This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on April 13, 2016.
I have discussed several times through my columns in the past that there is a tremendous possibility of using corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds in clusters that are typically based on traditional skills—like weaving. The funds can be used to introduce broadband connectivity, digital designing methods, and e-commerce.
This digital ecosystem has the power to offer opportunities, including the power to buy and sell without a middleman or becoming a victim of exploitative market practices.
The reason for my enthusiasm for proposing the use of CSR funds for cluster development is also based on our experiment with the Chanderi silk cluster in Madhya Pradesh. Six years ago, we began our work in that area with large-scale digital interventions with funds from the ministry of communications and information technology. Over the years, the overall revenue of the cluster has increased from about Rs.60 crore in 2009 to more than Rs.150 crore today, and all because of the role that digital tools and connectivity played. We are now replicating this model in Saidanpur, Barabanki, Uttar Pradesh (UP) with help from Ericsson India through their CSR funds.
Barabanki is a district in UP where functional literacy is less than 60% among the population of 3.3 million. This area consists of 50,000 weavers and has about 20,000 looms. The weavers of Barabanki earn Rs.100-120 daily, which is not equal to the national minimum wage of Rs.160 per day. Saidanpur is a Muslim-dominated village located in Barabanki district and has a population of 8,919 people. Most members of the Ansari community in the village are involved in weaving. There are at least 200 looms in this village.
Weavers in the village are mostly involved in making cotton gamchcha, a thin traditional cotton towel. Some weave Arabi rumaal, the head scarf used by Arab men, in viscose that is imported from China by middlemen. The finished products are then exported to West Asian countries. Those weaving Arabi rumaal are just slightly better, economically.
A weaver spends eight hours a day working on the loom, producing about eight pieces of gamchcha, which are then sold for Rs.50-60 per four pieces. Most of the gamchcha producers are weaving for middlemen or selling their products directly in the local market. Either way, the profit margin is thin. The Arabi rumaal, on the other hand, is sold to the middlemen (who are actually exporters) for Rs.120 for every four pieces. When sold in the market in West Asia, the selling price of the same product is Rs.400 or above. As expected, the weaver gets no cut in the profit.
For those who’re unaware, middlemen in weaver clusters call themselves “master weavers”. They are neither weavers nor have they mastered (or even learnt) the art of weaving. These master weavers provide raw material and buy the weavers’ produce on a weekly wage basis, and then sell it in the market at a much higher price.
While interacting with the weavers in Saidanpur, I met a young man named Naeemuddin who told me that what plagues this community more than the middlemen (his elder brother is a middleman) is the lack of a weavers’ union. “Everyone in Saidanpur is willing to sell their gamchcha or rumaal for Rs.2 less than his neighbour. This competition is killing the weavers here. The weavers in Farrukhabad (in UP) are smarter because they’ve formed a union and all weavers have to sell their gamchcha for the same pre-decided rate, not more and not less. Here, nobody wants to form a union, they just want to make quick money even if it’s less money,” he said.
During my visit, I also got a chance to meet Razia, a weaver who is only 17 years old but weaves faster than most in the village. While her skill at weaving is unmatched, she is neither aware of the market nor of the amount of thread required to weave a gamchha. The lack of knowledge among weavers about the price of raw materials or the selling price of their products is appalling.
In Razia’s family, like any other weaver family, the entire family takes turns to weave, as it is the only profession they follow. Razia has a younger sister; she is seven years old and is the first school-going generation of the family. There is only one primary school in the area—which doesn’t serve mid-day meals and obviously, doesn’t have a computer lab. The secondary school is about 2km away.
I visited another house, with 22 family members living together, with a household income of just Rs.3,000 per month, which means about Rs.136 per person per month. Only one of them, a boy in his late teens, owns a mobile phone. He uses it to receive and make calls and is unaware of what he is missing out on due to his lack of digital literacy.
Incidentally, Saidanpur only receives 2G mobile networks and none of its government institutions—be it Aanganwadis, sub-health centres, schools or Panchayats—are digitally enabled or have any digital linkage. In Saidanpur, we are looking at a six-point intervention: making the entire village connected to broadband through public access points; making all schoolchildren become digitally literate in addition to at least one adult from each household; making each and every public entitlement available to the public on a click of a button; providing textile and apparel digital design centre with local weavers trained in using the software; forming digital self-help groups that are digitally skilled to become digital social enterprises or cooperatives; and finally creating an e-commerce portal for making local products reach consumers and buyers in the global and national markets directly.
If more companies come forward with CSR funding like Ericsson India has in Saidanpur, and Microsoft and Mphasis have for clusters like Nuapatna, Odisha and Trichy, Tamil Nadu then these small communities with weavers who posses special skills will have a chance to flourish.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.