August 7 has now been designated as the National Handloom Day. The date marks beginning of Swadeshi Movement in Bengal in 1905 that gave an impetus to indigenous textile production. India enjoys a historical advantage in handcrafted and handloom products. Some 95 percent of world’s hand-woven fabric comes from India. The sector still contributes around 15 percent of cloth production in India. But why is it still in need of protection and nurturing?
Twenty five years ago quarter of cloth production (26.3 perecent) in India came from the handlooms. By the turn of the century it had declined to 19 percent. The total number of looms in the country has plummeted from 38.9 lakhs to 23.77 lakhs between the Handloom Censuses 1987-88 and 2009-10. The weaver households have experienced marginal decline from 30.6 lakhs to 27.83 lakhs and the number of weavers have decreased from 43.7 lakhs to 38.46 lakhs in the corresponding period.
The principal reason might be that mill and powerloom sectors are together outperforming handloom. It is an unequal competition between machine and man; competitive pricing and quality. A change in dressing preferences in post-Liberalization era might be responsible for the growing imbalance. In the colonial era, when India was a net importer in textile, the mill versus handloom was a politically loaded debate. There was a binary that mill produced clothing was foreign and hand woven was Swadeshi. Wearing mill clothes was equivalent to promoting Lancashire or Manchester capitalists at the cost of Indian weavers.
But this was not always true because beginning in 1851, when Cowasjee Nanabhoy Davar set up Bombay Spinning and Weaving Mill, cotton mills began to proliferate in India. In 1905-06, when the Swadeshi Movement arose in Bengal, there were already 207 cloth mills in India employing 212,720 workers operational in India.
In the last 20 years the number of textile mills in India has gone up from 1569 (1996) to 3365 (2016). Simultaneously the decentralized powerloom sector has also increased sharply. In 2001, there were 16,65,622 power looms in India producing 23,803 million sq meters of cloth annually, and employing 4.15 million people. In 2016, there were 25,74,522 power looms producing around 37 million sq meters of cloth and providing employment to more than 6.4 million people. Power looms contribute around 60 percent of cloth meant for exports.
Today any government is bound to harmonize the interests of mill, powerloom and handloom sectors. But the position of handloom is rooted in culture and society. Unlike in the western nations, industrialization has not swept aside handicraft and handloom. This ensures traditional knowledge, skills and narratives are transferred across generations. The subtlety of designs and touch of humanness present in the handloom fabric could not be matched.
Apart from this handloom has a socio-economic discourse. As per Handloom Census, 2009-10 more than 86 percent handlooms are in villages. Of the handloom weavers 41 percent are OBCs and 21 percent Scheduled Tribes. Therefore handloom provides employment to socio-economically backward segments. The government has extended several schemes related to revival, reform, concessional credit, marketing and quality control for this sector.
(The writer is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. Views expressed herein are his personal)
 Ministry of Textiles, Annual Report 2016-17, P.92
 Vide Unstarred Question No.261 (Decline of Handloom Industry) in Rajya Sabha November 25, 1991.
 Ministry of Textiles, Annual Report 2001-02, P.37
 M.P. Gandhi, The Indian Cotton Textile Industry: Its Past, Present and Future (1937), P.54
 Ministry of Textiles, Annual Report 2001-02, P.33
 Ministry of Textiles, Annual Report 2016-17, P.82-83