Weavers of Bhagalpur struggle to sustain livelihood amidst pandemic

Weavers of Bhagalpur struggle to sustain livelihood amidst pandemic

Weavers of Bhagalpur struggle to sustain livelihood amidst pandemic

The increased cost of thread and transportation, fall in demand for cloth and shutting of shops during lockdown has affected the lives of the weavers of Bhagalpur in Bihar.

Bhagalpur: Fifty-year-old Mohammad Shabbir Ansari has been spinning yarn and weaving cloth for years. His family has been in the occupation for generations and, like most others, Shabbir learnt to spin yarn during his childhood. The exquisite cloth weaved here by him and his family are sold at high prices and are often exported to international markets.

But the Ansaris continue to remain poor. They live in a kaccha house made of mud and his loom is in bad shape. For all his effort, he manages to earn a maximum of Rs 200-250 a day, but most days even that is tough. He said the pandemic has hurt his already low-income profession, making it difficult for him and his family to get by.

Like the Ansaris, many families in Mirjafari village belonging to the Kharik block in Bihar's Bhagalpur district are struggling to make ends meet. Mirzafari, a village known for its weavers who produce handloom, khadi and linen cloth, has a population of about 10,000. Here, Muslims and people of the Tanti caste are predominantly engaged in the work of weaving Bhagalpuri clothes. 

Brunt of the expenses and none of the profits

Shabbir does not have any assets unlike a few other weavers, nor does he own any agricultural land. As his income from weaving was insufficient, He took four bighas of land (1 bigha is equal to 0.624 acres) on lease at Rs 25,000 per bigha to cultivate bananas. But even in this, he did not make any profit, only debt.   

Shabbir and his wife, Kaifool Khatoon live in a small home, with their three sons and three daughters, all of whom are engaged in weaving. When 101Reporters went to meet the family, his son Asir was spinning linen threads on the loom. He informed us that he was spinning number 70 linen and the cost of 17 metres of the cloth is Rs 30,000. But Asir gets only Rs 60 for weaving one metre of the cloth and if he works an entire day, he can weave five to six metres. He told us that work had completely stopped post the lockdown, and only when the second wave of COVID-19 died down, did they start getting work orders again.

(Above) Shabbir Ansari and his sons; (below) Kaifool Khatoon, the family matriach. All eight members of the family are involved in the weaving trade yet they struggle to make ends meet (Picture credit - Rahul Singh)

Shabbir's uncle Asir Ansari (70) also works as a weaver and he barely earns Rs 100 to 150 a day. If he ends up with any unsold cloth, it further affects his earnings.

The weavers depend on yarn purchased from the market. And the high cost of yarn in recent days has further curtailed their earnings. Mohammad Saud Alam (28) of Mirzafari village, who runs a power loom in Bhiwandi, a city in the Thane district of Maharashtra, said, “Thread prices are skyrocketing, but cloth prices as the same. In fact, if a cloth costs Rs 40, people want to buy it for Rs 38.”

Alam and his two other brothers live in Bhiwandi and operate looms there. They make Rs 500 -600 per day, which is impossible to make back home in the village. Mirzafari-based Afsar Ansari revealed that about 500 boys from their village now live in Bhiwandi and run looms there. Many boys from their village have also moved to Nagpur and Delhi for tailoring work.

Another factor affecting profitability is the high cost of transport. Lakshman Das (48) of Mirzafari revealed how the increased bus, auto and train fares affected the weavers’ income post the outbreak of the pandemic and the imposition of the lockdown. While earlier, it used to cost them around Rs 150 to deliver a bundle of ready-made clothes, it now costs Rs 600. The pandemic has also led to a decrease in demand. Das is the fifth generation of weavers in his family, but he fears his sons may take up other professions to make more money. Das added that before the pandemic they were managing to get by, but now the condition has worsened.

Nagina Das, a 55-year-old weaver who worked with him, said, “Our forefathers have been doing this work but today a hoe-shovel worker in the field earns Rs 300 a day, but we get just Rs 100-150.”

Aleem Ansari, a prominent trader of Bhagalpuri silk and handloom cloth and a member of Bihar Weavers Welfare Committee, said that since the markets and shops were closed during the lockdown, demand reduced, as did the income of the weavers. According to Aleem, the pandemic has reduced the business by 90 per cent.

Selective government involvement

Abid Ansari, 60, head of the Usmanpur Panchayat, stated that till 20 years ago, four to five looms operated in each household, but it is much lesser today. He added that the government should not interfere with the profession and an environment friendly to the weavers should be created. “A cloth which is available in the market for Rs 200 becomes Rs 500 here,” he said, referring to government-controlled khadi shops that sell at inflated prices, stifling demand. He added that in Khalidabad, near Gorakhpur, haats (open-air markets) are held where weavers sell their goods and the same should be done here as well. The government, instead of regulating the prices, should help with infrastructure and other needs while facilitating an open and competitive market, he said.

The Weavers Welfare Committee is headed by the Chief Minister of Bihar himself and the purpose of the committee is to suggest measures for the welfare of its weavers. Aleem stated that after the second wave of COVID-19, the committee has not met and they haven't been able to discuss their problem with the government. They have been trying to convey their grievances through emails, letters and telephone.

On Aleem’s demand, weavers were given MGNREGA labour status earlier this year. They have also requested loans from the government at a one per cent interest rate. 

Local weavers are hoping that government proposal to source school uniforms from Bhagalpur will alleviate some of their troubles, but the implementation of this policy has been slow (Picture credit - Rahul Singh)

According to Aleem, 50,000 families from about 22 villages of Bhagalpur district are dependent on weaving for their livelihood. He said that to ameliorate the deteriorating condition of weavers, he had advised the State Industries Minister, Shahnawaz Hussain, to use the cloth sheets made by the weavers in state government hospitals, in schools and also distribute khadi masks to kids once the school opens. He also advocates building weavers haat and khadi haat, where the weavers' products can be sold in an open market.

On January 19 this year, the Bihar cabinet approved the proposal that uniforms of school students would be procured from local groups and priority would be given to local power looms and handlooms. According to Aleem, 11 crore meters of cloth is required annually for the students in the state. If it is made by the weavers of Bhagalpur, it will be a huge relief for them. But due to the hindrances in the implementation of this policy decision, Aleem wrote a letter to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar on May 26, 2021, asking the government to help distribute two sets of clothes made by the weavers of Bhagalpur to children in the classes from 1 to 12 under Chief Minister Poshak Yojana. Officials say that this proposal has to be implemented jointly by the Department of Education, Department of Industries and Jeevika (an initiative of the Bihar government for poverty alleviation), and it may take time. This bottleneck is taking a toll on the deteriorating economic health of the weavers.

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