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POST TIME: 27 October, 2019 03:26:16 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 27 October, 2019 05:19:26 PM
Handloom industry in dire straits
MD HABIBULLA, Dhaka

Handloom industry in dire straits

The number of handloom units has registered a sharp fall mainly because of shift towards mechanisation, increase in raw material prices, continuous growth of powerlooms, and entry of smuggled cheap and low-quality Indian saris over the last few decades.  

Experts said if the government could overcome these problems, the country’s handloom market may receive a boost.  

They said a mindset about the country's heritage products should be created among the people, and indegenous culture should be given preference. Foreign culture and products should not be accepted, and only then can the local industry survive, they said.

The handloom industry, the oldest and largest cottage-based industry, is struggling and, thus, weavers are leaving their holistic profession.   

Market insiders said the weavers lack resources and proper access to market, and are dependent on middlemen, who often cheat them of a fair price. Local weavers and traders have long demanded easy-term loans and other necessary support from the government.

In order to stop such hassle and smuggling of Indian saris, the authorities must intervene, said market insiders.  

A strict market monitoring mechanism must be there to protect the farmers and weavers from unfair competition. The government must also explore potential international market and conduct market research to expand the market of Bangladeshi silk and other handloom products, especially through export, said market insiders.

Planning minister MA Mannan recently said the government attaches much importance to the promising handloom sector as a heritage of the country. To protect the heritage sector, several projects have been taken up by the Bangladesh Handloom Board.

“I will request the ministry concerned to allocate more funds for the SME sector so that entrepreneurs can overcome the problem of capital shortage," he said, adding that the government is looking into the sector’s problems.  

According to the Bangladesh Handloom Board, at least eight development projects, including skill development of weavers, are currently being implemented and seven more projects are in the approval stage.

In 2003, there were 1,83,512 handloom units, but it fell 36.79 per cent to 1,16,006 last year, according to the Handloom Census 2018, carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).

The government carried out the third countrywide census on handloom last year. The previous two censuses were in 1990 and 2003.

According to the latest census report, employment also fell: 8,88,115 people were employed in the sector in 2013, but it declined by 194 per cent to 3,01,157 in 2018.

The number of women workers fell by 55.78 per cent to 1,68,313 and men by 44.22 per cent to 1,33,444 during the period.

However, in percentage, women's participation in the labour force rose: they made up 44.35 per cent of the workforce in 1990 and it rose to 46.81 per cent in 2003 and 55.78 per cent in 2018.

There is a significant number of women workers in the three hill districts of Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban.

Apart from increasing mechanisation, lower income, lack of capital and problems related to marketing were blamed for the squeezed handloom sector.

Chattogram and Rajshahi divisions are home to most of the handlooms in the country, accounting for 73.10 per cent of the total. The Chattogram division also makes up 56.20 per cent of the handlooms.

The census report showed that 88.43 per cent handloom units are located in villages, while the rest are in towns.

“Handloom is our traditional industry, but it is about to disappear. So, the government has moved to formulate proper plans for development of the sector,” Mannan said.

Former finance minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith said: “We should make more effort to keep the handloom industry alive as a cultural heritage to acknowledge our roots."  

Why weavers are changing profession

Unfortunately, the handloom industry is stricken with some long-term problems which are contributing greatly to doom the industry. In most cases, weavers do not get quality raw materials at the right time and right price. Also, the economic efficiency of the handloom enterprises is fundamentally dependent on the price of yarn, which is essential for weaving different handloom products. So, when the price of yarn rises, it becomes one of the most pressing and perpetual problems for the weavers.

Another major problem of the industry is that the artisans do not get adequate wages for their labour. A good piece of Jamdani sari requires the efforts of one to two months, but after completion of work, the salary the artisans receive never rewards their hard work and skill. Due to poor salary, most of the artisans cannot lead a stable life.

Another reason that is reducing the number of weavers and handloom units is the gradual shift of handloom weavers and handloom units to powerloom, as powerloom can produce more saris in a day than handloom.

According to a study conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), labourers or weavers already displaced were mostly absorbed in other sectors, like the readymade garment industry and rural transportation (non-motorised vehicles such as rickshaw-van and motorised vehicles like motorcycles and scooters).

Many displaced handloom workers have found overseas employment as well.  

Efforts to preserve and promote traditional handloom

To preserve and promote traditional handloom by featuring the creative work of top designers and exclusive products of weavers and artisans from remote areas of Bangladesh, a four-day "Heritage Handloom Festival-2019" was held at Khazana Gardenia in Gulshan-2, Dhaka, from October 23 to 26.

For the second time, the Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Foundation and Association of Fashion Designers of Bangladesh (AFDB) jointly organised the festival.   

The main objective of the exhibition was to revive and promote heritage handloom products, facilitate weavers with marketing and export opportunities and most importantly, encourage youth engagement in the handloom industry.

About 45 entrepreneurs and designers in 45 stalls participated in the fair.

Mantasha Ahmed, president of the AFDB, said the fair provides an opportunity to form a network among weavers and buyers. "Besides, we arrange this fair so that our tradition and heritage does not go extinct.”

An entrepreneur, Md Omar Faruqe, owner of Taanti Faruqe, who participated in the festival, told The Independent: "We face several problems to get access in the markets. Besides, the number of weavers has decreased significantly and prices of raw materials have also increased."

He also said handloom traditions are about to become extinct in the country.

In order to uphold the indegenous culture, he started handloom business with only five weavers in 2014, and the number of weavers has increased to 55.

“I am going to showcase our own culture and products in a festival in Malaysia next month,” he added.

Shamim Akhter, owner of Siddique Silk House, said there are many problems in the handloom sector. As a result, many entrepreneurs have left this business. Besides, due to insufficient wages, many weavers were being attracted to other professions where they can earn more.

“Most of the oldest entrepreneurs of Sylhet district were leaving the profession as the handloom market is shrinking,” said Moirang, the owner of a small handloom unit in Sylhet district.

She said a senior artisan (taanti) earns only Tk. 3,500 to Tk. 4,000 per month, while an average skilled artisan gets around Tk. 2,000 per month. Therefore, many weavers do not want their children to pursue this profession.

What type of looms are available in the country

According to the Bangladesh Handloom Board statistics, about six types of looms are available in the country. They are Pit loom, Chittaranjan loom, Komor loom, Frame loom, and Benarasi, Jamdani, and Power loom. Weavers of different regions work with diverse sort of handlooms. It indicates that although handloom products are made all over the country, the people of each area have their distinctive fabrics and products.  

For example, Narayanganj is famous for Jamdani saris. Pabna, Rangpur and Dhaka are reputed for traditional Benarasi saris and Ruhitpuri lungis, Chapainawabganj and Rajshahi for silk saris and punjabis, Tangail for cotton saris, Cumilla for khadi saris, punjabis and shawls, and Sylhet and Moulvibazar for Monipuri saris, lungis and shawls.

Together, the country’s weavers can meet merely 40 per cent of the annual demand of the people’s requirement of approximately 168 crore metres of fabrics for producing saris, punjabis, lungis, baby wear, towels (gamchha), bedsheets, tapestry, upholstery, place mats, rugs or blankets, satranjis, tribal textiles, sofa cushion covers, table cloths, napkins, dusters, kitchen towels, and other clothes.

EA/BK