Would Mahatma Gandhi Support GST on Handlooms?

Hyderabad : Handlooms are nothing new to India. An age old tradition of making cloth by spinning and weaving since historical times, handloom has been the backbone of a vast number of the rural populace for their livelihood, till date.

Gandhi ji favored handlooms, and expounded his views way back in 1919 when things seemed bleak for the handloom industry. Almost 100 years later, his suggestive reforms still hold true and are desperately needed now more than ever before.

Unnati Silks has compiled excerpts from varied hand written letters, columns of Mahatma Gandhi where the Father of the Nation clearly states his vision and support for Indian Handlooms.

Handlooms a century ago – a historical take of relevance

The Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi had a very firm opinion on handlooms and held a very passionate view about their role in the nation’s economy. In many of his observations and stated beliefs he repeatedly emphasized the condition of handlooms that too way back in 1919. Struck by the immense flooding of cloth from overseas during the existing British Rule then, it threatened the very roots of the already-in-doldrums handloom industry.

Excerpts from Letters written by Gandhi ji

In one of his letters Gandhi ji mentions, “The handloom weaving is in a dying condition. Everyone admits that whatever may be the future of the mill industry, the handlooms ought not to be allowed to perish.” – Mahatma Gandhi’s Letter to Hermann Kallenbach, October 23, 1915

Devender Ladha, owner, founder and current CEO of Unnati Silks, has been almost as passionate as the Father of the Nation himself regarding handlooms, which led him to be associated with handlooms since 1980. A firm backer of Gandhi ji and his ideals, he says, “People do not understand the true worth of handloom. Not only is it an heirloom product but defines the pulse of India that not only sees unity in its vast diversity but also empowers a vast section of society that constitutes a rural population which have agriculture and handloom weaving as their livelihood and which provide a mainstay to India’s economy.”

Understanding the meaning of Swadeshi

Gandhi ji was a firm believer of the pledge or oath of Swadeshi for the use of indigenous goods or that made in the country with local material. At that time when Swadeshi was part of the Non Co-operation Movement that started in response to the infamous Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, Gandhi ji expounded on what Swadeshi meant.

If yarn was imported and then it was spun and woven in India, it did not adhere to the principle of Swadeshi. Only if the yarn was also hand spun in India could it be termed as Swadeshi.

“We shall reach perfection only when our cotton is spun in India on indigenous spinning-wheels and yarn so spun is woven on similarly made handlooms. But requirements of the foregoing pledge are met, if we all only use cloth woven by means of imported machinery from yarn spun from Indian cotton by means of similar machinery.”

“If a few thousand men and women were to take the Swadeshi vow in this spirit, others will try to imitate them so far as possible. They will then begin to examine their wardrobes in the light of Swadeshi. Those who are not attached to pleasures and personal adornment, I venture to say, can give a great impetus to Swadeshi.”- Mahatma Gandhi, The Bombay Chronicle, 18-4-1919

The problems that the handloom weaver faced then, according to Gandhi ji

Gandhi ji had a correct reading of the situation. He felt all patriotic Indians must agree that India should be a self-clothing country. i.e. India should not import foreign yarn or piece-goods. By common sense and logic the best and the quickest means of attaining that object, was through the charkha. However being a realist he also took on the obstacles headlong.

“We grow enough cotton in the country. We have any number of handlooms and spinning-wheels. India is not unused to the art of hand-spinning and hand-weaving, but somehow or other the fear has seized us that the millions will not take to hand-spinning and weaving hand-spun yarn for their own needs. A haunted man sees fear even when there is no cause for it. And many more die of fright than of the actual disease.” – Mahatma Gandhi, Harijanbandhu, 2-11-1947

“Let us go to the root of the difficulty. Our initial mistake was that we took to spinning but neglected weaving. If we had adopted universal weaving along with spinning, all these difficulties would not have arisen. The remedy is to improve the yarn so that the weavers have as little difficulty in weaving as possible.” – Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 20-10-1946

Steps Gandhi ji felt would encourage spinning

According to Gandhi ji there were some steps to be taken immediately that could encourage yarn spinning locally.

Excerpt from Young India, 11-05-1921:

1) Increasing the number of handlooms in India

2) Preaching that it was the imperative duty of every Indian to be satisfied for the present with comparatively coarse cloths made from yarn produced in India and to avoid using imported cloths and cloths made in India from imported yarn, however comfortable wearing these clothes may be.

3) He pointed out that if the total amount of twist and yarn produced in India at that time without the use of charkha was converted into cloth, it would practically suffice to clothe India from her own produce, supposing the country were prepared to wear coarse cloths only. As a matter of fact, about 143 million pounds of twist and yarn made in India were being exported every year from India.

4) Convert, or weaving this stuff into cloth in India and preparing the country for making the small sacrifice involved in being content for the present with the coarse cloth thus produced, the great problem of making India self-clothing within a very short time could be solved.

5) The Poser for this: Whether the existing power-looms and handlooms of India would be able to weave the above huge quantity of yarn into cloth. The answer was – given the existing situation, No.

What then was to be done? Increase the number of looms?

He further reasoned that mere multiplying of handlooms alone could not solve the problem.

His one thought on handloom is echoed even today –

“Textile mills have themselves to incur almost the same cost on weaving as do handlooms and mills and handlooms being mutually antagonistic. Mills do have a place the national economy of India will surely continue for many years to come, perhaps they may live forever. Mills are independent. They do get help from Swadeshi movement, and they should get it, but in saying that both handlooms and mills deserve help, the handlooms get less help”. – Mahatma Gandhi, Comments on Galley-Proofs, January 20, 1931

What is the ground reality of today?

The government has been announcing a slew of measures since a long time for this sector, and in recent years since the declaration of Handloom Day as an annual observance, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, and policies declared to be implemented, by the I & B and textiles minister Smriti Irani, seem like a shot in the arm to this beleaguered sector.

But the skepticism since long that anything good would result from such declarations rides high. The ground reality has always been radically different from what is portrayed in govt. reports on the sector.

Take Manek a weaver from rural Sambalpur, whose specialty is the famed Sambalpuri saree. He has been occupied in this line of work since 35 years. Yet he despite his frugal spending and hard toil has never been able to eke out his existence without the mercy of the local money lender’s whims.

Told by a reporter who was extracting his life story for an article, that the Govt. would soon bring cheer to handloom weavers with some recent announcements by the ministry, Manek smiled sarcastically and said, “Every year I have been hearing that new policies have been announced and would soon be implemented. In more than 30 years, I have yet to see one that has done something to uplift our lot. We can only thank God that we have not been reduced to begging”.

Champabai, a mother of three small children, in a small village near Benaras, who has been weaving since the last twelve years since her husband passed away suddenly, in resigned fashion, merely shrugs and says, “If the govt. simply got a few of the promises they make every now and then, implemented, I and several others like me, would not be spending our lives in such miserable fashion”.

“Every month I have to literally plead with the village money lender to loan me some money, just to see that I and my kids can have a little food and my eldest make it to school. You can see the sarees that I and two other ladies weave. We weave about four to five in a month and sell to our contact person who comes from Benaras. What we get for them is hardly much and dependent on the mood of the trader’s representative, which again gets split three ways”.

These are woefully echoed across many states of India. When one gets to the inner rural pockets where the real ethnic craftsmen weave their wonderful handloom fabrics, one gets to see the highly contrasting stark reality against the rosy visions painted by glorifying press from statistical readouts that lack true substance.

Gandhi ji’s vision for Indian Handloom Community

The Father of the Nation was always an inspiring leader, who thought beyond his times. What he foresaw at that time, reasoned for handlooms, that got neglected all these years, have now become the stark reality of a prophecy made 100 years ago, and which will continue to haunt us in free India till we take the bull by the horns and bring a worthwhile solution for handloom weavers – the pride of India, the trustees of a priceless heritage.

Weaver, an architect of the products of the hand operated looms, already burdened with his pitiable state of affairs in eking out a decent living, has with the introduction of the GST become subject to additional woes that threaten to shake the very foundations of his life and livelihood.

In such a scenario with so many points to justify, the consideration of withdrawal of GST for the handloom sector could provide that moral boost and impetus that is much needed to alleviate the hopelessness and despair already written on the face of the humble artisan but pride of India, to quite a significant level. (ANI-BusinessWireIndia)