Varanasi: Shiwajatan Rajbhar spends his days weaving golden and silver flowers across exquisite silk saris on a rickety handloom in his mud hut.
Once completed, the handloom sari—traditionally a prized part of any Indian bride’s trousseau—will be sold for many times his monthly income.
The northern city of Varanasi is to handloom saris what Darjeeling is to tea. Yet despite producing some of the most coveted saris in the Indian subcontinent, the weavers—said to number between 200,000 and 500,000—have never been rich.
Now, with the market flooded with cheap machine-made saris, they are poorer than ever, with some turning to farming and manual labour and others resorting to begging.
The weavers are typical of the millions of Indians left behind by market forces even as parts of the country’s metropolises enjoy increasing prosperity from a booming economy.
In the 1990s, powerlooms became increasingly common, spitting out several saris in a day—the same time it takes someone like Rajbhar to weave only the first yard of a classic six-metre sari on his wooden handloom, thread by thread.
Machine-made Chinese imitations have, in recent years, flooded the market, often sold by dishonest dealers as the real thing. Varanasi’s weavers say they cannot compete, and so thousands of looms have fallen silent.
“They started closing down slowly, one or two at a time,” remembers Munni Devi, who lives in Gaurakala village, once home to about 100 handlooms.
Now there are only two still running. Many of the others have been trashed for firewood. The trenches dug in the floors of their homes to house the looms’ pedals now resemble shallow graves.
Before, the families once earned so much they could build sturdy two-storeyed homes, grand by Indian village standards. These days, the once proud artisans now slowly sell off ornaments for money and rent land to farm.
Lenin Raghuvanshi of local advocacy group People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) points out that almost all weavers are either low-caste Hindus or from the Muslim minority—communities that have often been marginalized—and are mostly illiterate.
His group wants the government to follow through on its proposal to introduce a handloom mark of authenticity so that the weavers have a fairer shot at selling their coveted saris in the market.
Until then, if they cannot earn from their handlooms, the weavers must resort to menial jobs, such as driving rickshaws, selling vegetables, laying roads or begging.
In the last few years, around 50 adults and children from weaving families have either starved to death, or killed themselves rather than endure their poverty, according to PVCHR.
Many lack the government ration card to which the poor are entitled, which would give them discounted or free food.
Tuberculosis is also common. The weaver parents of Iqbal Khan, 15, were typical: they went to their graves not knowing they were entitled to free life-saving drugs from the government.
Khan now has the disease that made him an orphan and sleeps most of the day, while his eight-year-old sister shoulders the extra burden of work on their handloom alongside two aunts.
Ramauti Rajbhar, like many weavers, talks about her poverty and hunger with weary good humour. Likewise, the children playing between the mud huts look happy enough, even if malnutrition has turned their black hair tawny yellow and left their skin visibly dry.
Most of Rajbhar’s one-room home in Bhagwa Nala is taken up by two defunct handlooms. She now works as a casual labourer on building sites.
If she gets hired in the morning, she takes home Rs60 in the evening. She can afford to feed her children only a bowl or two of plain rice and some bread each day. Sometimes they get nothing.