Fight of Khadi artisans for economic emancipation

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Khadi, as Gandhi envisioned, promotes the philosophy of self-reliance and indigenity. A fundamental feature of khadi production involved constructive development of rural sections through collective action – characterized by local sourcing, local production and selling. Today, there is a marked departure from this philosophy of khadi for many reasons. The current regulatory framework, which is apparently created to safeguard the interests of artisans, is seen as restrictive as artisans have not obtained remunerative prices for their work.

The authentic form of khadi comes from an entirely manual process. From harvesting the natural fibers to refining the fibers, spinning and weaving, the entire process of making khadi is laborious and meticulous, requiring complex skills from artisans. However, this elaborate art, in the present day, does not pay the craftsmen well enough to keep them in the field. Many skilled craftsmen abandoned the craft and joined nearby textile stores as pieceworkers to earn better wages. This collapsed the operations of a village company.

Spinners make up about 78% of artisans working in the khadi sector. However, spinners and weavers in the industry earn paltry sums for their skilled labor. On average, spinners earn between 150-200 per day while weavers earn between 250-500 per day. The salaries of spinners in the sector are still lower than the salary of an unskilled worker working in the agricultural sector, which is between 362-400 per day. The low incomes of artisans are perpetuated by the wage system linked to production. Artisans earn a salary based on their production for the day rather than on an hourly/daily/monthly basis. This results in workers working overtime to earn their daily living.

Until 2012, spinners only earned 2 per skein, which translates to daily gains worth 40 if the spinner produces 20 skeins a day. Although an 8 spindle New Model Charkha (NMC) shows higher productivity and can produce 20 skeins on average in an 8 hour working day. Traditional charkhas, in comparison, can only produce 2 skeins. With the minimum wage rate currently prescribed by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) 7.5 per skein, NMC spinners can save a spinner approximately 150 per day. However, for traditional spinners this can mean a low daily wage of 15! To earn a sustainable wage, artisans often take their work home and work longer than the average eight hours a day.

The misreliance on higher productivity to earn higher wages also puts more emphasis on improving productivity as a way to improve the economic conditions of artisans. As a result, semi-mechanized charkhas are the norm today, as they allow artisans to increase their daily productivity and therefore their daily wages. Ultimately, the traditional khadi produced by some Khadi Institutions (KI) in the country is sold indiscriminately under the Khadi brand with the khadi produced by NMC. Although the production of traditionally spun khadi is more labor intensive, artisans working on traditional charkhas find it unsustainable to survive in the market. The manual labor, expertise and use of traditional techniques such as ginning, stretching and straightening, carding and sliver rolling that go into the production of genuine khadi do not achieve the desired monetary value as a unique product on the market.

Due to derisory wages, the new generation of artisans is gradually leaving the sector to seek better job opportunities. Unless there is more private participation from entities committed to reviving the collective spirit of the village, the traditional art of khadi production will wither away. Spinning is a great opportunity to provide livelihood to the rural community as it is easy to learn and requires little capital. This is one of the best ways to boost rural India’s economy and move towards a green economy and self-reliance. The majority of the workforce in the textile industry are women and therefore empowerment of indigenous khadi fabrics can provide a stable livelihood for women at all levels.

The economic empowerment of the local community through khadi, as envisioned by Gandhi, emphasized the value chains within the village premises – where many different entities, ranging from farmers growing cotton to weavers, spinners, dyers, work together for the greater good. These are critical success factors that support khadi production. Many formerly production centers are now at a crossroads for lack of manpower, with the sector unable to match wages offered elsewhere. The current business environment has dissolved the old localized production model that gave artisans greater control over their own art/skill. He marginalized artisans so that they were simply day laborers. While ICs play an important role in creating employment opportunities for artisans in rural areas, they increasingly play the role of intermediaries. Critical stages of the production process are outsourced to spinners, weavers and other artisans, while the business side of the value chain, including marketing and sales, is handled by key informants. With market-linked pricing for khadi products, key informants have the opportunity to earn greater incomes that may or may not be passed on to artisans. In this sense, KVIC’s social objective should have a broader scope of “empowering artisans” instead of just “creating employment opportunities”. To truly empower artisans in the khadi sector, their journey to becoming sellers of their own products should be facilitated. Today, individual artisans do not need to hold a khadi brand certificate as they sell their products through government-certified KIs. However, if artisans form their own village collective and decide to sell their own products directly to customers, they will need to apply for a khadi brand certificate.

Artisans may be discouraged from undertaking entrepreneurial activities because of these regulations. To effectively empower artisans in rural areas and ensure their continued employment in the sector, the KVIC needs to relax the regulatory barriers in place – especially that of mandatorily acquiring the Khadi label to sell khadi. Ideally, maintaining a khadi brand should be voluntary in nature so artisans can freely form their collective to produce khadi, without having to fear a legal tussle or navigate cumbersome procedures. While KVIC can widely advertise its label as the mark of authenticity, it should be left to the discretion of end consumers whether to purchase khadi with or without the label.

Individual artisans should be encouraged to mobilize their resources and form cooperatives or production companies, which would strengthen their bargaining power in the market, guarantee fair wages and increased profits for its members. This would allow artisans to access wider markets and sell their products to entities other than KIs, such as popular textile brands that target the sustainable fashion segment and major e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Myntra and Flipkart. Independent artisans will benefit immensely from the prospect of domestic and foreign investment arising from the growing acclaim for sustainable fashion.

Freedom to form associations, freedom to earn a living and choose niche buyers without any form of state coercion is the idea of ​​economic freedom consistent with Gandhi’s philosophy. Now is the time to repair the unintended damage done to the weaving and artisan community through much-needed reforms in the sector.

The article was written by Akanksha Bowake, Former Associate, Research and Nissy Solomon, Honorary Trustee, (Research and Programs), CPPR.

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