Due to its informal nature, the handloom industry faces many uncertainties in these times. We spoke to 20 weavers across Assam—some self-employed, some working in handloom units owned by others. Our interviews revealed that the contracts signed between self-employed weavers and middle-men before the lockdown remain a sign of hope. Self-employed weavers are hopeful that these contracts will be valid in spite of COVID-19, and continue to weave from their homes.
However, the capital that is required to buy raw materials is a problem. The closing of the markets, and hence the yarn shops, has not made it easy. “I am continuing to weave with the raw materials that I have with me, but the problem is, I cannot buy more once I finish this supply. The cost of yarn is already high and will probably increase after the lockdown,” says Biren Kalita*, a self-employed weaver from Sualkuchi, a town in Assam’s Kamrup district.
Biren will only receive money when his product is sold. While the contractors ask the weavers to continue weaving, the closed markets are a big hurdle, and sales (and the money that comes with it) are uncertain. This also makes him worry about how he will pay his three helpers.
Similarly, weavers who work in others’ handloom units are also worried about getting their remunerations. “From where will our maaliks (owners) give the money? We know that they are also suffering,” says Sanjay Bayan*, a weaver who works in a unit in Lakhimpur district.
Weavers also say that they have not received financial assistance from the Government of Assam. Both the central and the state governments have not made any special allowances or schemes for handloom workers. They only receive five kilograms of rice at a subsidised rate of INR 3 per kg, under the National Food Security Act, 2013.
Most weavers are looking at an unpredictable future, with their existing contracts coming to an end and their payments stuck.
*Names changed to maintain confidentiality.
Rituparna Patgiri is a doctoral student at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Ritwika Patgiri is a doctoral student at the South Asian University, New Delhi.