Life hangs on a silken thread
For hundreds of Bodo women in Assam who migrate to work at the Sualkuchi silk looms seasonally, an innovation — the Chaneki device — that can increase productivity comes as a boon
Pronita Brahma, 25, is one of the over 25,000 migrant women, mostly belonging to the Bodo tribe, who migrate seasonally to Sualkuchi, the largest silk village in lower Assam's Kamrup district, to work as contractual weavers. Sualkuchi has a century-old tradition of silk weaving.
An expert weaver, Pronita first migrated here from Mohoripara village, around 65 km away, about 10 years ago. A spinster, like most of her compatriots, Pronita lives in a cramped rented dormitory and supports a family of five back home.
Villages like Mohoripara in Kamrup as well as others in lower Assam's Baksa and Barpeta districts, which are mostly inhabited by the Bodos, reel under abject poverty. Families are either landless or possess a small holding that can barely provide them with a square meal. Employment and livelihood opportunities are very limited, which pushes a sizable number of the villagers to migrate. Those with weaving skills normally migrate to Sualkuchi only to return after eight to nine months in order to either work in their own fields or as contract agricultural labourers.
A Sualkuchi weaver can only expect a paltry income between Rs. 2,500 and Rs. 4,000 a month by working on a traditional loom; very little of it is left though after paying for the accommodation rent as well as other living expenses. Not covered by any organised union, they do not have any platform to raise their voices against the exploitation experienced.
Most women take loans in advance from their employers and end up working almost as bonded labourers in order to pay them off. A weaver gets Rs. 700 for a chador and Rs. 300 for a mekhla — the traditional attire of Assamese women. It takes three to five days to weave a chador, depending on its design and the motifs used.
Usually the women who migrate to Sualkuchi try to return home after a few years to start life afresh with their meagre savings. However, with stagnation of wages and the spiralling prices of essential commodities, they can hardly save much anymore.
Pronita's employer, Manoj Kalita, while admitting that women weavers work under very tough conditions, argues that the status of loom owners is no better. An owner of 16 looms, he believes people like him have been able to provide some social security to the migrant women though they might have failed to give them financial security.
Mr. Kalita says: “A sizeable number of them have settled here permanently, marrying local boys. Once proud of their status as expert weavers, they now prefer to work in urban areas as sales girls or in other low-paid sectors.”
Explaining the reason behind the women’s drift towards other occupations, he points out: “When we used to pay the weavers Rs. 500 for a piece of chador, the price for a kilo of dal was only Rs. 18. Now even though we pay them Rs. 700, the price of dal has gone up to Rs. 64.”
The problem, according to him, lies in the fact that most consumers of silk products have a fixed budget. At the same time, the price of silk yarn has increased because of the lack of policy direction on the part of the government. Neither does the Assam government subsidise the yarn nor does it help in its procurement.
Without such interventions, profit margins for loom owners are falling, which is why they cannot pay the women weavers a better rate.
Although it is one of most prolific centres for silk-weaving, Sualkuchi has to depend on outside markets for raw material. Its weavers traditionally weave pat (mulberry) and muga silk. The pat silk-thread comes from Bangalore, and loom-owners are forced to pay whatever price the businessmen there quote. As for golden muga silk-thread — although it is procured locally, it remains expensive since the demand far outstrips supply.
While mulberry silk costs over Rs. 1,800 per kg, muga silk can range anywhere between Rs. 12,000 and Rs. 15,000 per kg.
But what could help to turn around this otherwise adverse situation is a device, known as the Chaneki, which has been introduced by the Central Silk Board (CSB) as part of its loom upgradation programme.
The device, which costs around Rs. 5,000, has been designed by Dipak Bharali, a science graduate who comes from a silk village himself, with the aim of maximising the weaving skills of the women and increasing the productivity of looms. The Chaneki helps save on time — almost by half — in threading the weft thread bobbins for spot design or motif making. On traditional looms, weavers are required to insert the weft thread manually to make a particular design. This takes time and often the weft thread snaps and has to be replaced.
Says Mr. Bharali, who received the President's State Award in 2009 for this innovation: “Being born into a weavers' family, I was always thinking of ways to help them. But I knew this would be impossible to achieve on traditional looms. Chaneki is the result of the experimentation which took several years.”
The device was further improved under the guidance of Professor A.K. Das of the design department of IIT, Guwahati, and with financial assistance from the National Innovation Foundation.
Soon after the decision of CSB to make Chaneki available for loom owners at a subsidised rate of 80 per cent in March 2012, it has brought about remarkable changes, not only for weavers, but also for owners. The device has reached around 400 weavers in Sualkuchi so far.
Pronita is upbeat about the new device and hopes to increase her earnings – not because of a wage rise but because of a rise in her productivity.
Perhaps, in time, women like her can go back to their villages, practice their craft, go in for product diversification and emerge as entrepreneurs in their own right.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bharali is now looking to design computerised designs and motifs to make weaving a sustainable and profitable venture. “They are the key persons who can make or break this entire industry. The survival of a tradition of weaving that goes back a century depends on them. This means we need to keep working at developing weaver friendly upgradation techniques.”