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Social Enterprise

Karnataka’s cooperatives roll up their sleeves to reinvent khadi, the nation’s favourite fabric

Amoolya Rajappa
17th Jan 2018
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We speak to various cooperative workers at the National Khadi Utsav and find out how the sector has changed over the years.

It’s late afternoon when I enter the premises of Bengaluru’s freedom park where the National Khadi Utsav 2018 is organised. The month-long handloom and textile extravaganza, inaugurated on January 2, has been a huge crowd-puller already. Organised by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, this annual event has hosted various khadi cooperatives, entrepreneurs and businessmen from across India.

A catchy Kannada phrase that captures the versatility and comfort that khadi offers in all tropical seasons is placed on top of the flex at the entrance. A small booth set up by National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) also exhibits some of the trendiest designs of khadi fashion.

Khadi, a symbol of national pride in the pre-independence days, has evolved with changing times. We try to trace some of these major changes by speaking to weavers and workers employed in the khadi cooperative societies of Karnataka.

Increased demand

Hand spun out of a humble charkha, khadi went on to echo the mantra of self-sustenance after Gandhi’s call for the Swadeshi Movement in the early 1900s. The subsequent decades saw an increased growth of khadi cooperatives which, sprawled across villages and provided employment opportunities to poor artisans in rural India.

One such cooperative that was formed in 1954 was the Khadi Workers’ Cooperative Producers Society Ltd in the Ron village of Karnataka’s Gadag. Fifty-year-old Iranna R Hugar succeeded his father who also spent most of his life serving the cooperative society.

The past eight to 10 years have seen an increased demand for khadi textiles, be it garments, towels or bedsheets, says Iranna showing me their cooperative’s trademark product, the multicolour striped carpet.

Over the last six decades, the cooperative has employed and empowered many spinners and weavers in the villages of Ron, Bettagere, Kampli etc. “The facilities and incentives provided for workers in the khadi sector have also improved drastically,” adds Iranna, who is currently the secretary of the cooperative.

Governmental support and incentives

Basavaraju N has been working in the Bellary Sarvodaya Khadi and Gramodyoga Sangha, Alur for over 15 years now. “The increased demand has also led to better sales in the past few years,” says Basavaraju, who has been regularly coming to the annual Khadi Utsav.

Through Market Development Assistance (MDA) on Production, Government of India provides additional incentives to weavers and spinners working in the khadi sector. Implemented in 2010 after several pilot efforts, the MDA scheme ensures that 25 percent of assistance is allocated for payment to khadi artisans through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to their bank/post office account.

Comparing previous payment rates, Basavaraju adds,

For the past 3-4 years, spinners earn up to Rs five per yarn (which was around Rs three earlier) and weavers earn up to Rs seven per yarn (from Rs five previously) benefitting from the added Central and State government incentives.

However, not all is fine for workers working in the khadi cooperatives according to A.S.Lalmiya. “I have been employed in this sector the most part of my life but have seldom enjoyed any benefits. I started as a weaver when there were no incentives. Now, I have moved on to become a worker and I earn a meagre salary that hasn’t increased in the past 20 years,” complains Lalmiya who makes just Rs 4,500 a month.

Lalmiya’s three daughters also worked as khadi spinners in their village before being married off.

I couldn’t educate any of my children. As a result, my son also works in the unorganised sector now. I still take loans out in case of any family emergencies, says Lalmiya, adding how he regrets working in this sector.

When questioned if he thinks the future generations would be keen on keeping the khadi cooperatives thriving, he dejectedly asks, “When they don’t see any profits, how will they be interested?”

Varied textures and changing patterns

Founded by V .Magadi in 1955, the Dharwad Zila Khadi Gramodyoga Sangha is still going strong in manufacturing and marketing khadi textiles. Saroja, who has worked in the sangha for over 25 years, can clearly identify how the sector has changed for the better. “There was a time when weavers were paid 40 paisa for weaving a yarn. Now it’s seven rupees.”

Moreover, the khadi sector has also accommodated several generational changes to keep up with evolving market trends.

Now we have many softer textures of khadi that we use to weave kurtas and ladies’ tops, which are high on demand, explains Saroja, who also points me toward different blends of khadi that are a mix of varied concentration of cotton and polyester.

At the Koppal Khadi cooperative stall, A. Dhundvaad points me to their popular ‘biscuit-colour’ kurtis when I ask him what their bestselling item is.

Earlier, weavers across our 25 handlooms just limited themselves to weaving pants, jackets, towels and lungi. Now, with the invention of organic natural colour cotton, we have expanded to these soft, all-weather kurtis also, he says.

The many-hued Nehru jackets are also a hit at this year’s Khadi Utsav. “All thanks to Modiji and Yogiji (Yogi Adityanath) for popularising them,” says a sales executive at the Gurukrupa Industries, a small khadi retail strore in Dehradun. Specialising in jackets and blazer, they have been regularly putting up a stall at the khadi utsav for the past 7-8 years.

 Still a long way to go

Lastly, I stop by at the stall of Karnataka Khadi Gramodyog Samyukta Sangha, Bengeri, Hubli, which is the only authorised unit at the national level to manufacture the Indian National Flag. Fifty-year-old Vidyadhar proudly shows me exclusively manufactured flags of different sizes, from pocket flags to the ones kept on car podiums and large ones used for hoisting in schools and offices.

From preparing our own yarn to weaving, stitching and painting the tricolour, we take care of everything with great pride. The one hoisted on Red Fort every year is also made by us, he says.

According to him, a softer texture of khadi raw materials derived from modern power looms and plants have made things easier for khadi cooperatives to increase their production. The government also incentivises the overall production with a nine-percent bonus for khadi cooperatives.

However, stringent certification procedures, proceeds exploited by middlemen and unexpected changes in the market demand sometimes surprise the khadi cooperatives that are striving to keep the sector vibrant and lucrative. To remain relevant, these kinks need to be ironed out for the industry to truly thrive.

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