Their day begins like every working woman’s in a big city. They are up at dawn, prepare breakfast, get their children ready for school, clean the home, do the laundry and make lunch. Then they are off to work. Of course, that’s where all similarities end. For, after toiling through housework every morning, the women weavers of Naggar, in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh, make their way up steep ‘kutcha’ (unpaved) mountain roads to one of the many cooperatives in the area where they spend their day working bent over a loom.
They do this because they want to supplement the extremely meagre earnings of their husbands. Says Vidya Sood, 29, a weaver with the Rural Women Weavers Collective, “My husband is a daily wage worker in a cable manufacturing company in Naggar and unless I work, we won’t be able to feed the family throughout the year.”
Despite her gruelling daily grind, Sood is always smiling and maintains her positive attitude in every situation. Never mind the fact that after putting in around six hours of work every day, she just manages to make around Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 in a month, and that, too, only for six to seven months in a year. During the harsh, unbearably cold winters of Kullu, these small cooperatives close down.
Located at more than 2,000 metres above sea level, Naggar and similar other villages nestled high in the Himalayas, form the centre of the traditional weavers of Kullu district, 90 per cent of whom are women. Every home here has a handloom where elderly women – who may otherwise be unable to negotiate the treacherous roads to make their way to a cooperative – work diligently to weave the famous Kullu shawl.
In the last couple of decades several weavers’ cooperatives, which the local people refer to as ‘factories’, have come up in these neighbourhoods near the Beas River. They have been started by enterprising individuals, who saw a great market potential in this exquisite handloom tradition. Thanks to the ever-increasing tourist traffic on the Shimla-Manali circuit, there are always discerning buyers looking for authentic wool products even though the market today is flooded with synthetic machine-made lookalikes from the neighbouring states.
Young Abhishek Sharma, who, along with his brother Aditya, inherited the Kullu and Kashmir Shawls Emporium from their mother, says, “My grandfather started a small shop with a handful of looms but it was my mother, Pushpa, who decided to reach out to the women and that’s how our cooperative was formed.” Located alongside Naggar Castle, Sharma’s cooperative – Rural Women Weavers Collective (RWWC) – employs around 20 local women on a regular basis, who work on the looms that have been placed in the basement of the emporium. Forty-year-old weaver, Indra Sood, is married to a farmer, “My husband tills our small farm holding, growing vegetables and some other crops. But we are not able make ends meet for our six-member family, so I have to come to this ‘weaving factory’.”
Besides the Sharma family-run cooperative, there’s also the Kinnauri-Bunkar’s Tribal Weaver Production and Bhuttico – or the Bhutti Weavers Cooperative Society Ltd – the largest and perhaps the oldest cooperative in these parts, among others.
Most cooperatives employ both women and men. The weavers are paid on a piecemeal basis – that is, payment varies on the number of pieces they weave and on the intricacy of the design. However, in a day, it’s not possible to weave more than five intricately-designed pieces, which fetches them around Rs 40-50 per piece. Moreover, since in a traditional Kullu shawl the entire centrespread is plain white or cream and it has a simple weave – the more colourful, creative geometrical or floral motifs are restricted to only the borders – fewer pieces that require intricate craftsmanship are made, which of course means less payment.
The women don’t mind the hard work, there’re used to it, but the low income is demoralising. And, according to Sudha Thakur, 32, a weaver, who lost her husband to floods a couple of years ago, so are the working conditions. Says Thakur, “The worst part is that when we work for hours bent over the looms and there are times it becomes so cold that our fingers start aching while threading the shuttle in between the weaves.” The women workers also say that their eyesight has deteriorated greatly because of working on the detailed motifs.
After slogging through the day at the ‘factory’, some of them even sit at the loom when the get back home in the evenings in order to earn some extra money. This home-based work is done on contract for ‘factories’, which either don’t have the capacity to set up more looms or have more orders than they can complete. The factory owners supply them with the wool and the design. Payment is fixed depending on the number of pieces made.
Clearly, weaving doesn’t pay much. The working conditions are tough, and there are no health benefits either. But, as is the case in other unorganised sectors, workers don’t have any rights but are forced to continue because they are desperately in need what little income they can manage. Why do they not organise themselves to demand better wages and benefits? Say the women weavers in Naggar: “Who will fight for us? No one is bothered. We are not educated. Weaving is what we have learnt from our cradles and we are only good at doing that.”
Can’t the cooperatives step in? According to Sharma, the fake shawl market has severely affected prospects for traditional weavers. “Their pricing is very low as they sell synthetic material in the name of real wool. Buyers who can’t differentiate fall prey to such products. Our profits are constantly being whittled down, and this certainly affects our workers. As we sell only limited pieces we hesitate to get more work done for fear of heavy losses,” he laments.
While Sharma’s small outfit is not able to fight off this severe competition, there are larger players in the business that can afford to ensure workers’ rights. The six-decade-old Bhuttico employs over 300 weavers and is one of the few cooperatives that have set up well-ventilated weaving sheds as well as a housing colony. Many of their weavers are also given a chance to upgrade their skills, being encouraged to double up as supervisors, quality controllers and sales managers. The women to men employee ratio here is 47:53.
Ramesh Kumar Thakur, General Manager, Bhuttico, says, “Every worker – man or a woman – is paid at the same rate – between Rs 125 to Rs 180 – but because the men work faster they earn slightly more than women.” However, he points out that women are quick to learn and innovate. “Keeping the basic design concept the same – geometrical and floral – we have been able to diversify from shawls, jackets and ‘bumni’ (a thick colourful drape around the body that is secured at the shoulders with a pin) to ponchos, ladies’ suits, stoles, gloves and socks.”
Both Thakur and Sharma, however, feel the government needs to take steps to help this traditional craft flourish, which will have a positive impact on the lives of the women weavers. Life may be simple in the Kullu valley, but even then some basics – like food, health and education – need to be met. One suggestion is that the government should start sourcing products from small weavers’ cooperatives, following the model of the milk cooperatives in Anand, Gujarat, and increase the number of state outlets selling authentic products. “This will ensure continuous work for our weavers and a fixed amount of money every month,” says Sharma.