Chirala saree weavers losing out to computer-aided designs

By Aparna Pallavi
Published: Tuesday 15 April 2008

Chirala saree weavers losing out to computer-aided designs

-- (Credit: APARNA PALLAVI)The loom in Aruna Kumari's badly lit, mud-walled house in Epurupalem village runs from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., with either Aruna or her husband working at it constantly. Her ageing grandmother contributes by winding spools of yarn and joining threads of the weft for 10 hours daily. Together, the family produces 13 Chirala sarees with ornate, heavy-work pallu and border in a month, for a combined income of a little over Rs 4,000. "By next year my daughter will be old enough to help, and then my grandmother will get some relief," says Aruna. This means 11-year-old Cheluvi will have to drop out of school.

In Chirala and Vetapalem mandalas of Ongole district in Andhra Pradesh, around 10,000 families of handloom weavers, mostly of the Mala caste, and 400 families of the Oruganti Reddy caste who dye and process the yarn, are working and living in conditions similar to Aruna's. Another 800 families of weavers and over 600 families of dyers have been forced out of business.

Upholders of the tradition of the Chirala saree, telia rumal and Pattamarapu--famous as Real Madras Handkerchief, this Chirala product is being exported to African countries since before Independence--these weavers are today driven into a corner by a loophole in the Handloom (Reservation of Articles of Production) Act, 1985, that is allowing computer-aided design and embroidery units (cadeus) to flood the market with cheap lookalikes of the unique Chirala saree.

According to media reports, since 2000 this area has seen around 650 suicides and starvation deaths in weaver families. Today, even when the suicide trend appears to have abated somewhat, poverty, chronic starvation and chronic illnesses due to overwork continue to hound the community.

Fake not fairIn November 2007, the weavers in the region organized under the trade union, Rashtra Chetana Jana Samakhya (rcjs). They are agitating for the implementation of the handloom reservation act that, they say, reserves production of Chirala sarees for the handloom sector (see box Inactive act). The state administration has responded with the perverse argument that only power-looms are included under the act and no action can be taken against computer-aided embroidery and design units.

Says Mancharla Mohana Rao, the founder president of rcjs "In the past 10 years, computer-aided units have mushroomed all over this area and use power-loom cloth and embroidery machines to mass produce lookalikes of Chirala sarees and dress-material. These goods are sold as handloom products at prices ranging from Rs 200 to Rs 2,000, which is around half the cost of genuine handloom products."

Unlike in actual handloom work where the pattern is woven into a saree, computer-aided units take ready-made power-loom cloth and converts it into sarees by embroidering designs onto it. The designing process is aided by computer.

One can tell whether a saree is fake handloom by turning it around. In a handloom woven saree the threads of the pattern run across the width of the saree, but in a fake embroidered piece only the imprint of the design shows.

It takes one embroidery machine just eight minutes to convert one piece of power-loom cloth into a saree, whereas a weaver has to work patiently for several days to produce a genuine handloom saree. These units are, therefore, able to produce sarees on a large scale and poach into the Chirala market by pricing their product cheaper.

According to Rao, while the handloom industry in Chirala is affected by other problems like non-availability and spiralling prices of hank yarn, the power loom sector and exploitative middlemen, the computer-aided designs have hit the weavers the hardest. "As many as 800 of the 1,800 looms in the 16 km stretch from Pondillapalli village to Epurupalem have been driven out of business altogether by this boom," he says. "And those who are still weaving are on the verge of pauperization."

Utter penury greets you in every house that has a loom. Twenty-three-year-old Sivasarada and his family, including his parents and ageing grandmother, put in an average of 10 hours of work a day to prepare 12 pieces of 8 m-long Pattamarapu for a Tamil Nadu-based export company. Still they earn just Rs 4,000 a month. In Jandrapeta village, weaver couple Sulochana and Rama Rao get Rs 2,400 for 36m of kurta tops. School dropout rates among the children in the community are high because of poverty and the need for additional labour (see box Little hands).

Down to EarthComputer-aided units have mushroomed all over and use power-loom cloth and embroidery machines to mass produce lookalikes of Chirala sarees. These are sold as handloom products for half the cost

Founder president, Rashtra Chetana Jana Samakhya

Complex problem
Unequal competition with computerized mass production has impacted the handloom industry in Chirala in a number of ways. For one, it has turned the wage-work equation against the weavers like never before. Says elderly Saraswati Amma of Devangapuri village in Chirala "In our times we were poor, but not as badly crushed as now. We used to make simpler sarees but the wages were commensurate. Now my son and daughter-in-law have to strain their eyes for hours weaving these ornate designs to earn just Rs 330 for one saree." The weaving process of each of these heavy-work sarees alone takes up two long days, she says, along with spool and weft work of at least two more days.

Malikamma of the same village, whose son Venkat Subbarao committed suicide three years ago, agrees, "When I was young, my husband used to work at the loom, while I did the spool-winding and weft work. We could earn enough to bring up four children. But today you can't earn a living unless the entire family is roped in the work. At least four workers are needed per loom, while earlier two were sufficient." One of the reasons that led to Subbarao's suicide, she explains, is that his wife did not know loom work and the family was unable to sustain itself on his work alone.

The extraordinarily long hours of work are taking their toll on weavers' health. Sulochana suffers from constant headache, eye-strain and body ache. Sivasarada's father Ranga Rao developed tuberculosis while in his 40s, and the family had to take a loan of Rs 40,000 for treatment. "The doctor says I should not work for more than four hours a day," he says.

"The cases of tuberculosis, asthma, nerve weakness, eye-strain and body ache have risen steeply among the present generation of weavers, and are also manifesting themselves at an early age," Says Sajja Srinivasa Rao, district president of rcjs. "Many women have had to undergo hysterectomy at the age of 35-40. The reason is that we are forced to work for 12 to 14 hours a day."

The pressure from computer-aided designs has also impacted the development of the Chirala weaving art, driving out the simpler traditional designs in favour of elaborate niche products. In Devangapuri, every one of the 40-odd weaver families is making the same kind of heavy pallu and border 'gas cotton' saree, priced uniformly at Rs 900. At master weaver Nageshwara Rao's house, the entire stock of hundreds of sarees consists of just this one variety.

While opposed to the activities of trade union because of business reasons, Nageshwara Rao agrees that the widening wage-work gap has not been good for business. "Even 20 years ago, the wages for simple sarees were good. But since the cheap lookalikes have arrived, I can't get the weavers to make the simple traditional sarees, which have a good market. The heavy-work, jacquard design sarees are more labour intensive and high-risk, but the simple sarees are so unremunerative for weavers that they would rather make these. " While earlier his product had a secure mass base, now he is forced to cater to the unreliable and highly competitive niche market.

V Kanakasundaram, weaving trainer and designer and a member of the trade union, says, "In my childhood saree designs were considered eternal. Year after year my father and grandfather created the same designs. Now we discard a design after 100 sarees. In a way the art is losing its identity."

Simmering anger
The agitating weavers of Chirala want cadeus under the purview of the handloom reservation act. In January, the Epurupalem panchayat closed down a computer-aided unit of Lakshmi Handlooms in the village. Lakshmi Handlooms and Bharat Handlooms have, in turn, filed a petition in the judicial magistrate's court in Chirala, saying cadeus are not covered under the act. Weavers' other demands include free availability of silk, jute and cotton yarn, and small, decentralized spinning units to cater to the handloom sector. Weavers in Madrapalli in Chittoor and Pochampalli in Nalgonda district have also started agitations under rcjs against cadeus.

The district administration has turned a deaf ear to their demands. Instead of negotiating with the weavers, it has resorted to repressive tactics. On December 14, 2007, three weavers, M Ravindra babu, S Venkateshwaralu and G Srinivasa Rao, were arrested while on a huger strike. Mancharla Mohana Rao, who is leading the agitation, was arrested on December 19 on charges of Maoist activity and kept in judicial custody till January 9. Commenting on the Chirala situation, Uzramma of Andhra Dastakar, a non-profit trust, says, "If the government can implement legislations like those for copyright, patent and trademark, which favour the economically powerful, why can't it implement this act, which favours poor artisans?"

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