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Smriti Irani to Firstpost: Involving weavers in policy implementation the way forward for Indian textiles

Union Textile Minister Smriti Z Irani isn't coy about her image that she maintains. A feisty leader, Irani essays her new assignment after her abrupt exit from the Ministry of Human Resource Development with usual aplomb. She has learnt on the job that weaving of yarn is intricately linked to India’s social, political and spiritual legacy. Did she know about it when she was moved to this department? “My boss knew it,” she tells Firstpost’s Pallavi Rebbapragada and Ajay Singh.

When you were given the Ministry of Textiles after the Cabinet reshuffle in July 2016, people declared it a demotion. What did you feel about the switch?

Had I remained in the HRD, my view of administration would have remained myopic. My previous ministry offered me a social sector overview of the country, but education is just one social aspect. This new assignment gives me a more expansive economic perspective on India as it involves dealing with a high-end industry and large corporations, small and medium scale enterprises, and weavers and artisans. On the one hand, you are discussing viscose with the Aditya Birla Group, on the other hand, you’re talking to a Benarasi weaver about craft.

What were your first impressions about the sector?

To understand why the sector was stagnating, we combed government files of the last five years and detected misgovernance. Of approximately 40 schemes, 22 used to be surrendered each year. To ensure that authorised funds reach the weavers, we enrolled them in Direct Benefit Transfer schemes and eliminated middle-men. For instance, NGOs that had been receiving government funds for years were asked to disclose details of the communities they had been supporting. I travelled to places like Bhiwandi in Maharashtra and Surat in Gujarat to invite medium-level weavers to become a part of policy-making and implementation because it is entrepreneurship that will drive the economic revolution. In Benaras, I noticed that the weavers took loans to buy new looms. In order to establish comprehensive outreach, the government now offers 90 percent on the purchase of a new loom to weavers who have adapted their skill set to include new design and marketing techniques taught at government centres.

 Smriti Irani to Firstpost: Involving weavers in policy implementation the way forward for Indian textiles

Smriti Z Irani. Twitter/@smritiirani

The National Textile Policy will soon be implemented. How will it consolidate a sector as intricately diverse as this one?

A one-size-fits-all policy will not work. Policy takes time in terms of consultation, but the government cannot remain stagnant while consultations are on. While developing the PowerTex India, a comprehensive scheme for powerloom sector development (that features in-situ upgradation of plain powerlooms, group workshed scheme, yarn bank scheme and pradhan mantri credit scheme for powerloom weavers, facilitation, IT, awareness and market development), we ensured that it was implemented on 1 April and no time was wasted. The scheme gave impetus to smaller units wherein shut downs were much more compared to the larger units. We will soon be coming out with a knitwear package. In both cases, stakeholders have been invited to be part of policy-making, especially small- and medium-scale enterprises that need a healthy environment to prosper in. Ours is not a ministry working independently of what is happening on ground.

In order to standardise quality and protect weavers, why doesn’t the National Handloom Act make the handloom mark compulsory? Thousands of workers who are falling out of work because technology is disrupting the industry – from digital block printing done on rotary machines in Sanganer in Rajasthan to the invasion of Chinese silk in the Benaras and Tamil Nadu’s Kanjivaram silk markets.

A geographical indication (GI) is a name or sign used on certain products, which corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin (e.g. a town, region, or country) and we have been emphasising on the GI tag. A lot of protectionism can be ensured without going to Parliament and tweaking the National Handloom Act. Law and order is a state issue and when governments are alerted about spurious articles being promoted, they alert the state. Similarly, regarding dumping of fabric from an international venue, we alert our colleagues in commerce and the Directorate General of Foreign Trade takes action. We cannot interfere because of World Trade Organisation constraints, but we ensure that the DGFT is in conversation with the industry. We ensure that weavers and artisans registered on our portal can put out their products on commercial sites so the buyers know these products are quality-certified. The Indian Handloom Brand lets manufacturers pick up the weavers’ produce directly. Biba, a women’s clothing brand, picked up 8 lakh metres of cloth directly from the weaver. We now have Allen Solly and Peter England shirts being made by Indian weavers.

Will legalising the use of powerlooms for handloom threads further weaken the handloom sector? The raw material base of the handloom industry – several region-specific cotton varieties suitable for handloom weaving – has been destroyed. Cotton cultivation is now dominated by American cotton varieties not suitable for handlooms and, more recently, by the problematic genetically modified BT cotton.

There’s more and more desire in the world for a sustainable developed product. For instance, Suvin is a long staple cotton variety that is better than Egyptian cotton, which design patrons in London and New York swear by. Like a mother cannot differentiate between her children, I can’t pick cotton over man-made fibre. We benefit as a nation if we make India the global sourcing hub. For too long, the poverty and drudgery behind handloom has been sold internationally. There are economic issues confronting industries abroad too, but you only hear stories of pride and legacy. What we need to do is sell our pride and legacy in a handcrafted market that stands at Rs 37,000 crore. (Anant Kumar Singh, secretary, Ministry of Textiles, sat by Irani's side in a cotton dhoti and kurta, validating and reinforcing her beliefs through his presence). Sabyasachi Mukherjee, a name famous in international design circles, says he is snobbish about his Indian legacy.

The Narendra Modi government has made big efforts to make khadi a "zero-effect, zero-defect" global product by harnessing solar energy to power charkhas across the country to enable hand-spun khadi to become the zero-carbon footprint green fabric of India. How has it made khadi competitive in terms of reducing the cost of yarn and production? In 2017, does khadi symbolise self-reliance yet again?

I’ve watched the growth of khadi, it's done tremendously well because the prime minister has continuously appealed to the public to embrace the fabric. Once you have a larger consumer base, industry shows interest in being a part of a trend that is popular nationally, larger volumes are demanded, and as a result, prices of raw materials becomes competitive.

The government has fixed a 5 percent GST rate on cotton fibre, yarn and fabric against the current prevailing rate of ‘nil’. Silk and jute have been kept in the ‘nil’ category under the GST. Man-made or synthetic fibre yarn will attract 18 percent GST. Instead of uniformity, is the differential treatment for cotton and synthetic fibre on GST rate an opportunity lost for a uniform rate for textile sector?

Man-made fibre, synthetics and cotton have never been on the same platform in our country. We’ve never had fibre neutrality. Earlier, if you included state and national taxes and mandi taxes, you would pay around 35 percent. Now, GST has fixed it at 18 percent. Industry should be celebrating. One of the biggest advantages of the GST regimes starting 1 July is that garments below Rs 1,000 will come in the five percent bracket. It’s a big opportunity and boon for the consumer.

How can the role of state-owned emporiums, like Mrignayanee in Madhya Pradesh, Garvi Gurjari in Gujarat and Gangotri in Uttar Pradesh, go beyond showcasing local produce? Instead of museumising handicrafts and textiles, how can a stronger, wider and more sustainable internal market be developed by these institutions?

It is incumbent on the state to take measures to promote its crafts. I’ve seen Mrignayanee and Biswa Bangla from Bengal (which was a niche, high-end brand) do well. Today, tourists coming from the UK and the EU want to understand the life of a weaver or an artisan, and even international tour operators want to offer that experience. We've had a meeting with the Ministry of Tourism and have said that if there's any tourist circuit you want to do in conjunction with all the textile clusters, we are more than happy to do this.

The Indian fashion market is already worth $67 billion, making it as valuable as the combined size of 15 of the biggest West Asian countries, or about a fifth the size of the US or China. By 2020, it should reach $88 billion. The design fraternity feels that textile revivalism is a slow process and involves a great deal of investment of time and money, some invest up to two years to understand and revive a weave. What kind of support will be extended to the big and small private players?

The government has no role when a designer wants to go work with a weaver. We have had situations where a particular weaver has told us that the designer has stolen his design, as he had no Intellectual Property Right (IPR) over his creations. In such a situation, it is not the designer but the weaver who needs handholding. Each weaving centre has a desk that ensures that the weavers’ ancestral patterns are protected.

Anavila Misra (known for her linen sarees) went to Bengal to work with weaver communities and catalogued it. The designer did not ask for protection. Sanjay Garg (founder of contemporary Indian textile brand Raw Mango) accompanied me to Surendranagar district in Gujarat and expressed an interest in wanting to work with the Tangaliya tribes. Rajesh Pratap Singh (who excels in menswear) has been using Suvin for quite some time, but The Cotton Association of India wasn’t aware of this till recently.

What is the challenge of bringing young people into the weaving fold, and the importance of developing service centres in the states – with good infrastructure and equipment – to empower the youth with technical skills?

The only way you can make craft a passion is if you emphasise on productivity and economic impact. Some families are recognising the value of this by ensuring that each successive generation has broader skill sets, from being able to engage their customers in English or explain the history and origin of the product they are interested in. New people must also come forward, learn and make textile a part of their legacy. Speaking of weaving service centres in states, those are 28 in number and a committee that features Laila Tyabji and Jaya Jaitley (craft reformers), Anavila Misra and Sabyasachi, is coming forward, inspecting and ensuring that material is made available. Meetings are being held on high levels to ensure threads reach the weavers on time.

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Updated Date: Jun 09, 2017 21:11:00 IST