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High-Powered Committee, Low Voltage Report

M i r a Seth Report on Handlooms

Article first published in the Economic and Political Weekly by the author


The committee's prescriptions of an

 export-oriented strategy, if

pursued, would in the long run transform

handlooms once the symbol

of swadeshi into objet d'art to be displayed

in museum of national heritage and culture.

 The Committees visits were casual and therefore, as we shall

see, were not helpful in capturing the intensity

of the handloom crisis. Further, the report

is neitherbased on any studies commissioned

on specific aspects of handlooms (though

suggestions to the necessity of such studies

are made) nor displays any awareness of the

available studies (including even the well

knownFrontline-commissioned study of

starvation deaths). Thus the government

handouts and discussions with the concerned

officials become the basis of the recom-



Since the committee is appointed primarily

 T H E government of India appointed a high-

powered committee under the chairperson-

ship Mira Seth, a member of the Planning

Commission in July 1995 to review the

performance of the handloom sector in the

decade since the New Textile Policy came

into effect in 1985 and suggest measures for

its development. The report of the committee,

submitted in December 1996, assumes

significance in the context of the ongoing

structural reforms. It would be instructive to

examine the report also because of the fact

that this is a major committee on handlooms,

after the Shivaraman Committee (1974),

constituted to go into the handloom question

in a comprehensive manner and its

recommendations may find favour with the


To begin at the beginning, it would be

instructive to examine the composition of

the committee. Out of the 11 members (apart

from the chairperson), there are seven officials

representing various ministries and banking

sector, two members of parliament, and two

members representing the manufacturers; and

ironically only one member representing the

handloom weavers' co-operatives. After the

demise of Pragada Kotaiah, MP and a

knowledgeable advocate of the handloom

cause, on November 26,1995 no substitution

was made for him. Thus the high-powered

committee on handlooms practically had only

one member representing the weavers'


The committee thus constituted to inquire

into the state of the handloom industry in

the decade following the 1985 textile policy

has the following as terms of reference: (a)

to assess the extent to which the objectives

set for the handloom sector by the 1985

policy have been achieved; (b) to assess the

impact of various schemes on handlooms;

(c) to assess the threats facing and oppor-

tunities opened up to handloom sector and

to devise the ways and means to capitalise

on the opportunities and particularly recom-

mend comprehensive support necessary to


achieve a quantum jump in exports; (d) to

make a comprehensive assessment of the

bottlenecks in the way of development of the

sector and recommend measures to promote

its rapid development in an economically

viable manner.

The report begins by paying an eloquent

tribute to the handlooms as 'a work of art,

craft as well as an industry' representing

'one of the most aesthetic aspects of existence'

embodying 'the concept of total harmony of

the human being with environment and

ecology', where 'the artistic creativity of the

weaver, the designer and the marketing skills

of the trader' (p III) find expression. Further

it notes, 'handloom sector occupies a place

of eminence in preserving the country's

heritage and culture plays a vital role in the

economy of the country' (p 6).

What is the methodological approach

adopted by the committee for the assessment

of the status of the handlooms, the bottlenecks

in and opportunities opened up for the

development of the handlooms following

the 1985 policy?

Though there is no explicit statement on

this aspect, it could may be inferred from

what is hinted at in the report that the

committee visited the states of Andhra

Pradesh, Assam, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and

Uttar Pradesh 'for assessing the ground

realities' and 'also held discussions with

officials of the state governments; weavers

service centres and credit institutions, repre-

sentatives of primary/apex co-operative

societies and handloom corporations, expor-

ters, designers and all concerned (p 6-7).

But these visits and discussions do not

seem to have made any significant impact

on the final outcome! Going by our know-

ledge of the committee's visit to Andhra

Pradesh, where it arrived unannounced and

left almost unnoticed by the handloom

weavers' organisations, and the very choice

of Pochampally, a fairly prosperous silk

centre near Hyderabad city, it would not

perhaps be unfair to say that most of these

 to go into the achievements of the objectives

of 1935 policy by the handlooms, it would

be appropriate to recall the aims of the policy

with regard to the handlooms. The 1985

policy marked a decisive departure from the

earlier policy regime by visualising an entirely

different textile scenario. While the earlier

policy framework viewed the textile industry

in terms of its employment potential and

therefore accorded a prime place to

handloomsvis-a-vis the other two sectors

(i e, powerlooms and mills), the 1985 policy

marked a departure from this by identifying

productivity as the chief goal and accordingly

proposed to view the industry in terms of

processes - the principal processes being

spinning, weaving and product processing

rather than in of ins of sectors. Thus the goal

of productivity was sought to be realised

through the creation of a level playing field

for the sectors in the industry regardless

of their relative strengths to compete

[Srinivasulu 1996].

Within this broad policy perspective, i e,

increasing textile productivity by infusing

competitiveness in the industry, the role of

the handlooms was visualised. The promise

of the 1985 policy to provide support to the

handlooms 'to realise their full potential and

ensure highet earnings to the weavers' by

making efforts to ensure availability of

requisite counts of hank yarn and other raw

materials in adequate quantity and at

reasonable prices; to modernise looms for

improving productivity and quality; to reserve

22 articles for exclusive production on

handlooms under the Handloom (Reservation

of Artictes for Production) Act, 1985 and to

create suitable mechanism for its strict

enforcement [GOl 1985] has to be viewed

within this perspective.

How far could the handloom sector succeed

in meeting this main objective of the policy?

Or, alternatively, to what extent the handloom

sector could find the changed textile policy

regime conducive for its growth? Any attempt

at assessing the contribution of the handlooms

 to the achievement of the objectives of 1985

policy has to take the following criteria into

consideration. They are: (a) the handloom

position; (b) hank yarn availability; and (c)

handloom cloth production.

Going by the figures given in the report,

there has been a 63.44 percentage point

increase in the production of handloom cloth

between 1990-91 and 1995-96. But the report,

quite rightly, is quick to point to the fact that

these figures arrived at on the basis of the

'not too) reliable' hank yarn delivery figures

(for the simple reason that what is shown

to be produced in the hank yarn form need

not and does not reach the handlooms)may

project a false picture about the health of

handlooms. It thus recommends the

commissioning of a study to assess the fabric

production in the handloom sector. Further,

it admits inability, in the absence of a fresh

handloom census (the last one being carried

out in 1987-88), to assess the current loom

position. Thus it would not be unfair to say

that the report, in spite of the fact that

committee took more than a year and half

to come out with it, adds precious little to

our understanding of what has happened to

the handloom sector following the 1985

policy and through silence and ambiguity on

certain crucial aspects of the handlooms,

avoids addressing the unpleasant question of

the crisis in the sector.

The handloom sector during the last decade

witnessed a series of severe crises chiefly

on account of the sudden and unpredictable

spurt in the hank yarn prices. The seriousness

of the crisis could be gauged from the

frequency of suicides and starvation deaths

among the weavers. It would be absurd to

presume that this grim reality, which attracted

national attention and debated in the national

parliament thanks to the vigilant press, went

without being noticed by the committee. The

absence of any reference to this dimension,

leave alone its analysis raises doubts about

the veracity of the report.

This pretense of blissful ignorance turns

out to the convenience of the committee

(intentions apart) to avoid raising, the

inevitable, though inconvenient, questions

asked openly and untiringly by the weavers'

organisations about the relationship between

the present situation of the handlooms on the

one hand and the liberalised licensing to and

resultant expansion of the powerlooms, the

export of hank yarn and dyes and import of

fibres on the other. Any genuinely interested

analysis should have addressed to the changes

in the context during the last decade in which

the 1985 textile policy has been a major

catalytic factor. The report is largely silent

on this crucial question.

It is thus pertinent to recollect what

Shivaraman Committee (1974) had noted

regarding the major challenge facing the

handloom sector, for this continues to be of


great relevance to the understanding of the

contextual constraints on its growth.

There has been an argument that powerlooms

need encouragement because they represent

the  n e x t stage  i n the  t e c h n o l o g i c a l

development of the handloom industry. It is

this  a r g u m e n t  w h i c h has been  l a r g e l y

responsible for the stow erosion in the taxation

of the power loom sector. Whatever the reason

for considering this changeover to be feasible,

it is evident that our present appreciation of

the rural economy of this country does not

allow us to  k i l l any handlooms on the plea

that some of the handloom weavers might

change over to a higher technology in

powerlooms.     A             powerloom displaces six

handlooms. In our strategy for rural

employment, we need viable industries in the

decentralised sector which          can provide a

living wage. Handloom is eminently suited

for this purpose. Increased consumption

should be actually supported by increasing

the number of handlooms and their efficiency

| G O ] 1974:61-62, emphasis added).


In our view, the problem is rather one of

meeting the challenge  w h i c h the handlooms

face from the  p o w e r l o o m sector in the form

of illegal unlicensed powerloom-poaching

upon the yarn supply that should legitimately

go to the handloom sector, poaching in the

varieties reserved for the handloom sector

and poaching in the market of handlooms by

spurious handloom goods. Our view is that

it is essential to offset the advantage that the

powerlooms have over the handlooms  w i t h

their technology and almost same level of

excisevis-a-vis   the handloom sector This

has to be set right so that the powerlooms

may not be in a position to underbid the

handlooms in their legitimate market  [ G O l


T h i s clear-headed perception of the context

i n the  S h i v a r a m a n  r e p o r t  c o n s p i c u o u s l y

absent in the  M i r a Seth report,  w h i c h seems

to be largely because of the strict adherence

t o the level  p l a y i n g  l o g i c  o f the 1985  t e x t i l e

p o l i c y .

In this context, it  w o u l d be relevant to

recollect  t w o  i m p o r t a n t observations  o f the

A b i d Hussain  c o m m i t t e e , constituted  i n 1988

t o  r e v i e w the  i m p l e m e n t a t i o n  o f the 1985

p o l i c y , regarding  h a n d l o o m crisis.  I d e n t i f y i n g

' h i g h the  f l u c t u a t i n g prices'  o f  y a r n and the

failure  o f the  g o v e r n m e n t  t o enforce hank

y a r n  o b l i g a t i o n  b y the  s p i n n i n g  m i l l s , despite

the  p o l i c y assurance. as the  c r i t i c a l  p r o b l e m s

o f the  h a n d l o o m  i n d u s t r y ,  i t  s t r o n g l y  r e c o m -

m e n d e d  c o r r e c t i v e steps.  F u r t h e r expressing

serious concern at the impasse in the  i m p l e -

m e n t a t i o n of the reservation act,  d u e to legal

hurdles,  i t  r e c o m m e n d e d the  i n c l u s i o n  o f the

reservations  i n the  I X Schedule  o f the  C o n -

s t i t u t i o n to  a v o i d any further damage to the

h a n d l o o m  i n d u s t r y  [ G O l 1990]. Needless  t o

say. none of these  r e c o m m e n d a t i o n s  w e r e

g i v e n effect  t o .


In contrast to the diagnosis and  r e c o m -

mendations  o f f e r e d  i n the reports  o f the

S h i v a r a m a n  a n d  H u s s a i n  c o m m i t t e e s , the

M i r a Seth report stands  i n  p o o r  l i g h t  b o t h

i n  t e r m s  o f  i t s  u n d e r s t a n d i n g  o f  a n d

suggestions  f o r the  d e v e l o p m e n t  o f the

h a n d l o o m  i n d u s t r y .  N e i t h e r it spells out the

threat posed by the  p r o l i f e r a t i n g  p o w e r l o o m s

nor  s u r v i v a l crisis faced by the  h a n d l o o m s

o n account  o f the  y a r n  p r o b l e m and  n o n -

i m p l e m e n t a t i o n  o f the reservations. Instead,

the report has a surprise in its store  f o r the

w e a v e r  c o m m u n i t y  w h e n  i t matter-of-factly

m e n t i o n s that the articles in the reserved

category have been reduced by half.  T h i s

u n d o u b t e d l y came as a shock to  a l l those

concerned  w i t h the future  o f the  h a n d l o o m s .

I l l

T h e second  t e r m  o f reference relates  t o

the assessment  o f the  i m p a c t  o f  v a r i o u s

schemes,  b o t h  p l a n and non-plan on hand-

l o o m sector. Some  o f these schemes were

part  o f the distress management strategy  o f

the  g o v e r n m e n t  f o l l o w i n g the  h a n d l o o m

crisis  [ G O l  n d ] .

T h e r e is  h a r d l y any attempt at a  c r i t i c a l

assessment  o f the  r e l e v a n c e  a n d  i m p l e -

m e n t a t i o n  o f the schemes,  i n the absence  o f

w h i c h the report reads  l i k e a  b r i e f  w h o ' s  w h o

o f the schemes.  W h i l e the casual manner  i n

w h i c h the report treats the  i m p a c t of the

schemes is  s i m p l y  c o n f o u n d i n g , what is

further  c o n f o u n d i n g is the generous manner

i n  w h i c h the  r e c o m m e n d a t i o n s are made

l e t t i n g the reader not  k n o w on  w h a t basis

the  j u d g m e n t  i s made.  T w o  o f the largest and

m u c h - p u b l i c i s e d  s c h e m e s  i n v o l v i n g

hundreds of crores  f o r m u l a t e d as a response

to the  h a n d l o o m crisis  c o u l d be  c i t e d to

illustrate the casual manner  i n  w h i c h the

report treats  t h e m .

T h e  H a n d l o o m  D e v e l o p m e n t  C e n t r e

scheme was announced in September 1993

at a  w h o p p i n g cost of Rs 850 crore. Under

this scheme 3,000  H a n d l o o m  D e v e l o p m e n t

Centres  ( H D C s ) and  5 0 0  Q u a l i t y  D y e i n g

Cenfres  ( Q D C s )  w e r e to be set up  o v e r a

p e r i o d of four years to  p r o v i d e a  c o m p r e -

hensive support  l i k e  y a r n , dyes,  t r a i n i n g  i n

d y e i n g , and  d e s i g n i n g as  w e l l as  m a r k e t i n g

to 30  l a k h weavers in the co-operative sector.

A n  a m o u n t  o f  R s  2 7  l a k h and  R s 7.80  l a k h

was  a l l o c a t e d  t o each  o f the  H D C and  Q D C

r e s p e c t i v e l y .

i n spite  o f the  i n v o l v e m e n t  o f such a huge

p u b l i c  m o n e y , the report has  o n l y this  m u c h

to say:

The committee,  w h i l e visiting the various

H D C s / Q D C s in the handloom concentration

pockets, observed that the Scheme has not

yet  f u l l y taken off. Several suggestions for

m a k i n g the scheme more effective, for

example, ensuring the credit availability,

reduction in the  n o r m for number of looms

were made (p 30].


Further, in a self-contented manner it notes,

The committee has been informed that based

on an independent study of the scheme,

appropriate action is being taken to modify

the scheme to make it more effective [p 30].

Going by the figures given in the annexure

(II)between 1993-94 and 1995-96only 1,198

HDCs were set up with a sanctioned amount

of Rs 67.28 crore, which is much lower than

the target aimed at,

According to a study [Rao 1996] conducted

by the Hyderabad-based Independent

Research Group for Handlooms (IRGP), in

Koyalagudem, a major handloom centre in

Nalgonda, till the middle of 1996, only Rs 8

lakh, out of the Rs 10 lakh grant component

of the Rs 27 lakh was availed by the HDC

(remaining Rs 17 lakh are meant to be loan

component). What is unfortunate about it is

that out of the 200 weavers imparted training

only one weaver could try to put it to use

by installing a jacquard loom at a cost of

Rs 10,000 while others found it difficult to

raise necessary money. The study also noted

lack of enthusiasm among the local co-

operative members towards this scheme.

Another scheme devised in 1993 was the

'Loom to the Loomless Weaver' scheme

with an outlay of Rs 523.2 crore (with a

subsidy component of Rs 131 crore, and the

remaining amount being loan component).

The basis for this scheme was the handloom

census of 1987-88, according to which there

were 3.27 lakh loomless weavers in the

country. Curiously enough the census also

showed a phenomenal rise in the number of

idle looms estimated to be at 2.79 lakh. It

is necessary to note that the phenomena of

loomlessness and loom idleness are two

aspects of the process of displacement -

migration-occupational shift being experi-

enced by the weaver community. When a

weaver finding no work leaves his native

place and migrates to a handloom centre to

work as wage labourer with a master-weaver,

he becomes loomless while his loom back

at home in village becomes idle. As the text

of the order also noted, 'The handloom census

was done about six years ago. The ground

realities might have materially changed since

then. It is likely that many loomless weavers

might have taken to other vocations." Yet

it entrusted the task of completing a survey

of loomless weavers  ' i n about a month's

time' for 'cent per cent coverage under the

Integrated Rural Development Programme'

[CHS pp 27-28]. Despite the fact that the

policy-makers were not oblivious of the

changing 'ground realities' and despite the

criticism of and doubts about the relevance

of this scheme by the weavers' organisations,

it was continued. This persistence can only

be read as symptomatic of the reckless attitude

of the policy-makers towards the handlooms

when the most important issue deserving

urgent attention was the yarn supply.


The Seth report is conspicuously silent on

the fate of this scheme despite the large sum

of public money involved and also the

understandable lack of enthusiasm among

the weavers towards this scheme.

In the case of the Weaver Service Centres

(WSCs), meant to be 'nerve centres for the

design development and the training of the

weavers in the area for improving their output

and enabling them to earn more'  | G 0 I

1974:23], the report has made no attempt to

assess the functioning of these centres and

their contribution to the improvement of the

skills, products and earnings of the weavers.

It only recommends that they

. ..should strive to develop new designs, new

fabrics and new products having market

acceptance and commercial  v i a b i l i t y .

Inspiration to develop them must also be

derived from our heritage. Efforts should be

made to develop such designs and products

which may not be easily replicated on

powerlooms [p 39].

But the question that still remains: How

far have the WSCs been successful in

accomplishing these tasks? If one goes by

the experience of Andhra Pradesh, the WSCs

here instead of supporting the weavers by

developing new designs seem to have

concentrated on training the weavers in

different parts of the state in the well known

designs and techniques. The tie and dye

technique, a speciality of Pochampally (in

Nalgondadislrict), in which weavers of some

handloom centres in Prakasham, Gunturand

even Rayalaseema were trained as part of

the WSCs activities apparently guided by the

market demand logic, is a case in point. The

weavers of Pochampally narrate how this

has led to the production of substandard

fabric thereby impairing their reputation.

The Seth report's emphasis on the training

of weavers through WSCs in Computer Aided

Designing (CAD) and Computer Colour

Matching (CCM) in a big way as a part of

the strategy to meet the challenges of

globalisation and its matter-of-fact insistence

on production of designs that have "market

acceptance and commercial viability" in fact

reveals a deep-seated bias towards the

handlooms. Implicit in this is the perception

that the handloom products have certain

obsolescence and therefore lag behind the

mill and powerloom products in the textile

market; that (hey sell only when rebate is

given, that the handlooms cannot survive

without subsidies, et cetera. This perception,

so widely shared by not only the officialdom

of the textile establishment responsible for

handloom development and the handloom

committees but unfortunately even by the

handloom weavers' organisations, had done

enough harm to the handlooms by misplacing

the emphasis.

What is of serious concern is that this

perception is premised on the 'givenness' of

 market demand and myth of consumer

preference and the success or failure of

handlooms is viewed in terms of the latter' s

adaptability to the market demand and its

autonomous buyer. Thus the role of

handlooms is restricted to passively'

responding to the demand when the strategy

should be one of actively intervening and

influencing the market. In the context of

g l o b a l i s a t i o n where high investment

campaign wars between the multinational

corporations have become the order of the

day and the consumer is targeted by well

worked out market strategies and persuaded

to realise his needs', to talk of an autonomous

consumer becomes fallacious.



The issue which the report clearly fails to

address is the crisis in the handloom sector.

As suggested earlier, the handloom sector

experienced severe crises unprecedented in

the post-independence period, each in

succession leading to further marginalisation

and displacement as well as indebtedness

and starvation which is largely due to the

liberalisation process initiated by the 1985

Textile Policy, further pushed up by the

structural adjustment programme taken up

in the  m i d - 1 9 9 1 . Thus the process of

marginalisation of the once fairly well-to-

do handloom weaver community, which was

slower earlier, has been hastened since the

mid-1980s. At the root of the crisis is the

sudden and unpredictable rise in the hank

yarn prices caused by the increase in yarn

exports to earn foreign exchange. The failure

or rather reluctance of the committee to note

this significant macro-economic policy shift

obviously led to its failure to diagnose the

nature and causes for the survival crisis of

the handloom weavers.

The major thrust of the report is on orienting

the handloom sector to the globalisation

process as a principal strategy for its survival.

Thus considering globalisation as inevitable,

it proceeds to suggest policy support like

modernisation of looms, establishment of

Common Facility Centres  w i t h  ' w o r l d

standard' pre-loom and post-loom facilities,

C A D and  C C M , achievement of BIS-14000/

ISO-9000 standards to tune this sector to the

changing global market.

What is in the process lost sight of is the

strength of the handloom sector, which lies

in the acceptance of and demand for its

products in the local market. The specificity

and speciality of handloom products is largely

determined by the local needs governed by

the local traditions and customs. The

community skills, techniques involved in

different stages of production are historically

evolved and are the property of the com-

munity, owned and imparted communally.

For this reason, the handloom production is

characterised by its region-specific diversity.


Thus it cannot be reduced to or understood

only in terms of abstract demand and supply

principle of market.

The "ability to commercially produce the

goods in small volumes, quick switchover

to new designs and creation of exquisite

designs which cannot be made on the

powerlooms'' are seen as the strength of the

handlooms. For this reason the report

recommends export-led strategy for the

handloom survival. But there is in fact an

inherent danger of homogenisation in this

path of development oriented to the elite

domestic and export market, when the

strength of handlooms lies in their region-

specific skills and designs, local initiative

and product diversity. Needless to say, the

chief characteristic of globalisation is centra-

lisation of decision-making and concentration

of the conditions of production. When made

to gear predominantly to the global market,

due to the latter's extremely fickle nature and

advertisement induced behaviour, the

handloom production may not only go into

the control of exporters (leading to the further

decline of the co-operative and even master-

weavers' initiative) but also prove to be

suicidal to the weaver community.1At the

most a small section of the master-weaver/

trader segment may survive, perhaps may

even prosper. Thus the report sounds more

 truthful when it mentions, 'with technological

developments, the handloom products are

being increasingly replicated on powerlooms

at a much lower cost. Hence the sector may

face shrinking market share. With  G A T T

agreement, quotas would be completely

phased out by December 31,2004. Therefore

handlooms shall soon face unrestricted

competition from powerlooms in the

international market' (p 8).

In spite of this awareness, the committee's

persistent prescription of an export-oriented

strategy, if pursued, would in all likelihood

only transform handlooms, once the symbol

of 'swadeshi'. into objects d'art to be

preserved in museums of national heritage

and culture.

The experience of the weavers of Koyalagudem

in Nalgonda district and of Chirala in Prakasham

district illustrates the inherent risks in this

strategy. Koyalagudem, which has developed

into a major handloom centre producing export

varieties for the European market with a large

proportion of migrant weavers, has seen

dwindling demand for its products due to the

ban on chemical dyes As a result, a large

number of the migrant labourers finding no

work left the place; in the middle of 1996, only

 a quarter of them mostly in their 40s and above,

finding no alternative, remained hoping for the

revival of production.

In the case of Chirala, which has grown

into a major handloom centre specialising in

the Real Madras Hand Kerchief  ( R M H K )

since 1960s for export to north Africa, the

frequent fluctuations in the exchange rate are

reported to have affected the prices of  R M H K .

W i t h the master-weavers/traders seeking to

shin the losses onto the weavers and the latter

organised under the leadership of Cheneta

Karmika Samakya refusing to accept reduced

wages shifted to the stable dress material



Government of India (GOI) (1974): Report of the

High Powered Study Team on the Problems

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