The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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China silk scare wraps TN

Kumbakonam, Jan. 17: For 2,00,000 people in this temple town on the Cauvery, the fear of a deluge of Chinese silk is as real as the river drying up, crops withering and farmers starving.

The ADMK regime may have launched the free meal scheme for landless starving farmers, but people in the know in the distressed Cauvery belt prefer to ask “why the government should not strengthen other means to a decent living”'

With farm incomes dwindling, both the farmer and the silk producers and weavers in the Cauvery belt have been hit.

For nearly 2,00,000 people in and around Kumbakonam who are dependent on the silk industry, the survival of the trade is the only way out of a dry spell. The town is the hub of a centuries-old cottage industry in weaving handloom silk sarees, with weavers sprinkled up to Thanjavur.

The warp and weft of economic liberalisation in this town, however, have woven a “Chinese riddle” that the weavers are finding tough to crack. They fear that once the “tariff barrier” of import duty goes in 2004, when WTO rules come into play, the floodgates would open to a “deluge of imported Chinese silk”.

Karnataka raw silk producers, who are major suppliers to Kumbakonam’s silk industry, had wrested the import duty after quantitative restrictions on silk imports were eased.

Next to Kancheepuram and Arni, Kumbakonam is the third centre in the state that specialises in producing silk sarees, “the gracious language of women”, as the weavers put it.

But even before foreign competition could reach home, several private silk traders from neighbouring Karnataka have flooded Kumbakonam with shops to market their commodity.

Close on their heels would come the “agents for the finer Chinese silk (who) are planning to set up outlets here”, said K.K. Govindasamy, secretary, Kumbakonam Handloom Silk Cloth Producers’ Association.

A representative body of nearly 100 silk cloth manufacturers, the association works nearly 30,000 silk handlooms in the Cauvery belt, producing 10 lakh silk sarees a year worth Rs 250 crore.

“On the one hand, we are facing crop ruin because of lack of Cauvery water and, on the other, the demand recession has hit the silk handlooms badly,” said a silk cloth maker. His family has been in the business for three generations. “I have not billed a single saree in the last two months.”

Most of these looms are in private hands, though weavers, including several women, weave for the silk cooperative societies, too. A small part of the raw silk that goes into these looms comes from Malda in Bengal.

Along with Chettiyars and Mudaliars, the silk handloom weaving in the belt has been the traditional profession of a sizeable number of Saurashtrian families, who migrated from Gujarat over 100 years ago. Now, however, “weavers across castes have switched over to silk handlooms for a daily wage” with the “near collapse of the cotton handloom sector”, Govindasamy said.

The weavers are switching from cotton to silk in the hope that silk sarees and accessories are in demand at least once in a person’s lifetime, however poor he may be — like during a marriage or other auspicious occasions.

“With farm incomes dwindling — barring a few affluent farmers who have managed to sustain the samba paddy with tubewells — both silk producers and weavers have been hit by a lack of demand,” Govindasamy said.

The silk cloth producers, traditionally rooted in a family business set-up, are too isolated to take a crack at the export market or compete with powerlooms. “Unless our shades and designs improve, we cannot do that,” Govindasamy said.

He said the association has asked for a design centre to be set up in Kumbakonam to train weavers in “trendy patterns, intricate designs for the fashion-conscious modern woman in distant urban markets”.

With the agricultural economy wilting in the wake of a drying Cauvery and the Chinese flood threatening, the silk cloth makers are also scared about “the Chinese copying our unique silk weaves in the absence of intellectual property protection for our handicraft”.

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