Pandemic dims lustre of roaring silk trade in Sualkuchi, Assam

Pandemic dims lustre of roaring silk trade in Sualkuchi, Assam

Pandemic dims lustre of roaring silk trade in Sualkuchi, Assam

Weavers and entrepreneurs at the silk centre of Assam are struggling to recover from subsequent lockdowns as festival and wedding celebrations are subdued. 

Guwahati: Sualkuchi, a quaint little town in Kamrup district of Assam, is in the grips of the global pandemic. The town renowned for its silk trade, which in its heydays provided livelihood to over 50,000 people across the state with an annual turnover of Rs 100 crores, is struggling to cope, faced with monetary and job losses.

The town does roaring business during the festival and wedding season. But the health protocols put in place since last year to check the spread of the pandemic has affected the business and brought many small businesses here to the verge of closure.

Located some 40 km from Guwahati, Sualkuchi has a historical heritage dating back to the 11th Century AD. King Dharam Pal of the Pala dynasty established Saulkuchi as a weaving hamlet by settling 26 weaving families in this village, more than 1000 years ago. Eventually, it became a silk weavers township.

Trade of indigenous silk hit 

Pat, Muga, and Eri silk, and the ‘Mekhela Chador’, Gamusa and Dokhonas, the town’s exquisite silk products are much sought after across India and many parts of the world. The town gets many clients from outside the state and abroad who purchase in bulk. But since the pandemic, the town’s entrepreneurs have lost even those clients. It's been more than 17 months of poor business and people associated with the silk industry fear it will be very long before they can say it is business as usual.

“We always do good business in the two festival seasons in Assam – the Bohag Bihu or the Assamese New Year, and the Durga Puja. Last year we suffered losses as it was complete lockdown during the Bihu season and restrictions were in place during the Puja. We also suffered losses during the wedding season as the ceremonies were held without pomp and grandeur,” rued Kushal Medhi, the proprietor of Chayanika Silk House.

The current year has not been any good either, Medhi said. “The silk entrepreneurs are hoping that they get good business during the Durga puja season at least this year.”

Entrepreneurs associated with the industry said that the whole chain of the silk business, that takes products from the weavers to the hands of the customers, has been severely disrupted. “There are several segments which keep this trade alive. This includes the weavers and support staff to the people selling the final products at the shops. The covid situation has disrupted this entire chain which otherwise has been moving smoothly,” said Diganta Kalita, a silk entrepreneur, who runs a small factory.

“Here in Sualkuchi, we have around 7,000 functional looms, which engages over 20,000 weavers. Besides the weavers, we have the support staff that number in the thousands. Now they and the entrepreneurs are staring at a dark future,” said Hiralal Kalita of the Sualkuchi Tant Silpa Unnayan Samiti, the weavers’ association in this town. “When the lockdown was announced, everyone had thought that it would just be a temporary phase lasting a few days, but things are yet to recover,” Kalita added. 

The looms in Sualkuchi lie silent as the pandemic disrupts the whole whole silk supply and business chain (Picture credit - Wikimedia Commons)

Weavers buried under loans 

The weavers who earn on a per-product basis expressed worry that the situation might not return to normal and sales will not pick up soon. “Earlier we could comfortably earn anywhere from Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 per month. But immediately after the lockdown last year, our income came down to almost nil. And though we started to earn again, the income is not like before,” said Bubul Das, a weaver there. 

Das explained that they work around the year. Now with a fall in demand post-covid, their incomes have fallen sharply, he added. “The requirement of new products depends on the sale of products and the existing stock, and this year the weavers could have even lesser work and subsequently less income,” Kalita explained.

Last year after the lockdown was announced, many weavers had taken a loan to sustain themselves through the lean period. They were hoping to earn more when the situation normalised. However, that has not happened yet. Gunin Deka is one such weaver who had taken a loan and is now worried as the interest is accumulating over the delay in repayment. “Initially I had thought that the crisis would not last more than two months and I had taken a loan of Rs 30,000 from a money-lender to survive the period. I was hoping to earn more and pay it back, but I have not been able to earn enough to pay it entirely and the interest is accumulating,” Deka told 101Reporters. 

The weavers and the entrepreneurs however are hopeful that they will be able to make up for some of their losses by the end of this year if manage to do good sales during the Durga puja in October and the wdding season which runs from January to April. The next major festival season after that is only Bohag Bihu in April 2022. “The Sualkuchi town does business worth over Rs 15 crore just during the wedding season. But last year, we did less than one-fourth of the usual business,” said Kalita. 

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