Saturday, September 24, 2005

Andhra Weavers Caught in a Time Warp

Looming Disaster

Andhra Weavers Caught in a Time Warp


THE recent mass suicides by weavers in Andhra Pradesh raise several important questions. Why has the caste community of the Padmashalis, who have traditionally made their living by weaving and marketing cloth, been driven to this level of desperation? What is the link between the impact of the process of globalisation on Andhra Pradesh in particular and India in general, and such deaths? How does it affect caste-cluster economies?

Let us first look at the Padmashali mode of caste-cluster economy and how it became crisis-ridden due to technological and market changes. The Padmashalis are the third largest Other Backward Class (OBC) community in Andhra Pradesh. They are spread all over the state, but have a visible tendency towards urbanisation since the occupation of weaving and marketing cloth becomes easy from urban and semi-urban centres. This community produces cloth from vegetable yarn (cotton) and animate yarn (silk).

Caste communities involved in the leather and wool-based household industries - which perhaps have an older history than cloth weaving - have developed an integrated process of production of raw material and its conversion into commodities. But unlike them, the Padmashalis developed exclusively cloth-weaving skills. They produce cloth as a marketable commodity, without having any organic links or skills in the production of the raw material. The Padmashali men have no expertise in ploughing and their women lack seeding and crop-cutting skills. Thus, their skill structure, over a period of time, became one-dimensional. By the time the British arrived, the Padmashalis were producing huge quantities of cloth and controlled a leading cottage industry of India.

Perhaps because they largely stay indoors, or because of characteristic genes, community members have developed reddish skin and are hence known as erra kulamu (red caste) among the OBCs. The Padmashali caste is highly Sanskritised, with all the men wearing the sacred thread. In terms of social consciousness, it is more Brahminic than any other OBC caste in Andhra Pradesh. In spite of all these Brahminic characteristics, this caste did not get integrated into ritual Brahminism and remained uneasily within the broad Sudra category.

As of now, its weaving industry has undergone three stages of development. When the British began to impose Lancashire cloth, the Padmashalis were operating a weaving technology called gunta maggam (pit-loom). This process involved using a rough wooden loom made by the village carpenter. It involved the labour of both men and women. Every Padmashali boy learnt how to handle the loom while growing up, and every Padmashali girl learnt the yarn-making process. The cloth that the pit-loom produced was meant to serve the needs of village market. It was rough-and-tough cloth meant to protect the human body from heat, cold and rain. The Padmashali economy was part of the agrarian economy, without many ups and downs. Of course, it fetched a living wage, in kind or cash. And some Padmashalis, through personal experience, developed considerable individual expertise and were capable of producing high-quality cloth.

The introduction of Lancashire cloth created the first major crisis for the Padmashalis, especially since they could not compete in terms of quality. Since their professional skill was caste-bound, they had never faced a competitive challenge involving radical restructuring of skills until outsiders challenged their very existence.

The superimposition of the market by the British had both positive and negative implications for the Padmashali economy. Modernisation was an unavoidable change. But the nature of caste-cluster economies does not allow sudden skill upgradation. A caste community collapses, as it does not have any manoeuvrability of skills to cope with such sudden ruptures. Caste-centred production and modernisation stand opposed to each other. As a result, this period of transition saw the Padmashalis suffering an enormous economic crisis.

Traditionally, the level of education among artisan castes has always been very low. Despite their Sanskritisation, the Padmashalis were no exception in this regard. The weaving industry needs to undergo quick changes, corresponding to global-level upgradation of technology. So it needs to take in educated persons. In the West, the weaving industry absorbed the most educated workers. But in India, the most educated castes like Brahmins and Baniyas never entered the weaving industry at all. The transition from pit-loom to handloom (frame-loom), though it was progressive, created a crisis of confidence among the Padmashalis since they were illiterate.

Even before the Padmashalis could become conversant with operating the handloom, mill-based production of cloth in Mumbai, Surat and Bhivandi overtook even handloom production. This pushed the caste-centred weavers into an even deeper crisis. After India achieved independence, the state had no clue as to how to protect the survival base of the weaving castes of India. This crisis resulted in the educated and semi-educated Padmashalis of Andhra Pradesh, particularly Telangana, migrating to Mumbai, Bhivandi and Surat in a big way. They learnt the operation of powerlooms and communicated that knowledge back to their native towns and villages. Once powerloom production took off, their population concentrated around powerloom centres like Sircilla.

The shift from handlooms to powerlooms changed the very structure of the weaving operation itself. Powerlooms are huge iron machines, which require a whole range of repair and other knowledge processes. Most of the illiterate Padmashalis felt that they were like cut-off yarn in the loom. Powerlooms also displaced labour. One man could operate four powerlooms at a time. Padmashali women could no longer be employed around powerlooms, as they were in the pit-loom economy. Unemployment among Padmashalis grew because of this transition. This had its psychological impact as well, causing depression and family problems.

In a bid to help out the weavers, the state provided some reservation for production and assured markets. Till the globalisation process began to create a new crisis in the 1990s, the Padmashalis were surviving due to welfare state protection both in the buying (yarn, colours etc) and selling markets (assured purchase of powerloom cloth by hospitals, road transport corporations and purchase of saris from handlooms for Janata Sari scheme etc). However, the heavy dose of globalisation and withdrawal of welfare protection and subsidies has acted as the final nail in the coffin, rendering even the powerloom economy absolutely helpless.

(The author teaches political science at Osmania University, Hyderabad)

In Brief

* The Padmashali caste is completely dependent on weaving

* The introduction of Lancashire cloth created the first crisis for the Padmashalis

* Technological development and globalisation caused further problems

* Withdrawal of protection and subsidies has driven many weavers to suicide