Andhra Pradesh political parties woo Dharmavaram handloom weavers, but is industry beyond point of no return?

G Ram Mohan | Apr 7, 2019 | 9 min read


With a fast-paced life the norm and women spoilt for choice in what they wear, saree might have lost its place of pride in a woman’s wardrobe. But when it comes to dressing up for an occasion, Dharmavaram sarees are one of the most sought after.

The hues the crafty weavers of Dharmavaram bring into their sarees, however, seem to be increasingly making their own lives colourless. Reason: the newly introduced GST and other anti-weaver measures that, stakeholders of the industry in the Ananthapur district town say, are breaking its back.

With a GI (geographical indication) tag to boast of, the stakeholders say the government needs to honour the promises it made to them.


Weaving a slow death

The profession, traditionally practiced by the weaver communities, namely Togata, Devanga, Padmashali, Kurni, and Swakula Sale, found takers across castes and religions over a period of time, owing to severe droughts in the district.

Besides the GST blow, P Ramanjaneyulu, state president of Andhra Pradesh Handloom Workers Union, says the industry’s steady deterioration started with Centre’s reforms initiated under late PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, and merging the handloom sector with the power loom and mills sectors sounded the death knell. This, he informs, deprived the handloom sector a dedicated ministry and bureaucratic machinery needed for its welfare.

Ramanjaneyulu adds that all these moves have reduced allocations for the handloom sector as more money is given to the power loom and mills sectors, which have the wherewithal to lobby. The unorganised nature of the handloom sector doesn’t give it any leverage with the powers that be.

The changes brought in 1985 reserved 11 items for the handloom sector -- sarees, dhotis, pavada (a long skirt worn by young girls), and towels among others. This, activists say, is being violated to the hilt.

Mills lobby’s attempts to get all items de-reserved for handloom failed when the Supreme Court, in its ruling in Parvej Akhtar and others Vs Union of India and others in 1993, ruled in support of the 1985 Act, upholding it as “a measure necessary for protecting the livelihood of weavers”.

However, in 1996, the government eased the norms to allow 45% of the items reserved for handloom sector to be made in the power loom and mills sectors, further revising it to 55% in 2008, which resulted in the violations.

The machinery to implement these norms is based in Chittoor district’s Tirupati, which is 260 kilometres from Dharmavaram. Chittoor district, too, has handloom hubs, namely Madanapalle and Nagari. These places, however, have power looms too, despite the declaration of Dharmavaram as a handloom hub, which bars the establishment of power looms in the town.

Ramanjaneyulu says getting the government to fulfill its own promises is proving to be a task. “A case is pending in the AP High Court seeking proper implementation of the handloom zone in Dharmavaram. Acceptance of this demand would mean a strict enforcement of the ban on power looms in the town,” he adds.

“There are 450-odd power looms in Dharmavaram, all openly flouting norms. There is an advisory board at the central level, which meets every six months to look into the status of implementation of the 1985 Act. This body comprises those who represent the power loom and the mills sectors, leaving the handloom sector ignored. A survey should be done to find out how many are dependent on each sector, and budget should be allocated accordingly.”

The start of the (GS)Taxing times

G Parthasarathy, president of Dharmavaram Handloom Merchants Association, says, “Handlooms provide employment to more people. Power looms are cutting into our profits. And while we didn’t have any taxes earlier, we now have to pay GST on raw materials and a 5% tax on the finished product. We provide goods on credit and can get back money only six to 12 months ahead. But we have to pay GST on all the goods we sell, as our business is above the Rs 20-lakh threshold, which puts us in the tax bracket.

“Meanwhile, tax credits from the GST mechanism are delayed, while chartered accountants’ expenses have increased. To raise way bills and file these returns, we need extra staff. It’s high time the government implemented the Supreme Court order on the 1985 Act.”  

However, C Narayanaswamy, owner of a proprietary firm, avers that GST is good as it helps to account for all goods. But he does cite delay in refunds of GST credits as a problem. “Our business is seasonal. Some parties pay us in a month, some even take 12 months. The amount paid as advance GST, even on unsold stock, gets stuck,” he explains.

“Only premium sarees are being made in handloom now. Over the last two years, business has veered towards the power loom, as the traders get goods after paying GST and can claim tax credits. Moreover, more designs are being made in power looms as older ones have become passé. Small traders with less turnover find it difficult to pay tax before sales.”

S Suryanarayana, owner of Sri Ramanjaneyulu Silks in Dharmavaram, says those with handlooms of their own are able to earn better, as they save on weaving costs. “I had sold handloom for 15 years, but for the last three years, I have only been able to sell power loom sarees. Silk has become costlier, and only a handful are able to sell sarees to premium customers and survive.”

Where have all the schemes gone?

Workers and owners of handlooms say that many schemes meant for them have either been stopped or not implemented. A scheme under which 4 kg of inputs like zari and silk were being given with 10% subsidy was scrapped four years ago after traders, in connivance with officials, swindled funds. This after CM N Chandrababu Naidu promised to provide raw materials at 50% subsidy.

“Many other schemes that were useful to us have been stopped, including a health scheme introduced by the previous government, which was discontinued in 2014,” says K Easwar Ranga, a weaver.

“A scheme to give Rs 4,000 to weavers to help them survive during monsoons has not been implemented for 20 years now,” says A Suryanarayana, adding that he had to mortgage some gold to help his daughter to continue her studies.

A scheme to give Rs 1,000 to every weaver, to tide over the meagre income of around Rs 6,000 they manage to earn, has not been implemented for around 25,000 families since 2011. Hence, they are losing Rs 12,000 per year.

Shaikh Mohammad, a weaver, alleges that corrupt officials are denying them the weavers’ passbook (an identity card for a weaver). “We are asked for Rs 3,000 as bribe, while our earnings are Rs 6,000 a month. If we can get that additional Rs 1,000 per month, it will help us a lot.”

All of this has led to no new takers for the profession, say weavers, adding that new generations would take up the work with enthusiasm earlier. A weaver who used to earn Rs 5,000 twenty years back now barely earns Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000. On an average, a weaver manages to weave four sarees per week and earns Rs 2,000 on a saree costing Rs 3,000. The extra Rs 1,000 is pocketed by the master weaver, says Suryanarayana.

A scheme of the Central Silk Board, under which an individual weaver could buy a handloom by paying just 25% of the amount, also has been discontinued in the last four years.

Weavers rue that the sector is increasingly being dominated by those who own more handlooms, as their margin of profit is higher and many of them even double up as merchants to sell it directly in market, cutting down on the middleman cost.

Also, most small-time master weavers, who can employ only two-three weavers, live at the workplace itself. A majority of handloom weavers are landless labourers, and 65% don’t have their own houses. “In the absence of their own house, the burden of rent adds to their woes. The government had promised apartments to weavers; that wouldn’t have helped at all though, as the unit used for weaving is fixed to the ground in a pit, which is not possible in an apartment. It took several protests for the government to realise that and promise plots,” says Ramanjaneyulu.

According to the weavers, Naidu’s TDP government did increase the pension amount to Rs 1,000 from Rs 600, but of the nearly 3 lakh weaver families in the state, only around 26,000 have got bank loans. The implementation of loan waivers, even after announcements, took three years under the Y S Rajasekhar Reddy government and two-and-a-half years under the Naidu government, says Ramanjaneyulu.

The weavers say this makes them defaulters in the banks’ eyes, making it impossible to get loans in the future. That’s why, small handloom owners say, they have been demanding a dedicated bank for the sector since long.


Unfulfilled promises fill Naidu’s report card

The YSRCP candidate for Dharmavaram, Kethireddy Venkatrami Reddy, during his campaign, has promised to start a bank for weavers, alleging that nearly Rs 290 crore meant for weavers’ welfare has gone back to the government unutilised. When contacted, the ruling party candidate and incumbent MLA G Suryanarayana refused to comment.

Naidu had promised to allocate Rs 1,000 crore per year (Rs 5,000 crore over five years) to the handloom sector. He, has, however spent only Rs 450 crore in the last five years.

Though the majority population in Dharmavaram belongs to the weaver community, it has been practically unrepresented in the legislative assembly, barring Kasetti Srinivasulu who won in 1952 as member of the Praja Party of Prakasam Panthulu (the first CM of AP) and Pallem Srinivasulu who won as an Independent.


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