maybe one of the reasons for the whiteness and shining of silk dhoti.  The jari in the border and pallu in the form of kambi are also unique.

As far as handloom silk saris are concerned, Salem is one of the leading production centres like Kancheepuram, Dharmavaram, Arni and Thirubuvanam.

White silk dhotis and saris are produced through cooperative societies, which have government support schemes, and through a decentralised production network comprising master weavers and weavers.

About 200 master weavers produce various types of white silk dhotis and angavastarams through 20,000 weaver families. Master weavers supply silk yarn to the weavers who would weave the product in home-based looms and get paid on a piece basis.  A disruption at any stage — from silk supply to production and marketing — will affect the entire chain. The weavers, who get paid on piece basis at the bottom of the chain, would be the worst hit as their living conditions are precarious, according to various studies.

Stagnation

As the lockdown eased in June the retail shops and malls were the last to be permitted to open. However, when once opened the cycle of business activity has not resumed instantly.

“The off-take from shops is slow and has not picked up in the last few months. The shops are lacking sufficient footfalls due to which they are not placing orders as they used to do in the corresponding period last year. Post easing of lockdown, production is carried out only at 30 per cent of the normal business,” says master weaver V. Rajan Babu of Sri Vasu Pradha Silks, Salem, a traditional white silk dhoti producer.

The handloom silk sari clusters, which are concentrated in Jari Kondalampatti on the southern outskirts of Salem city, are in a similar situation. There are about 15,000 weavers and about 10,000 looms operating in the area.

Stocks that did not move during April-June piled up at the master weavers’ end and payments for stocks despatched prior to lockdown was not made by clients and the revenue cycle stopped completely, say manufacturers.

“Due to current low off-take, we are only able to slowly liquidate the piled up stocks which would be worth about Rs 200 crore to3 Rs.300 crore in Salem. Shops also hold unsold stocks. Yet, we have been giving minimum work to the weavers up to one sari in a week in anticipation of Deepavali orders.  This is to enable them with some livelihood. But the quantum of work given during this lean period to weavers depends on the individual capacity of the manufacturers,” says K. Balaraman, President, Jari Kondalampatti, Silk Manufacturers Association.

Disrupted cycle

He further says, “We thought the disrupted cycle would normalise with Deepavali sales, but to our dismay, orders from our clients have not come to the expected level. This is because of low customer demand. People are still hesitant to come to shops because of the Coronavirus scare.” Handloom manufacturers are yet to go online in order to get direct orders from consumers because of lack of knowledge and inability of small manufacturers to offer a wide range, unlike large retailers.  For all practical purposes, the current year will not improve much. Things may improve in 2021, says Mr. Balaraman,

“Handloom sector has been traditionally operating without formal banking support. We have not sought any loan support from banks, given the stiff competition and thin margins.  It would not be profitable to incur additional expenditure on interest. I see the solution in return of consumer demand which remains unpredictable as the pandemic continues to sweep across cities and towns,” says Mr. Rajan Babu. But Mr. Balaraman differs saying, officials and bankers are indifferent to their distress as in the case of agriculturalists.

The impact of the depression in the handloom sector falls heavily on the weavers whose incomes have been hit without orders, says Mr. Rajan Babu.

Meanwhile, industry sources say that many handloom weavers have migrated to alternative employment and it will be difficult to bring them back into a profession which is already in doldrums.

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