By Abner Manzar
About five kilometres from Tamil Nadu’s Musiri, a famous weaver cluster, is a small village in the district of Trichy called Manamedu. At its heart is a computer centre equipped with everything required to digitally enable the community’s weavers.
An initiative of Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and Mphasis, the center is a part of the network of rural entrepreneurs aiming to digitally empower the marginalised community of Trichy weavers.
Upon entering the compound, one can see an ongoing training as some girls work on the sewing machines to the left. With a workshop like format, the girls receive practice and information on using ICT tools for creating new designs and setting up own business.
The door ahead leads to a room with a row of laptops set up for trainings on digital literacy. The long staircase from it reveals a studio showcasing a rainbow of sarees, stoles and other handicrafts by local weavers.
Functioning under DEF’s Digital Cluster Development Program (DCDP), the center along with others spread across eight clusters, aims to uplift the handloom and weaving communities by leading them towards sustainability through digital empowerment and socio-economic stability.
Manamedu village is home to 350 weaver families who toil day and night to earn a living and their primary buyer is what they call ‘society people’.
The society is in fact a cooperative of traditional handloom weavers under the Tamil Nadu government. It was established to give the weavers a fair price for their work along with a fixed income in an effort to empower them. Currently, there are five societies that cater to the 350 families. They buy sarees and stoles directly from the cluster and sell it to the co-optex – a Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society, thus ensuring the weaver’s sustainability.
Even though this is a fairly functional system, the average income of a weaver in Manamedu is only 6,000 rupees. This system however has helped the weavers continue their work and preserve the traditional craft.
Covid-19’s impact on community
The already vulnerable and underserved handloom industry faced a major hit amid the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
Orders were cancelled overnight and weavers were stuck with a huge stock without payments. The small weavers were burdened with increasing debt as the loom stood still.
We spoke with the weaver societies who explained the depth of the crisis.
One of the societies had a stock of 400,000 sarees that the co-optex hadn’t bought yet. Due to lack of any business operation along with textile shops shut, the co-optex stopped all purchases from the societies. Krishnan, a member of Mariamman Handloom Society said, “We tried to help the weavers but the economy is at a standstill, we are not getting orders, we have so much stock but no buyers, we don’t have an option but to reduce production.”
Catering to 130 out of the 350 weavers, the crisis reduced the number to only 30 since only these could afford to function. In fact even these 30 families are producing much less than they used to, and so their income has witnessed a major cut. The other 100 families are unfortunately losing their resolve and leaving behind an occupation their ancestors have performed for generations.
Most of the handloom artisans and weavers have no option but to find alternate sources of livelihood. One such weaver is A. Santhanam.
Santhanam had been working as a handloom weaver for the last 20 years. Associated with the Aringar Anna Handloom Society, he used to be an expert at the plain weave for the saree.
For Santhanam, weaving wasn’t just the source of his livelihood; it was what gave him pleasure and the one way he knew to be constant. But the lockdown due to the covid crisis robbed him of this pleasure. Unable to earn enough for his family, he left working at the loom and became a mason.
“The hands that created the weave for the garment worn by every Indian woman now lays bricks”, said Santhanam.
Santhanam at his loom
DEF took the initiative to provide some basic livelihood to a few weaver families. With limited resources and few buyers, it could only pledge to support eight weaver families in Manamedu. One such family was Saravanan’s. He is one among the many weavers in the cluster looking at the stagnant wheel of the handloom.
We entered his house as he humbly greeted us with a “Vanakkam” and a warm smile. He led us to a large handloom sitting at a corner of his courtyard and said, “This loom is my livelihood. Earlier it sat at the center of the room like a prized possession but now I haven’t worked on it since months. Look how it has even gathered dust.”
Saravanan walked towards it, sat down and started the click-clack of the handloom. Hearing its crisp sound was enough to bring a smile to his face.
Saravanan showcasing the workings of the handloom
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the weavers of Musiri in a big way; 300 of the 350 weavers in Manamedu have lost their only source of livelihood. They have now started looking for alternate livelihood opportunities such as agriculture and masonry.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been pushing away this already-vulnerable artisan community down and without government intervention it would further lead to its demise.