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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 18, April 18, 2009

Bunkar Sandesh Abhiyan: A Campaign for Protecting Livelihoods of Weavers and Artisans

Saturday 18 April 2009, by Bharat Dogra

In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for a large number of handloom weavers and other craftspersons to sustain their livelihoods. While earlier also there were problems relating to the grip of middlemen and the actual artisans being denied a fair share of the earnings, the livelihood situation deteriorated rapidly in recent years for many silk handloom weavers due to increased imports of cheap silk cloth from China. At the same time many craftspersons employed in zardozi (embroidery) and chikankari work also faced a serious livelihood threat due to the imports of machines from China which could carry out work more rapidly and at a cheaper rate, although of course the quality could not match the work done by the hands of skilled craftspersons. These cheap imports of silk cloth, and machinery were used by unscrupulous manufacturers to flood the market with cheap products which were sold in the name of well-established hand-skill products, although no traditional hand-skills were used by them. These cheap imitation products started displacing the more expensive genuine products of skilled craftspersons. While many skilled craftspersons lost their jobs, others were forced to accept much lower rates at a time when the price of food and other basic needs was increasing rapidly.

It is in this context that a campaign called the Bunkar Sandesh Abhiyan was launched from October 2008 to March 2009 in Uttar Pradesh by the Banaras Bunkar Samiti and Human Welfare Association with the support of the Find Your Feet and Saksham India Trust. This campaign aimed to spread public consciousness about the crisis of these artisans, organise dialogues to bring together handloom weavers and other artisans from many parts of the State, frame and articulate those demands of these communities which can provide genuine relief and sustained livelihoods to them, take these demands to decisions-makers and finally, establish and strengthen forums and organisations which can take forward this work on a more sustained basis at the State and national levels.

The initial work of this campaign was more focused on silk handloom weavers of Varanasi and surrounding areas, the area famous for Banarasi sari; but in a later phase many other skilled crafts such as zardozi and chikankari were integrated in this campaign. However, for a vast State like Uttar Pradesh, with a rich tradition and diversity of crafts, clearly there are many more skilled crafts which can be included in such a campaign if there is an opportunity later to expand its scope further.

The Bunkar Sandesh Abhiyan (BSA) organised public hearings and dialogues where the voice of weavers, artisans as well as activists working with them could be heard regarding their problems and remedial measures. The first such hearing was organised in Varanasi. The second public hearing organised in Dulaipur Satpokhri village of Chandauli district provided a forum mainly for rural based weavers. The third dialogue was organised in Lucknow, the State capital, where artisans and activity working with them from nearly 17 districts were represented. This dialogue emphasised suggestions for remedial measures. These dialogues made available a wide range of views as to how the existing problems and remedial measures are seen. The dialogue at Lucknow helped to broaden the campaign. As activists working with artisans and artisans themselves were brought together for this dialogue, this helped them to establish linkages and gain a broader understanding of issues which will be useful for united action later.

This campaign also involved the organisation of rallies and protest demonstrations by weavers and other artisans to draw attention to their problems and present their demands to the authorities. The first such demonstration at Varanasi brought together about 500 weavers from this city and surrounding villages and neighbouring districts as well. A memorandum of demands was presented to be sent to the Textiles Minister of the Government of India and the Prime Minister.

The next rally and demonstration were organised in Lucknow as a part of a three-day programme in the State capital of Lucknow. Nearly 500 artisans and activists marched from the OCM the residential place of many MLAs, to the Legislative Assembly. Here a protest demonstration was held where cheap imported Chinese cloth was also burnt in a symbolic act of ‘Holi’ to emphasise that such indiscriminate imports which destroy the livelihood of people will not be tolerated. An 11-point charter of demands was presented to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh relating to a range of relief measures for weavers and other artisans as well as better implementation of existing provisions and opening a separate Ministry for Handloom Weavers.

It is clear that a significant contribution has been made by the BSA in drawing attention to the problems of weavers and artisans as well as forming a better understanding of their problems and bringing together artisans and activists from many parts of the State together for joint action programmes in future.

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