By Puja Awasthi, Womens Feature Service
The looms had begun to fall silent. In many homes, kitchen fires were lit just once a day. Broken men, once proud artisans had begun to queue up by the side of roads to ask for work – any work. The really desperate had resorted to selling their blood.
On the face of it, Sharda Devi, 50, resident of Mustafabad, a hub of Banarasi sari weavers, some 20 kilometres off Varanasi had little reason to be worried. Her husband had the security of a government job at the Bhartendu Harishchandra University. But the eldest of her 10 children, two boys, had quit studying after class eight and had joined the sari weaving trade just when the industry came in for slaughter, first by the computer designed saris from Surat (Gujarat), then the Chinese crepe saris embroidered with nylon threads, as against silk used in the genuine product. And then there were the powerlooms that produced saris in little time, in greater numbers, to be sold for less than half the price of even a modest genuine Banarasi sari, produced after two days of work on the handloom.
The plight of Banarasi sari weavers dates back to 1995 when the government imposed a ban on the weaving of Chinese silk, mandating weavers to buy the more expensive Bangalore silk. In 2001, under WTO negotiations on declining of import tariffs on textiles such as saris, the government removed quantitative restrictions on silk imports flooding the market with plain Chinese crepe fabric that began eating into the Banarsi silk sari market because it was cheap. With the economic downturn, export orders began to decline, further corroding the market.
Devi, a Dalit, could not sit back and watch her sons’ salary dwindle from Rs 100 (US$1=Rs 46.5) a day to less than half of it. So this woman, who had always been shy to voice her opinion conferred with similarly harried mothers to form a Self-Help Group (SHG) called Shanti. Such SHGs had started to spring up across two blocks of Varanasi: Chirgaon (49 villages) and Cholapur (13 villages) from 2001. It was in that year that Find Your Feet (FYF), the Indian arm of a UK-based charity working to improve the socio-economic lot of the marginalised in India and Malawi (Africa), under a project called Tana Bana had made the first efforts to assist weavers, primarily by setting up SHGs that allowed them to work without middlemen in the economic chain; and to find alternative sources of livelihood. The most important step in this sequence was the building of the Benares Bunkar Samiti (BBS), an aggregate of 97 SHGs of weavers and artisans, with 1,114 members spread across the two aforementioned blocks.
Over the years, the SHGs grew bit by bit. As on September 30, 2009, the total savings of these groups was Rs 18,38,155, the total grant of revolving fund from FYF was Rs 4,94,845, the total interest earned from members was Rs 1,58,232 taking the total group fund to Rs 24,91,232 while the percentage of group loan recovery stood at a handsome 72 per cent. One detail stands out in this maze of numbers: 35 SHGs consisted only of women. As against this the men-only SHGs stood at nine and the mixed SHGs were 42. In April 2005, after the pilot had been successful, the Department for International Development (DFID), UK, stepped in to support the project with British Pounds 245,399 for five years.
Devi, today, earns Rs 2,000 from the two buffalos she bought on loan from the SHG. In addition, she grows marigold flowers, much in demand in the temple town. Her yearly income is a handsome Rs 50,000. She also borrowed Rs 50,000 to get a submersible pump installed in her courtyard to tackle the perennial water crisis in the area. “The circumstances were really bad. The Thakurs (upper caste) in our village were our only source of loans before the SHGs. They would carry off our livestock if we were unable to pay on time. Our years of struggle will now pay off,” she says.
The “pay off” Devi refers to comes in the form a Geographical Indication (GI) certificate awarded to the Banarasi sari on September 4, this year. The certificate states that henceforth only saris produced in Varanasi, Azamgarh, Chandauli, Jaunpur, Mirzapur and Sant Ravi Dass Nagar (Bhadohi) will be considered Banarasi saris. The certificate covers silk brocades like Amru; textile goods not covered elsewhere such as bed and table covers; silk saris and dress materials such as jamdani, jangla, jamawar tanchoi, tissue, cut work, ‘butidar’ and silk embroidery saris.
A GI certificate, granted by the Centre under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, is both a guarantee and protection. It guarantees that the product under consideration was produced in a specific geographical region or locality from where it draws its special characteristics. It assures the buyer that his money has been spent on a genuine good while it protects the producer against cheap imitations trying to pass off as genuine artifacts.
Savitri Sharma, Director, FYF, India says, “Our first concern was to have a revolving fund grow so that immediate livelihood issues could be tackled, but one of our board members brought in the GI idea. For us, it was about protecting our tradition and bringing back those artisans and their children, weaned off the trade.”
Lalchand Ram, President, BBS, says women played a major role in raising awareness about the plight of the weaving community. “Those who had never stepped out of their homes sat on demonstrations, burned Chinese silk in front of the Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) and took their products to far off exhibitions,” he elaborates.
Ashish Chakravorty, Manager Livelihoods, Saksham India Trust (SIT) – the resource development cell of FYF that trained BBS members on the intricacies of the GI process – says the women were quick to grasp the significance of the GI because the crisis of the Banarasi sari affected the whole family.
But there are many still struggling and in need of joining such SHGs. Razia Kalam, now in her mid-20s, was married off to a weaver at age 16. The youngest of her four children is Roshni, a sickly one-year-old. “The government doctor is unable to identify what is wrong with her,” sighs Kalam. Someone in the neighbourhood suggested a private doctor, but he charges Rs 150 for a single consultation – more than double of what her 40-year-old husband earns per day. Kalam lives in Lohta, a dense hub of sari weavers, where for a population of 60,000 there is just one school.
Hunger, depression and death have been common themes among Varanasi’s weaving community. According to a study by the Varanasi-based People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), between January 2003 and March 2007, 47 weavers committed suicide mostly due to malnutrition, inability to pay loans and hunger. During the same period, 46 children were found malnourished. Similarly, between March and August 2008, 67 patients were diagnosed with tuberculosis (caused by breathing in fibres and fabrics they work with). Many moved to petty trades like plying rickshaws, some migrated to Surat and Ludhiana (Punjab), and in the worst cases, out-of-work weavers began to even sell children to tide over the crisis.
The women of the Tana Bana project saved their families from starvation and disease. Geeta Devi of Mustafabad says, “Never again will we be so helpless and destitute.” It is a sentiment that has put back colour in a vital piece of Indian heritage.