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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  How can farmers and weavers benefit from growing and weaving cotton cloth?

Sometimes a comparison is more revealing than just a fact. India grows far more cotton than the US. But while cotton in the US is grown by large corporations on farms of vast acreage and harvested by mechanical harvesters, cotton here is grown on small landholdings and harvested by hand. As to the handloom: Compared to the rest of the world, India has by far the largest number of working handlooms. In fact, India is home to 95% of the world’s handlooms, and hand-weaving is the largest employer in the country after agriculture. India’s cotton farmers and weavers together could make a world-beating, handmade, pure-cotton textile industry. The world is looking for handmade goods and India could be the world’s handloom cotton fabric supplier.

Why then are cotton farmers committing suicide and weavers leaving looms? Here are two reasons:

Cotton farming has become a high-risk activity. The farmers are obliged to grow the American variety Gossypium hirsutum, rather than the indigenous varieties Gossypium herbaceum and Gossypium arboreum. This is because our native varieties produced the finest cloth in the past but they are unsuited to the spinning machinery invented 250 years ago in the West and, in a modernized version, still in use today. These machines need the long, strong fibres of American cotton to withstand the heat and stress they generate. India has many different soils and micro-climates, and our native cotton varieties were painstakingly adapted to their local conditions over centuries of experience. The native varieties could withstand the variable Indian climate; the American varieties, with their shallower roots, cannot. The needs of the machine dictate what the farmer must grow, and the risk, if the crop fails, is the farmer’s. If one bad harvest is followed by another, the loan burden becomes unbearable and farmers take their lives rather than live with unpaid debt.

For a decade now, a bacillus gene, Bacillus thuringiensis, has been inserted into the cotton plant, with the claim that it will keep off one pest—the bollworm. Bt cotton seed is expensive and must be bought each year from licensed companies, increasing the farmer’s investment and, therefore, risk. The gene protects against only one particular pest; there are many others on which it has no effect, and, currently, one of these, the whitefly, is devastating cotton fields in Punjab.

One reason weavers are leaving their looms is that illegal machine-made copies of handloom fabrics are undercutting handloom demand in the market—most of the power-loom cloth sold in the market is passed off as handloom. This is against the law of the land, the Handloom (Reservation of Articles for Production) Act of 1985, which states that 11 articles, including saris, dhotis and lungis, are to be made exclusively on the handloom. A handwoven, tie-dyed Sambalpuri sari may cost 1,200-2,000 or more, while a printed machine-made copy is available for 400. While corporate entities go to court to protect their brands, handloom weavers are unable to do so. The state must enforce the law of the land and ensure that hand-weaving gets the protection to which it is entitled.

Between cotton growing and its weaving into cloth on the handloom stand the spinning mills. The only customers for the farmer’s cotton, they demand only one kind of cotton, one that is highly risky for the farmer to grow. From this one cotton variety, the mills turn out the same yarn everywhere. But we need a different kind of spinning machinery, one specifically suited to India’s strengths, one that could process different varieties of cotton, one that would produce from those cottons a variety of different yarns that would restore the diversity that was the hallmark of Indian cotton fabrics.

How can farmers and weavers benefit from growing and weaving cotton cloth? The first step would be for the state and civil society to recognize the value of small farms and hand-weaving. These, with ancillary services for farming and weaving—tool making, pre-weaving yarn preparation, dyeing of yarn and cloth—account for a vast segment engaged in small-scale production. With some encouragement, this could be the basis for dispersed, decentralized, self-owned, democratically managed cotton textile production.

We have the potential for ecologically sustainable cotton cloth-making, unparalleled in the world, a unique advantage in a time of climate crisis; a chance to build democratic, people-owned industries, dispersed throughout the countryside, with the means of production distributed throughout society, not just confined to the very few who can afford to invest in the huge infrastructure needed for mechanized textile production.

It is an opportunity not to be missed.

The writer is the founder of the Decentralised Cotton Yarn Trust and a senior member of the team behind Malkha.

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