Chapter 4 Integrating Traditional Family-based Skills and Vocations—Case of Handloom Weavers – Skilling India


Integrating Traditional Family-based Skills and Vocations—Case of Handloom Weavers

In India, the bulk of production activity takes place in the unorganized sector. It is this sector that is likely to absorb increasingly large proportions of the labor force to which the benefits of skill development and the consequent augmentation of productivity should increasingly be extended. At a time when skill development has become a buzzword in the country, we must focus on appropriate skilling for the 86 percent of the working population in the unorganized sector. In a globalizing economy, the Indian workforce, particularly those engaged in the informal sector, will have to contend increasingly with internal and external competition from products and services coming from workers who are relatively better skilled. Mere survival in the market demands retention of one’s competitive edge through acquisition of skills and constant upgradation of the skills acquired. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO)’s 68th-round figures show that among persons of aged 15 years and above, only 2.4 percent had technical degrees or diplomas or certificates. The proportion was 1.1 percent in rural areas and 5.5 percent in urban areas.

The unorganized sector is vast and varied, and the training requirements differ widely across occupations. Although the contribution of this sector toward the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country is about 60 percent, due recognition to the needs of the sector has been slow.

Status of Vocational Training Received/being received per 1,000 population

Source: National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), Status of Education and Vocational Training in India, NSS
th Round p. 44.

While there is a large (though inadequate) institutional network of training and skill development of workers in the formal sector, facilities in both informal and traditional sectors are grossly inadequate. For instance, surveys show that only about 9 percent of the workforce in small-scale industries are technically trained—most of them only to the Industrial Training Institute (ITI) level. Again, an evaluation of the Prime Minister’s Rozgar Yojana conducted by the Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR) in 2000 revealed that more than 50 percent of the applications from potential beneficiaries were rejected on grounds of inadequate skills. The ongoing skill development programs meant for certain specific areas of the informal sector are too disjointed and routine to have a significant impact.

Training and development of jobseekers and workers in the informal sector cannot be easily accommodated within the framework of existing strategies for vocational training. The opportunity cost of training the workers in this sector is high—they cannot afford to forego wages during training. State interventions must address this important area. India will experience economic and skill development challenges in the next two decades. The combined effect of both economic development and skill development has to be fully understood in the overall context of India. There will be four major transformations taking place in the near future according to the survey of Team Lease Services (India Labour Report 2008), as economy will shift from (i) farm to non-farm activities, (ii) rural to urban regions, (iii) unorganized to organized sectors, and (iv) subsistence-oriented self-employment to decent wage employment. All these four transformations will have a direct impact on the skill enhancement of Indian labor force.

Indian government and policymakers at the apex level have responded to the growing challenges of Indian labor force facing the unorganized sector and are trying to give a concrete shape to the policy structure for skill development. Three apex bodies, namely, (i) Prime Minister’s National Council on Skill Development, (ii) National Skill Development Coordination Board, and (iii) National Skill Development Corporation are in place and examining various policy options so as to prepare 500 million skilled people by 2022, with a focus on the unorganized sector with sufficient skills to meet the domestic and global requirements.

In this context, the National Policy of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship enshrines the important task of recognizing prior learning (RPL) as the key instrument that can help map the existing skills in the unorganized sector and integrate the informal sector to the formal skilling landscape. The RPL framework is an outcome-based qualification framework linked to National Skills Qualifications Framework (NSQF) against which prior learning through formal/informal channels would be assessed and certified. The RPL process would include a preassessment, skill gap training and final assessment leading to certification of existing skills in an individual. The RPL certification would be at par with the certifications following various skill trainings in the country. It will provide both horizontal and vertical pathways to an individual for acquiring additional skills for better livelihoods. Adequate resources will be earmarked under various government schemes for equitable access to RPL programs. The government will provide detailed guidelines for RPL initiatives that will ensure quality and consistent outcomes.

In this light, an effort is made in this chapter to describe the status of one of the traditional skills predominantly prevalent in the unorganized/informal sector, namely, the handloom industry.

The Handloom Sector—An Overview

The handloom sector is one of the largest unorganized economic activities after agriculture and constitutes an integral part of the rural and semirural livelihood. Handloom weaving constitutes one of the richest and most vibrant aspects of the Indian cultural heritage. The sector has advantages such as being less capital intensive, minimal use of power, being eco-friendly, having flexibility of small production, openness to innovations, and adaptability to market requirements. It is a natural productive asset and tradition at cottage level, which has sustained and grown by transfer of skill from one generation to the next.

Handloom weaving is largely decentralized, and weavers are mainly from the vulnerable and weaker sections of the society, who weave for their household needs and also contribute to the production in the textile sector. The weavers of this industry are keeping alive the traditional craft of different states. The level of artistry and intricacy achieved in the handloom fabrics is unparalleled, and certain weaves/designs are still beyond the scope of modern machines. Handloom sector can meet every need ranging from the exquisite fabrics, which takes months to weave, to popular items of mass production for daily use.

According to the third National Census of Weavers and Allied Workers carried out in 2009 to 2010, more than 4.3 million people are engaged in weaving and allied activities, and the figure was 6.5 million per second handloom census conducted during the period 1995 to 1996.

It is pertinent to highlight some of the major findings of the census.

Nearly 2.78 million handloom households are engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87 percent are located in rural areas and remaining 13 percent in urban areas.

The majority (82 percent) of handloom worker households are weaver households, which means at least one member of every such household is engaged in weaving activities. Nearly 14 percent are allied worker households, 3 percent are idle loom households, and about 1 percent are other handloom households having no adult handloom workers.

In the North-East states, 90 percent of handloom worker households are weaver households. The allied worker households are mostly found in the states outside this region and form 29 percent of the total handloom worker households in these states.

A caste-wise breakup yields that about 10 percent of handloom worker households belong to the Scheduled Castes (SCs); 22 percent, to Scheduled Tribes (STs); 41 percent, to Other Backward Castes (OBCs); and 27 percent belong to “Other.”

There is a major difference in the caste composition of handloom worker households in the North-East and other states. In the North-East, ST (36 percent) and OBC (33 percent) households have similar proportions of almost a third of the total households, followed by “Other” category households (24 percent), whereas SC households (7 percent) are far less in number. In states outside the North-East, more than half (53 percent) of the handloom worker households are OBCs, followed by households from “Other” (31 percent). SC households account for 14 percent of the total, whereas ST households have a very small presence.

The caste distribution of handloom weaver households has not undergone any significant changes. In the second handloom census, the OBCs formed the dominant social group, followed by STs and “Other” category households, whereas SC households form the minority group. In the third handloom census too, OBC households formed the majority group and SC households were a minority. There is, however, a slight increase in the “Other” category households accompanied with minor decreases in the proportion of ST and SC households.

A religion-wise breakup yields that about 78 percent of the households are Hindus, 15 percent Muslims, 6 percent Christians, and the remaining comprising communities such as Buddhists, Sikhs, and others.

There are differences in the religion-wise composition of handloom worker households in the North-East and other states. In the North-East, 82 percent of the households are Hindus, and 12 percent follow Christianity and other religions. The proportion of Muslim households is small (6 percent). In states outside the North-East, the proportion of Hindu households (70 percent) is comparatively less, and there is a major increase in the proportion of Muslim households (29 percent). Households from other religions account for only 1 percent of the total. Uttar Pradesh (85 percent) and West Bengal (37 percent) emerge as special cases with high proportions of Muslim households.

Nearly 53 percent of handloom worker households are into commercial production, and nearly 16 percent households undertake a mix of domestic and commercial production. Thus, a total of 69 percent of the handloom households undertake commercial production.

Nearly 28 percent of handloom worker households are into purely domestic production and mostly located in the North-Eastern states.

Nearly 3 percent of the handloom households have idle looms and, therefore, no functional handloom worker in the house. Most of such households are in rural areas.

Nearly 67 percent of households have looms, which may or may not be owned by them. In case of nonownership of looms, the looms are placed in their houses by master weavers, cooperative societies, or private owners. Most (90 percent) households having looms in the house are in rural areas.

Nearly 33 percent of the handloom worker households do not have looms. These households are either engaged in hired weaving activities, and their members have to go to other locations with looms (like master weaver’s premises, cooperative society work sheds, or factories) to do the weaving activity, or these households undertake handloom-allied work. A comparatively higher proportion of households that do not have looms at residence live in urban India.

At the all-India level, the average annual income of handloom worker households (including those who work only for domestic purpose) is as follows:

Handloom worker households

Rs.36,498 for total handloom households

Rs.37,167 for total handloom households residing in rural areas

Rs.32,030 for total handloom households residing in urban areas,

Weaver households

Rs.37,707 for total handloom households

Rs.38,260 for total handloom households residing in rural areas

Rs.33,038 for total handloom households residing in urban areas.

Allied households

Rs.29,300 for total handloom households

Rs.29,693 for total handloom households residing in rural areas

Rs.26,333 for total handloom households residing in urban areas.

Given the relatively low income levels of handloom-related households in general, many of them suffer from heavy debts, which greatly hampers their capacity to carry on with their profession. In this regard, the census reveals that 0.31 million of handloom households are under debts, and of whom 0.23 million are rural households. Furthermore, it is of interest to know that, for an overwhelming proportion of the households (85.2 percent) the source of loans are private moneylenders, master weavers, and traders, indicating the exploitative financial relations to which the households are subjected. Furthermore, findings reveal that 19.7 percent of households borrowed only for handloom purposes and 7.4 percent borrowed for handloom and other purposes. Also, 27.5 percent of urban households borrowed only for handloom purposes; 10.8 percent of the urban households borrowed for handloom and other purposes; 17.1 percent of rural households borrowed only for handloom purposes; and 6.3 percent of the total households borrowed for handloom and other purposes.

Handlooms: A Dying Industry

A comparison of the weavers enumerated in the second and third census shows a decline in the number of weavers from the second census (3.32 million) to the third (2.99 million), a dissipation of 0.56 million weavers. No doubt, the number of handloom jobs is declining at an alarming rate with a substantial proportion of looms going dysfunctional along with veritable pauperization of weavers and their families. Government’s efforts toward reviving handlooms has been a matter of fierce debate among weaver welfare groups and other civic agencies who make fervent demands to protect, promote, and provide sustainable livelihood for those pursuing this traditional occupation. The woes of the poor weavers of handloom industry is depicted in the civic actions of leaders and practitioners of handlooms through hunger strikes and public protests. The following excerpt talks about one such action.

In 1985, Central government, to ensure that the power-loom did not swallow the handloom completely, made it mandatory for 22 items to be produced only by handloom sector. It included coloured silk cloth, Kanchi silk sarees, dhoti, towel, lungi, hand-kerchiefs. Power-loom mill owners took the issue to the Supreme Court. The Apex Court, in 1986, agreed with the textile policy of the Center, reiterating that the Centre’s textile policy was rightly aimed at giving sufficient work to handloom weavers. Inexplicably the then government reduced these items from 22 to 15. The government in 2008 further reduced it to 11. Never mind, said Prasanna, an activist who was involved for over a decade with Charaka, a handloom initiative. You allow handloom industry to supply the school uniforms to primary and higher secondary school children studying in government schools all over the state, he suggested. The government provided school uniforms free of cost to all its students studying in government schools. Handloom industry spokespersons were saying the same thing over decades, arguing that any such incentives could help the industry survive on its own. The government agreed but a few bureaucrats with the education department found it was a dreary and drudgery life without the incentive they were accustomed to get from the private suppliers of uniforms. Buying from Khadi Gramodyog, under which the handloom sector comes, at best can be account adjustment at the end of the year with no bureaucrat getting any commission. Bureaucrats being evil geniuses found a way out. They delayed the decision to purchase uniforms, then when the schools were about to begin, gave the contract to middlemen to supply to uniforms saying that handloom industry cannot provide such large quantity of supplies in such short period. (

Organizations such as Charaka and its handloom store Desi are midwifing a handloom revival in the country to help the 4.3 million handloom weavers across India. “Everybody knows that if this Handloom Reservation Act is removed, within a year all our handlooms will die,” said Prasanna. “That is how handlooms died in the rest of the world. Now 90% of handlooms remain in India and that is because of this Act.” (

Handloom Weavers in Bangalore

In an effort to have a first-hand knowledge of the living conditions of handloom weavers, the authors had personal meetings with a group of weavers who are presently pursuing their profession in the town of Kanakapura, a small town near Bangalore City, as well as some weavers in Bangalore City. These respondents were identified through Weavers’ Service Centre, a Government-of-India initiative, to undertake short-term and observatory training programs in dyeing, printing, designing, and weaving for professionals, students of fashion, textiles, handloom technology, textile designers, dyers, and weavers in the city of Bangalore. In addition, informal enquiries with those in contact with weavers in Kanakapura were used to identify weavers. Informal interviews were carried out with the respondents, using a set of interview guides.


Kanakapura is a small subdistrict administrative unit belonging to Ramanagara district and is about 70 km from the city of Bangalore. With a population of about 125,000, the town of Kanakapura, a hinterland of Bangalore City, feeds the city with most of the agricultural produce and allied products.

Once a thriving handloom weaving center along with the adjoining town of Anekal, the town had a sizeable population of about 300 handloom weavers. However, sadly, as of today there are only two weavers who are clinging to the traditional handloom weaving, whereas many have taken to power looms. Mr. Nagaraju, a native of the town, said,

There is no one in the town interested to learn weaving, as there is no income in this profession. Hence, most of the weavers work as laborers or jobs unconnected with handlooms. The sad part is that today’s youth here never consider weaving as a livelihood option as they earn higher wages in other unskilled or semiskilled occupations. The garment industry located around Bangalore is a major attraction for these youth who have migrated there.

According to the secretary of Weavers Association at Kanakapura,

Given the rapid growth of Bangalore City over the past two decades, there are no takers for handlooms and hence they have vanished now. With the death of handloom weaving, the traditional weaving families have now taken to power looms. But power looms too suffer from sever power shortage. Moreover, skilled weavers are diminishing day by day. So we have labor issues that have affected production.

Typically, weavers get orders for sarees from “master weavers” located in Bangalore, who also provide the required yarn as well as design with a stipulated number of finished product. The weaver makes the products and supplies them to the master weaver on a predetermined price, almost always to the advantage of the latter. It was reported that a hired weaver is paid Rs.110 per saree, and he or she can weave a maximum of two sarees in a day provided there is uninterrupted power. The master weaver sells the products to businesses dealing with sarees at a premium and earns profit.

Our respondent further said that there are 15 weaver families who have 15 to 20 looms and supply their products to wholesale dealers elsewhere. However, a majority have only 2 to 5 looms. Presently, there are 300 members registered in the Weavers Association. Interestingly, many weavers work in different occupations during the daytime and resume to weaving activities in the evening to supplement their incomes. Furthermore, 8 to 10 families have rented out their looms to laborers on a rental of Rs.2,000 per month. More and more families are resorting to this nowadays. Modernization of power looms is slowly picking up here for those who can make bigger investments. The advantages of computer technology in this sector are reduced work time, increased production, and better quality of products. In addition, system can be operated by anyone with minimum education. However, upgrading to this technology would require a minimum investment of Rs.400,000, which is beyond the investment capacity of most of the weaver households. Given this, most of the children of weaver families have either gone out for education or work as autorikshaw (the ubiquitous three-wheeler taxi) drivers or take up other odd jobs in Bangalore City, as they do not prefer to stay in the town.

Many of the respondents who spoke with us said that focused priority needs to be given to establish textile parks where adequate infrastructure for weavers must be made available. Furthermore, most of the financial assistance through loans and subsidies do not reach the intended poor beneficiaries due to delays, complicated procedures, and corruption. So much so, these benefits are garnered by those who are financially powerful and exert political influence.

Weavers of Yelahanka

The second set of weavers contacted live in Yelahanka, a small township and a part of the Bangalore City. The meeting was organized by the Weavers’ Service Centre, a Government-of-India initiative, to undertake short-term and observatory training programs in dyeing, printing, designing, and weaving for professionals, students of fashion, textile, handloom technology, textile designers, dyers, and weavers in the city of Bangalore. Within the town of Yelahanka there are four layouts where weavers function in small bylanes in a dingy environment. The weaver layouts is best described by Devki Pande:

Yelahanka is a green suburb of Bangalore. Ideal to live in, ideal to study in—so people say. They don’t mention the power cuts, or that there are precisely two affordable places to eat in. They don’t mention that the closest shopping arena is an hour away. But instead of a panoramic viewpoint, let us focus instead on the linear settlement parallel to the Yeswanthpuram Railway tracks. It has been building up for ages now; generations of people from Andhra Pradesh have fled to Bangalore because of the lack of availability of jobs back in their hometown. Or that’s what they say. Running is such a commonplace activity, so much so that what does it matter if they are running towards a better life, or running away from persecution? Within the community from Andhra is a smaller subset of people who weave with silk and cotton and jute, transforming them from raw fibers to threads, and then saris of exquisite detail—and it only boosts the economy of Yelahanka.

They have converted the bright orange, neon green, and blue (a blue that matches the concave of the sky) houses into their little factories. The factories are not compatible with the steel-stained, marble-floored, smoke-puffing images; instead of open spaces there are corridors so thin that just a single person can venture forth at a time, openings on the sides, rickety staircases that creak with every footstep, shaking a shower of spiders and cobwebs on the already dusty ground, and more corridors and enclosures—where looms are housed. The click-clack of the looms is a common sound to hear around that area, even comforting, because it is a sign of life in a deserted community of a deserted suburb. Shops and auto-stands have sprung up around these weavers; carts of coconut sellers with coconuts ranging from palm green to olive green, ready to engage in a tongue-clacking bargaining session. Occasionally a train ambles past, screeches, or tries to, to a halt, and travels about a hundred meters before it complies with the dictionary definition of stopping. (

At the Weavers Service Center, we were met by six weavers who operated in Yelahanka. The major problems faced by these weavers is summarized as follows:

No professional weavers are available now even if we want to employ. Most of the weavers have abandoned their profession and are taking up other jobs such as security guards and so on, which give them some assured income.

For those in business, the price of silk yarn is skyrocketing every day and, hence, not affordable to most of the weavers.

Very poor marketing support for products. Weavers are unable to bargain for viable rates with the businessmen who coerce weavers to sell at cost price, or at power loom rates, which is a huge loss.

Earlier the entire family was engaged in all the weaving-related activities. Now women and children go away seeking work outside for wages.

The competition is so aggressive that only big players with high investments and big business network will thrive while the poor weavers are at the mercy of the former.

Currently, the weavers hired as wage laborer earn Rs.250 per day. Most respondents urged that the wages must be at least Rs.600 per day for a decent living.

It was suggested that to achieve stabilization of selling rates the government’s Handloom Development Corporation must take the responsibility of supplying pure yarns at reasonable, affordable rates.

While there is a Silk Exchange for the benefit of silk reelers, there is none for weavers. This is a major lacuna, and establishment of such an agency would go a long way in addressing the problems of marketing of weavers’ products.

The newly introduced Goods and Services Tax (GST) by the government has added to the misery of weaver businessmen due to complicated procedures of filing frequent returns, new accounting procedures, and timely compliance norms. This is so as most of the weavers are illiterate or semiliterates and not conversant with various procedures. The weavers were unanimous in demanding a total exemption of GST for all handloom products.

Handloom industry is no longer attractive as a viable profession to lead a dignified living due to poor wages and harsh working conditions. This has deterred most of the youth in weaver families to look out for other occupations.

However, there is a need for protecting the interests of existing handloom weavers who are totally bereft of many facilities that would work as incentives. The role of government in providing relief to this community needs no overemphasis.

On its part, the government must introduce medical insurance for weavers, as most of them are past their middle age.

There is need for setting up a death relief fund that ensures a minimum of Rs.150,000 to the next of kin whenever a weaver dies.

As weavers work in dark small houses, uninterrupted power supply at the looms is a requisite that must be provided free of cost.

There is an urgent need to establish handloom technology development institutions to update and introduce latest developments in the industry that would offer opportunities for successful careers to young aspirants.

There is an urgent need for providing exposure to weavers by organizing tours to successful cooperatives and weaver collectives in other states.

All the respondents said that the government must build a mechanism to purchase and supply silk yarn to save the handloom sector.

It is clear that handloom industry and a large group of handloom weavers face severe hardships to pursue their profession for a variety of reasons, notwithstanding several governmental efforts to uplift them through several schemes. The avowed goal of the National Policy of Skill Development to recognize prior learning of a multitude of traditional skill workers, artisans, and crafts persons is expected to provide succor.