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Kishore Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2015-11-03

Bulk eri buyers outside shattering weaving dreams in Assam

Assam’s eri silk weavers are being pushed out of their traditional business by machines elsewhere in India. Accelerating their descent into despair are Assam-based suppliers of eri cocoon and yarn. Also responsible is the reluctance of local artisans to improve the quality of spinning and add value to the finished products.

Weavers say a racket of cocoon and yarn suppliers is killing their art and profession for a few rupees more. Operating out of Gohpur in Sonitpur district, Hojai in Nagaon, Rangapara in Udalguri, and Dhemaji and Kamrup districts, these suppliers have been catering to bulk buyers in other states who pay more than local weavers. The extra payment doesn’t hurt the buyers – many based in Bihar and West Bengal – as they have voracious markets across urban India.

“Buyers outside offer more money to suppliers as they have a well-organised system to add value to eri-based products. Assam lacks the market infrastructure,” Aswini Kalita, Sericulture Extension Officer, says.

At least 200 Metric tons of eri cocoon (mostly) and yarn ( negligible quantity) is estimated to be sold annually through this unregulated trade that denies the Assam government its royalty. The supply picks up from July and peaks before Durga Puja, the autumnal festival, and slows down from March to June. The volume of trade has been increasing, affecting the primarily rural economy based on eri spinning and weaving.

Three sets of people handle the primary stages of silk production – cocoon rearing, spinning yarn and weaving – though the lines get blurred in certain cases. The trading of cocoon and yarn is usually controlled by middlemen who are driven by profits, not by deep-rooted sentiments attached with Assam’s handloom culture.

“Cocoon and yarn suppliers are in a race to get rich quick. They seem to have lost respect for the weaving culture,” a silk entrepreneur says. The marginalised section of the weavers has been the hardest hit and this could make the eri spinning and weaving art history, he added.

“If there is no need for spinning eri yarn and weaving eri-based products, how will the dexterity of indigenous Assamese weavers, in a class of their own, remain intact? The inability to utilise the raw material at our disposal is robbing the poor of their livelihood,” says Narmohan Das, Assam’s pioneering social entrepreneur. He generates ‘social value’ rather than profit, and has 700 eri spinners and 311 weavers including 40 rearers in his team.

Eri has for ages sustained many a rural family in Assam. The popularity of their traditionally hand-spun eri silk products has captivated markets beyond, particularly European countries such as Germany, France and Switzerland. The poor artisans – most of them women – attribute this giant leap to the tiny Takura or Takuri, a traditional eri spinning device besides the hand loom. The cocoon is spun with this device for weavers to express their artistry on.

Hand-spun eri silk products look unique and have a stable market, says Das, who has recently purchased Rs 5 lakh worth of the yarn from poor artisans. In the past five months, he has exported eri­­ square scarf, stole, shawl and long scarf worth Rs 18 lakh to Europe. Stoles supplied to Switzerland in October last year were valued at Rs 2 lakh. Blended with a smattering of milled yarn, the eri yarn of the exported items was spun traditionally.

“Demand of eri-based products with natural dyes is very high in Europe. So my focus is on innovation and quality upgrade of such products. Mere pursuit of money cannot earn the goodwill that is needed in this business,” says Das, who invented the eri stole in 2001.

But eri artisans in Assam have not been deriving the benefits of this growing market. Apart from not getting adequate raw material from suppliers, they have not kept pace with the times and the demands of a niche market that appreciates quality spinning and traditional products with a modern spin.

An artisan is paid Rs 800 for spinning 1 kg of warp and Rs 480 for an equal amount of weft when they should command Rs 1,400 and Rs 800 respectively. “Many pay no heed to quality spinning and this often denies them their due,” Das says.

A mindset that refuses to get out of the traditional mould is harming the cause of the weavers too. “We are still at the level of weaving barkapor, which is our status symbol but must not be our ultimate product. Weavers need to come up with diversified value-added products. The government should come forward to give the kiss of life to this sector, still at the cottage level. Yarn traders and weavers, rather mill owners, are making hay with no plan in place,” Kalita says.

Eri fabric, which is 12 metres long and 46 inches wide, is used in making sarees in Delhi, Bengaluru, Mumbai and other major cities. Weavers in Bihar, West Bengal and other states also thrive on eri dress materials that are a blend of the modern and the traditional (in their areas of operation).

According to the Handloom Census 2009-10, Northeast India is a home to 21.6 lakh handloom workers followed by West Bengal with 7.8 lakh. Assam accounts for a majority of the region’s workforce that, if not cared for, could silence the Takura or Takuri forever.

Kishore Talukdar

( Kishore Talukdar is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. His areas of interest include Development journalism and Environment journalism. He can be contacted at tdrkishore@gmail.com )

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