COVID-19 pandemic and annual floods are leaving Assam's handloom weavers with little to stay afloat; there is looming uncertainty pervading their livelihoods & future
New Delhi: “The only source of my income comes from weaving and paddy cultivation. The COVID-19 pandemic and the flood have left us with little to stay afloat and there is a looming uncertainty pervading our livelihoods and future,” says Bonjita Chungkrang.
The 34-year-old weaver from Laibeel in Assam's Sivasagar district is worried about providing support to her family.
Many people are aware that COVID-19 has negatively impacted businesses and industries. During this global pandemic, many companies have closed for long periods due to local or national restrictions. However, what the current floods have done to the weavers of Assam is heartwrenching. The handloom industry has faced one of the most significant financial blows with this combination of flood and pandemic.
Handloom has an overwhelming presence in the socio-economic life of Assam since time immemorial.
Sualkuchi, located 35 km west from Guwahati, is known as the 'Manchester of East' for its contribution to the crafts industry and its weavers are famous worldwide for their exquisite Paat, Muga, and Eri silk work. The handloom weavers are unique in that they still use original technology and have not converted to automation. They are often praised for their beautiful, intricate work on special occasion clothing. Most people do not wear hand-woven clothing as everyday attire.
Due to the current conditions, many hand weavers have no income and haven’t earned anything for several months. A hit to this industry is more than a manufacturer having financial difficulty. The damage is also more than a pandemic. The floods have exacerbated the financial insecurity of this industry.
Assam is the leading producer; therefore, when they are unable to work, these silks go unseen and unproduced. This is more than fashion; it is a matter of preserving an art.
A report by India Today on May 5, 2020, “The coronavirus lockdown has severely affected the silk industry in Assam which has already incurred losses to the tune of Rs 100 crore.”
While many of the manufacturers have cloth that remains unsold, efforts are being made to convert them into masks to continue providing income to these companies. Social benefits have been helpful, but with no income, rations are not sustaining these companies or individuals.
Arup Kumar Baishya of AVA Creations states, “We need to reach out to the buyers who actually understand and respect handloom and with the digital way we can reach out to the world. We also need to emphasis on manufacturing ‘need’ base products rather than ‘want’ based products.”
While the want-based products such as celebratory clothing have been the basis for businesses for a long time, weavers are being forced to adapt their products. Masks have been a saving grace for some of these weavers, but it is not the industry that they have grown to know and love.
This industry is new to them. They have to adapt the designs and features so that they are more productive and useful rather than decorative. Baishya’s birthplace is Sualkuchi, which is famous in India for handweaving and has been a part of this community since birth. This is more than a loss of revenue. It is a loss of community.
Many weavers have been significantly impacted by the changes since the lockdowns began.
Mohan Bora, a social activist, says, “It is a socio-cultural catastrophe. Weaving is considered a part of Assam’s cultural heritage. Wearing hand-woven clothes is part of many festivals like Bihu and Durga Puja. Thus, the economic crisis in the handloom sector can very well be seen as a cultural loss as well.”
Financially, the government has compensated some of them, but they have not had the same level of income at all.
Barsha Phukan, a fashion designer and entrepreneur, has tried to maintain her employees’ salary and work during these trying times, but she has not been successful in continuing to grow during the pandemic. She says, “Weavers are our backbone. I have currently 25 weavers, who have been working with me for the last six years. If we don’t help them in these trying times, they have nowhere to go. I am paying them full salary and accommodation till now, though there is hardly any revenue in the recent months.”
She continues to try to help the weavers though it is causing financial strain of her own. She must repay the loans that she receives, but she wants to make sure that these weavers do not lose their incomes. This is an impossible situation for many. She has attempted to get help from the government and has been assured that they will, but the situation is rapidly deteriorating for weavers waiting for help.
Phukan says, “First the pandemic and, now, the annual flood, the weaver’s community is completely devastated financially, physically and mentally. Some like-minded people among ourselves are on the talks to help the weavers. Once the lockdown is over, we have some plans for the weavers and to revive our industry too.”
Her struggle is not unusual.
Phukan is not the only advocate for this group, however. Asomee Datta Barooah is a grassroots activist working diligently to change the situation for these weavers. She notes, “Artisans and weavers are crying for help and my heart bleeds. They don’t have food to eat. They don’t have a roof under them to stay safe. Some of their children are sick but they are unable to avail medicines. I’m coordinating with several orgaisations for relief and collaboration. I am trying my best to sell off the pre-woven clothes through retailers.”
Everyone is trying to help these groups. They are accustomed to the annual flooding in the area, but this comes as a second wave of financial loss with the pandemic. Luckily, some weavers have been able to convert to mask production, but it is not easy. Entrepreneurs like Dhruba Jyoti Deka, founder of Brahmaputra Fables, have been more successful with the conversion to masks.
He states, “During the first lockdown, we encouraged our weavers to convert pre-woven unstitched cloth materials into masks, because there was no point for keeping that inventory, and we need to sustain as a community. As masks were essentials, and that we could ship, we made masks out of handloom materials by following proper guidelines by ministry of family and health welfare. Our weavers made more than Rs 2 lakh by selling masks during pandemic. We believe in community entrepreneurship, thus we are collectively working with Northeast Network - an NGO, AVA Foundations, and Elephant Country of Balipara Foundation for shipping masks.”
Deka has been able to help the local weavers and cloth producers to continue making useful materials. This time it is making masks.
Government restrictions have been costly to the industry, though. They often have products ready to be sold, but the government bans have halted sales. They cannot collect revenues on finished products. They are just waiting on the go-ahead from the government. While many weavers understand the need for a shutdown, they are disheartened by these restrictions.
Kongkon Thackur expresses concern, “We train them, work closely with them, sell their products to Central govt, and help them earn money. Now because of the current situation, we’re not able to earn any kind of revenue. Products are ready, but we don’t have any medium to collect and sell them because of the restriction of movement. We feel like giving up on our hopes and dreams.”
These are soul-crushing blows to the weaving community. The lockdown was hard enough, but now the villagers have do deal with flooding too.
Kaberi Kochari Rajkonwar, director of Srishti Handlooms Limited, is worried. “We are known for our gamocha and traditional Assamese wear production. But this time we couldn’t sell anything during Rongali Bihu because of lockdown. All pre-woven clothes are lying. Some are getting damaged due to flood waters,” she says.
Rotting woven fabric is not going to help boost the economy even without the pandemic. Flooding is taking what little is left of the hand weavers’ inventory.
The floods and pandemic as a combination may have some irreversible damage to the weaving community. Some weavers may eventually have to look for work in other industries. Since this is such a unique ability, we could lose some of our best weavers. They are trying to wait this pandemic and flood out.
Juri Basumatary says, “I was weaving since last the last four years, I am a single mother of two children, and weaving is the source of income for our family, as lockdown started, it’s getting really tough for us. We are tired of asking financial support from government. I need raw materials to start weaving again and earn the basic livelihood for my children.”
This flood following a pandemic has been devastating. She is not looking for government handouts and wants to earn her living. This situation has caused her to need assistance that she is not accustomed to needing.
The government has tried to provide some assistance to these weavers, but it is simply not enough. They have lost nearly all ability to provide income. The government assistance would not be as necessary if some of the sales restrictions were lifted or relaxed so that they may sell their goods.
Meanwhile, handloom & textiles director Kabita Deka says that a highlevel committee has been formed to workout a solution. "There are discussions going on for providing incentives to the weavers. The current Covid-19 situation was totally unexpected. And since it involves financial support, it is taking some time," she says.
"We have had several meetings regarding this and we want to help out our weavers. We understand their plight; unlike previous years they couldn’t sell much this Bihu. We’re figuring out ways to advertise and put on the market their unsold products. We’re very much hopeful that things will fall into place. We will act as per the direction provided and funded support,” Deka adds.
Angashikha Gogoi, founder of BUTA Axom, says, “The government interference is not that enough to make their lives better. As far as the information provided to us by our weavers, the government officials have visited them only once during this flood, and they have probably got only a single time relief like food grains and other products from them.”
Single relief will barely help these weavers. They need more consistent help. The need for more to be done will only grow during this season. Flooding is not unusual at this point in the year, and with the virus being a worldwide concern, the weavers’ livelihoods are at stake. They need to be able to provide for their families and not depend on the government. Of course, weavers such as Basumatary know that they cannot depend on a second household income to combat her loss of funding.
Bonjita Chungkrang is grateful for all the assistance but knows that it is not a long term solution.
“However, I would like to thank BUTA as they have been supporting me and my family massively in this grave situation, by providing regular financial support so that I can buy my daily necessities, they have been providing free yarns so that we continue with our employment, mobiles phones for online classes for our children, stand fans and so on.”
She has benefitted, but this is not the level of income that she needs to best provide for her family.
These stories are heartbreaking. Industries have had to rapidly adapt, and some of the government restrictions have prevented even that. These weavers are not looking for government support permanently, but they do want to be able to survive while they wait for the industries to stabilise.
Some manufacturers have been able to convert their process to include masks, but the sales and production of masks are sometimes complicated. The pandemic is not the only disaster that these weavers are dealing with at the moment.
The annual floods have begun, and this has further devastated the already shaky community. As the process continues to shift toward masks, the weaving community may see an improvement of their situation, but sales bans must also be lifted for these shifts to be effective. When buying clothing or masks, one must consider hand-woven materials to provide more income to these devastated communities.