Lucknow: To keep his home fires burning, Mohammad Obaid had to sell three handlooms and a wrapping machine that he had bought with his hard-earned money following demonetisation (November 2016) and the imposition of goods and services tax (GST). Now, the coronavirus pandemic-induced over three months of lockdown has re-opened his wounds, and Obaid fears he may be forced to sell the rest of his machines as the situation this time is worse.
"More than 15% weavers in Shakkar Talab and Madanpura had to leave their traditional work and start selling vegetables. If the situation remains the same and the government does not come to rescue the weavers, Varanasi will lose the charm of Banarasi sarees for sure," said Obaid, adding that "in the next decade or so, I feel most of the weavers' families will have left this trade."
The sorry plight of weavers in Varanasi, the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was recently highlighted by Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who said they were being forced to pawn jewellery and sought a financial package for the community.
यूपी सीएम ने पीएम साहब को बुलाकर एक आयोजन कर बताया कि छोटे और मझोले उद्योगों में लाखों रोजगार मिल रहे हैं।
लेकिन हकीकत देखिए। पीएम के संसदीय क्षेत्र के बुनकर जो वाराणसी की शान हैं, आज गहने और घर गिरवी रखकर गुजारा करने को मजबूर हैं। लॉकडाउन के दौरान..1/2https://t.co/IxKoRC9Ul1
— Priyanka Gandhi Vadra (@priyankagandhi) July 1, 2020
In a Twitter thread in Hindi on July 1, the Congress attached an article in a Hindi daily and wrote:
“UP Chief Minister called the Prime Minister and organised an event and claimed that lakhs of jobs are being provided to workers in the small and medium industries. But in reality, the weavers of Prime Minister’s parliamentary constituency, which are the pride of Varanasi, are today forced to live by pawning their jewellery and mortgaging their houses.”
Ironically, at a time when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has assured 90 lakh new jobs in existing small and medium enterprises (MSME) units and encourage entrepreneurs to set up more small industries by offering loans on easy terms, weavers in the Prime Minister’s constituency are being forced to pledge their jewellery, houses and land for survival. In fact, the sudden lockdown due to COVID-19 has not only left weavers out of work but has also hit textile traders in Varanasi hard.
Several weavers have been forced to work in construction sites, and many of them have started small shops by taking loans and pledging jewellery. The weaving community, therefore, feels that only a concrete financial package can help them survive amid loss of livelihood due to the pandemic.
Distressed and angry over their “neglect” by the Adityanath government, weavers have of Eastern Uttar Pradesh are on a token strike from July 1-7, across hamlets like Shakkar Talab, Jaitpura, Bajardiha and Lallapura.
Rashid, a weaver in Varanasi, told NewsClick: "8% production line in Varanasi has been closed during the lockdown. There are no buyers. Shops are opening only thrice a week. Skilled weavers are now selling vegetables, running autos, or have opened small confectionery shops for survival."
He said "the problem has intensified as investors cannot make payments”, adding that unless the government intervenes, the situation is set to worsen.
Weavers Seek Waiver of Power Bills
The textile industry in UP, considered the backbone of the economy, has sought waiver of power bills for four months. The biggest demand by powerloom weavers in Varanasi also pertains to seeking subsidy on electricity bills, the rates for which were hiked in January this year. In fact, in December last year, the Adityanath cabinet had said that weavers would have to pay electricity bills as per the meter reading
As part of their protest, a majority of weavers in Varanasi did not operate their powerlooms for the third consecutive day in support of the strike demanding electricity on fixed rate to powerlooms.
Jubair Adil, a weaver and secretary of Bunkar Mahasabha, said, electricity on fixed rate under the powerloom scheme should be restored immediately.
"Ever since the subsidy was withdrawn by the state government in January last year, most of the weavers have been forced to look at another business. Under fixed-rate scheme, a weaver used to pay between Rs 130 - 150 per month for power. Now, they will have to pay the bill as per the meter reading, which most weavers will not be able to afford," he said.
As per the new scheme, a powerloom will get 120 units of electricity at the rate of Rs 2.20 per unit. Above 120 units, weavers have to pay the full rate of per unit electricity consumption.
According to Bunkar Mahasabha, there are over three lakh powerlooms across state and if the government does not review its decision, it will not be possible to sustain these.
Mubarakpur, a small town about 100 kilometres from Varanasi, is known for Banarasi sarees and produces about 50% of wuch traditional sarees in the state.
"More than 98% powerlooms in Mubarakpur have shut down due to lockdown and the 2% that are running would also have been closed had they not got financial support from their children, many of whom are working in the Gulf counties. Like Varanasi, several weavers and artisans in Mubarakpur, too, are working on construction sites, selling vegetables or plying e-rickshaws," said Javed Ahmad, a weaver, who is also planning to shut his shop in Mubarakpur area.
"First the noteban devasted us, then came GST and now power bills (electricity) have spelt doom for our business," said Javed, adding that “zindagi ka tana-bana he bigad gaya hai” (The warp and weft of our lives has gone awry).
NewsClick has reported earlier that for the sake of survival, many weavers had moved away from the subtle art of weaving to working among cement and bricks. (https://www.newsclick.in/Lockdown-UP-Weavers-Forced-Work-Construction-Sites-Survival) .