Sarada Lahangir

News Highlights

  • The very magic hands, which wove silk and cotton threads into nine-yard sarees in their ‘mongas’ (weaving looms), now reeling under abject poverty
  • After so much of efforts, the weavers’ families are just left with hand to mouth or sometimes, it is less than that

A 62 years old Hatua Meher of Pada village of Bargarh district was once the pride of his village. The owner of four looms, he made enough to keep all six member of his family content. Neighbours recollect how prosperous he was. Now, Hatua even does not have money for the treatment of his wife Gurubari who is suffering from breast cancer. Two of his sons have opened a tea shop to maintain his family leaving weaving forever. 

Anama Meher is another weaver from Bijepur block tried being a little more enterprising but a little avail. With no work after his loom owner shut shop and migrated, he began to pull rickshaw in the village to eke out livelihood for his family. 

About 40 kms from the district headquarters of Bargarh, Barpali and Bjiepur are major blocks hosting around more than 3000 ‘bhulia’ (weaver) families. These blocks, in fact, are the largest weaving villages in western Odisha, a bastion of the famous Sambalpuri saree. 

Sambalpuri Saree Weaver

The very magic hands, which wove silk and cotton threads into nine-yard sarees in their ‘mongas’ (weaving looms), now reeling under abject poverty and find it difficult to get a square meal daily, forcing them to shift to other occupation like farm labourers or moving to other districts to earn a living.

The brick houses lining both sides of the wide road of these villages of Bargarh district show prosperity in one hand but poorly maintained doors and broken clay-tiled roofs clearly tells the story how slowly poverty has been creeping into these houses. These villages exposed the relics of once-thriving community that is desperately waiting for the good times to return.

According to the handloom census, Odisha has about 1, 17,836 weavers including both 53,472 primary and 64,364 allied weavers. There are 42,953 weaver households in the State out of which 27,857 are in western Odisha. Bargarh district shares almost 30 percent of total weavers in the State. It is the home to 35000 weavers (both 15,000 primary and 20,000 allied) that is almost 30 percent of the total weavers in the State. Most importantly, the vulnerable and marginalised sections of society in rural area like women, SCs, STs and OBCs are contributing their labour force to the handloom sectors.

Indigenous and Traditional Industry 

It is an indigenous industry manned mostly by Kostha and Bhulia weavers or Meher community known for the tie-and-dye, Tussar silk and cotton weaving. Besides their adroit workmanship, the specialty of their products is reckoned more for the choice of colour and the design. This has earned them world-wide fame. With the passage of time, Sambalpuri sarees have got national and international attention due to their texture, colour and design. 

The Sambalpuri sarees, made from cotton, silk, or tussar woven on a handloom, are very popular among saree lovers across the country. Varieties of Sambalpuri saree includes Sonepuri, Saptapar (pasapalli), Sachipar, Udiaan-taraa, Panchavati, Bomkai, Barpalli, Baptaa and Paradaa saris, all of which are popular. One unique method of tie-dye known as “Bandha” is used to weave Sambalpuri saree. In the weaving of a saree, there are complicated process involved like preparing the Yarn, Tying the Yarn, Dyeing the Yarn, Drying the Yarn and finally weaving the Masterpiece. In this entire process, all the family members have to get involved. This art or skill is being passing from generation to generation. 

Dhananjay Meher, 53, of Bijepur said, “I have learnt this skill of weaving from my father and grandfather. These days, it is no longer a remunerative business still I am in this profession because I don’t know any other work.”

After so much of efforts, the weavers’ families are just left with hand to mouth or sometimes it is less than that.

Low Remuneration

One family (minimum three members) need at least four to five days of weaving from dawn to dusk to complete one Sambalpuri saree. Jugeswar Meher, 23, an young weaver of Barpali was a bright student, has secured 80 percent marks in his plus two exams but due to poverty, he can’t peruse higher study and got involved in his family occupation. His dream shattered due to poverty and till today, there is no relief. 

Young weaver Jugeswar weaving his dream

He explains, “I and my father can weave two sarees in 10 days. If we sell it in the local market, we get the maximum price of 4800 (2400 each). For this, we spent about Rs 1200 in buying the yarn and colour. So, actually, our profit from the sale of two sarees is Rs 3600. This is for two persons’ 10 days wage. It comes just Rs 180 per day per person, which is less then that a wage laborer gets per day. In this scenario, how weavers can survive?” 

Jugeswar ‘s father Baishnab Meher, 65, informed that they used to earn Rs 1500 to Rs 2000 as wage per saree for 8 days work. With no capital and too much dependence on the middlemen, they now get a mere Rs 500 to 600 per saree.

Sambalpuri Handlooms’ Ups and Downs

With the substantial non-governmental support and the setting up of weavers’ cooperatives, the Sambalpuri sarees became an international brand in 1980s. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi became a sort of ‘brand ambassador’ of the Sambalpuri saree-- it was her favorite attire. The boom ensured employment and dignity to lakhs of weavers in Odisha. More than 40,000 weavers in over 55 villages in different blocks of Bargarh were traditionally engaged in weaving Sambalpuri sarees.

The cooperative societies would provide raw material like thread and colour to the weavers. Later, they marketed the finished product. Demand for Sambalpuri saree all over India and overseas ensured a high turnover for the cooperatives. Sambalpuri Bastralaya of Bargarh alone used to do business worth about Rs 15 crore a year.

Eventually, in the mid-'90s, steeped in debt and suffering huge losses, the cooperatives began to close down one by one, leaving the door open to middlemen who began offering the weavers thread and colour. But, they also bargained for higher margins for themselves. Soon the middlemen began to prosper at the expense of the weavers who had to be content with lower incomes and the weavers left with the mercy of the cooperatives.

Though Barpali, Bijepur, Remunda continue to be the main production centre of the exquisitely designed saris, the sparkle is clearly missing with drastic decline in wages. This couple with closure of cooperatives, which extended assistance, has led the weavers to shift to neighbouring states, in search of alternate livelihood.

Woman dying the yarn

Duplication of the Sambalpuri Saree

Apart from the low wage, the rampant duplication of the Sambalpuri saree has been posing another threat to their livelihood. Salegram Meher of Barpali said, "Today this traditional handloom (Sambalpuri sari) is in its dark phase because people are replicating designs illegally and selling them in the market at a low cost. The market now is full of such replicated saree. An original saree costs Rs 3,000 but duplicate saree with the same designs are available in the market for only Rs 300. Why would people purchase our saree for Rs 3000 when they can get it at a cheaper rate?”

“We have been raising this issue with the government continuously but nothing has been done so far. If such situation persist for long, no wonder that the weavers will either migrate to other states to work as a wage labourer or commit suicide like farmers,” he added. 

Factors like decline in turnover, withdrawal of education and health benefits, discontinuation of bonus and commission, besides, denial of thrift deposit withdrawal have led to exodus of weavers. Neglect in payment or wage and supply of yarn has also adversely affected them.

Weaver From Barpali, Bargarh District

Impact of Covid-19 Lockdown On Weavers 

Master Weaver Sukanti Meher from Barpali said, “Our product gets piling up since last year. Pandemic has hit the sale. We are trying our best to provide at least some amount to the weavers so that they could maintain their family but I know it is not sufficient for them. We are also helpless.”

The weavers of Bargarh district used to sell their product through Sambalpuri Bastralaya Handloom Co-operative society Limited (SBHCS), at Bargarh and Odisha State Handloom Weavers cooperative Society Ltd (BOYANIKA). These cooperatives ensure steady flow of work and remuneration to the weavers. But during the second wave of Covid -19 induced lockdown, the Sambalpuri Bastralaya Handloom Cooperative Society Limited, for which about  15000 weavers are working, that market their products through its 42 outlets in Odisha, Kolkata and Mumbai has seen a loss of 6 crore .

Marketing Officer, Hemanta Kumar Mishra informed, “SBHCS generally makes a business of Rs 50 to Rs 55 crore per annum and it makes a business of around Rs 6 crore during the month of May and June every year. But due to the closure of the outlets during this period, huge business loss was incurred this year.

Weaver Working On Sambalpuri Saree

Those weavers, who are not under these two societies, are depending on the Balijuri Haat. Which is hardly 12 kilometers from the district head quarters. Every Friday thousands of weavers from different parts of western Odisha use to come and sell their saree. Since last one year due to Covid-19, the Balijuri market almost takes a deserted look. Not only the marginal weavers but the master weavers are also suffering for this. 

“So far in this second wave of Covid-19, there has been no specific schemes for the weavers. However, the government had provided an assistance of Rs 25 crore to our apex society like Boyanika, Sambalpuri Bastralay and SERIFED last year. The idea is to release the stock hording of materials and to enable masters weavers to provide both work and wage to the marginal weavers,” informed Sushil Kumar Nag, Deputy director, textile, Bargarh.

Sambalpuri Saree At Balijhuri Haat

The Bhulia, Kustha or Meher community, which weave saree, can be saved if the government steps in right earnest and the focus is shifted from wages to profit sharing. 

With the slow pace of development in Odisha, the exquisite saree produced by the magic hand of the weavers which found their way into practically every home in the nearby towns and far-off metros like Delhi, Mumbai and abroad may have stood the test of time but will the weavers can do the same? Because, who can say, that the magic hand will not to be stopped and these weaver will not be forced to move out of their village till another boom period comes.