Murshidabad: Gopinath Sarkar, 66, has been weaving silk for the past four decades. The fabric that he churns out of his 10ft by 12ft shack in Islampur block of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district is fast gaining popularity outside the state and abroad because it is much lighter than most other variants of silk. Yet, Sarkar isn’t sure he can earn enough to support his family for long.
“In 20 years, there may not be any weaver left in this area,” says Sarkar about Islampur, which is famous for its handspun silk fabrics. Though demand for the fabric is growing, a large majority of weavers, or so called khadi workers, aren’t earning the minimum wage stipulated by the government, alleges Sarkar, whose only son left home long ago in search of a job and settled in Delhi.
Ever since the government announced incentives for khadi workers in the 1950s, societies have been founded across India to integrate weavers with entrepreneurs and front-end retailers. In Murshidabad, an important production hub for silk fabrics, many of these societies are now defunct. But on paper, they are alive and even comply with the government stipulations. Though they do not extract the yarn, these societies, controlled by entrepreneurs, enjoy all the incentives offered by the government, such as cheap working capital and cash subsidies, but do not pay the weavers their dues.
Compliance with government regulations would double the costs, according to Ajoy Saha, a businessman in Islampur who hires weavers to spin silk fabric from yarn. “An 11m roll of silk would cost no less than Rs4,000 if it were to be produced in compliance with all the government stipulations, whereas we sell them for Rs2,500,” says Saha, who sells the fabric to the khadi societies. They, in turn, pass them off as fabric spun by their own weavers, and claim incentives.
Wheel of misfortune: Only 631 of the 3,049 khadi workers in Murshidabad are registered with the state board. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
It is almost a throwback to the 1920s, when khadi was launched as a movement for economic freedom, but was stricken by high production costs compared with fabric imported from the mechanized mills of Manchester.
Some 20,000 families in the Chowk area of Islampur, where Saha runs a roaring business, are dependent on silk and cotton weaving. There are some 70 government-recognized khadi societies in the neighbourhood, but at least 60 are defunct, say locals. For want of an alternative, weavers are forced to work for traders such as Saha. They earn a pittance compared with the wages stipulated by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), which range from Rs300 to Rs3,000 per 11m roll, depending on the fabric.
Under KVIC norms, societies must offer khadi workers an annual bonus and other benefits such as insurance and an equivalent of provident fund. But official records of the West Bengal government show that only 631 out of 3,049 khadi workers in Murshidabad district, who are registered with the West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board (WBKVIB), have cover under the Janashree Bima Yojana, an insurance scheme that entitles them to compensation on death and permanent disability. The khadi societies are required to pay a quarter of the insurance premium—Rs50 a year. The rest is paid by the government and the weavers.
The khadi societies are also required to contribute 12% of the total wage to an Artisan Welfare Trust, the equivalent of provident fund for khadi workers, but contributions have been made for only 897 workers registered with WBKVIB in Murshidabad.
In West Bengal, there are some 115 societies recognized by Mumbai-headquartered KVIC, and 175 societies recognized by WBKVIB. These 290 societies are entitled to the same benefits from the government though regulated by different bodies. It is estimated that there are 65,000 khadi workers in the state. Official records show khadi societies contribute to the Artisan Welfare Trust for only 34% of the workers. Even fewer people, around 31%, are covered under the Janashree Bima Yojana.
Depending on the affiliation, the khadi societies are audited by the Central or state regulator—KVIC or WBKVIB—and based on the employment and production potentials of each, the government decides the quantum of subsidy to be offered on working capital. Thanks to government aid, these khadi societies borrow from banks at 4-6%.
“But they (the regulators) don’t even visit the units. They simply go to the (front) offices, where the secretaries furnish false documents bearing thumb impressions,” alleges Uttam Gonai, a local weaver.
J.S. Mishra, chief executive officer of KVIC, admitted that the commission has been hearing such complaints from Murshidabad every now and then. “We have taken action against many errant societies...even taken steps to recover financial incentives given to them. They must be foolish to think they can get away with this,” he said, adding that KVIC has plans to invest at least Rs2,000 crore over the next three years to improve infrastructure. Revenue from sale of khadi, estimated to be around Rs600 crore a year at present, is expected to grow. “Our plan is to double the turnover of khadi by the end of 2009-10,” said Mishra.
Khadi societies are also known to forge documents to shore up sales because the government offers cash subsidy amounting to 10% of total sales of each unit. Locals claims these societies furnish false sales receipts to claim the subsidy from the government, and Prabir Banerjee, CEO of WBKVIB, doesn’t refute this.
“Such malpractices can’t be ruled out,” said Banerjee, explaining why the government can’t punish errant khadi societies. “Some of our officials are part of this scandal, but we have initiated steps to start central processing of (subsidy) claims and settlement in our Kolkata head office.”
But until sweeping reforms are introduced, the weavers of Murshidabad will continue to draw wages and bonuses from khadi societies against fingerprints—sometimes even imprints of their big toes.