The Union Government amended the Flag Code of India in December 2021 to allow the manufacture of polyester and machine-made national flags. Ever since independence, Indians flags were required to be made from khadi – that is, handwoven from handspun cotton, silk, or wool yarn. The recent amendment is purportedly meant to increase the availability of flags for the government’s “Har Ghar Tiranga” programme to celebrate 75 years of Indian independence.

However, this move betrays the cherished values of our freedom struggle, which was fought with khadi as a symbolic inspiration. As we will see, this repudiation of khadi also encapsulates how successive governments in independent India have effectively worked to destroy the much larger handloom sector whose ambit extends well beyond khadi.

Seven and a half decades after 1947, the widespread manufacture and use of polyester and machine-made flags in lieu of khadi ones should give us pause to reflect on the crucial story of Indian textiles.

Textiles occupy a big chunk of our economy. Their threads run through the lives of millions of cotton farmers and workers who produce cloth, as well as through our environmental fate. Intimately woven into the everyday fabric of Indian life, the story of our textiles illuminates how the policy choices India has made since independence have kept millions of rural producers impoverished and destroyed the environment. In other words, textile policy has enabled the triumph of productivity and profits for industry – which go hand in hand – over people and nature.

The amendment to the flag code is but a reflection of the twinned policy choices which have steered the development of the textile sector. The first of these is the decisive push for powerlooms – machines to manufacture fabric – which displaced massive numbers of handloom and khadi weavers from their means of livelihoods. Handloom fabric is handwoven from industrial yarn, while khadi fabric is handwoven from handspun yarn, and handloom and khadi operate in distinct spheres.

The second, equally important policy choice in the textile sector was the facilitation of the rapid advance of polyester in lieu of cotton – which impacted cotton farmers, as well as handloom weavers most of whom worked with cotton. In a nutshell, these coupled developments further impoverished millions of rural workers. Not to mention the environmental impacts of industrial textile manufacture which are well understood.

The contemporary story of Indian textiles can be better interpreted against the rich and complex backdrop of our textile history.

Indian cottons go back five millennia. Stories of how they travelled far from our borders in ancient times are legion. Large volumes of Indian textiles were sold regularly in the Indian Ocean region from at least the twelfth century. And after the arrival of Europeans in the subcontinent, Indian cotton fabric was the kingpin of manufactured goods in world trade from the sixteenth century up until the industrialisation of Europe.

Come British rule and following the Industrial Revolution, India lost its dominant position in the global trade of cotton textiles. By exploiting India and other colonies as well as British workers, Britain emerged as the main player, flooding the world with its mill-made cloth. In this process India was remoulded as a supplier of raw cotton for British mills and, crucially, the world’s biggest market for the products of those mills. Not surprisingly, the destruction of India’s handloom industry in the colonial period became a cornerstone of the Indian indictment of the Raj.

Perhaps no one grasped this dimension of colonialism as sharply and instinctively as Mahatma Gandhi, who chose khadi as his non-violent tool to advance the cause of India’s freedom. The humble handspun and handwoven fabric was a revolutionary emblem of the political fight for Indian independence, and an equally important revitalising instrument in the Gandhian toolkit to make the villages self-sufficient and uplift the poorest.

But with the arrival of freedom and ever since, all governments distanced themselves from khadi and the larger handloom sector, and their untapped potential to provide livelihoods to significant numbers of ordinary Indians.

The Nehruvian state effectively rejected khadi and handloom, setting its mind on industrial and mechanised production. This was a continuation of the colonial era policies that, undergirded the explosive growth of British mills at the cost of Indian hand production.

The emergence and growth of Indian mills since the mid-nineteenth century – and their strengthening during the two world wars – was yet another chapter in the story of industrial production and its adverse impacts on handlooms. In the early years after independence, the mills were already producing three-quarters of our cotton cloth, while the remaining quarter was produced by the handloom sector. This sector was a major provider of rural employment, second only to agriculture.

But the mills did not dominate cotton textile production in independent India as might have been expected. Nor was the handloom sector enabled for growth. As it turned out, a new sector – the powerloom sector, which operated electricity-driven powerlooms on a smaller scale – emerged in a few towns and captured the market. Arguably, India’s textile policy, which backed the expansion of powerlooms soon after independence, had its roots in the circumstances of the Second World War period.

With Indian mills supplying huge volumes of textiles for the war effort and exports, combined with the disruption of imports, Indians faced a severe cloth famine. As mill production was diverted for war needs, the handloom sector was expected to fulfil the demand within India.

But it was unable to do so because of an acute scarcity of yarn, which emerged as a result of the mills using up most of the supply. Thus, while the mills made enormous profits, the handloom sector could not grow to its full potential and suffered a major setback. After the war ended, the overworked mill machinery needed to be replaced by imports, but this was not possible owing to their limited availability, high prices, and foreign exchange constraints.

These limitations led the Indian government to support the expansion of smaller powerloom units in order to meet the country’s textile needs. Machinery discarded by the mills was used by the emergent powerloom sector.

Moreover, while the Congress party had in all but name already rejected khadi well before independence, the conditions of cloth scarcity which continued after 1947 may have served as further reason to promote mechanised production on powerlooms instead of hand production on handlooms.

When India became free, the fledgling democracy faced a mountain of diverse challenges. An exploitative colonial regime had left the new nation in a quagmire of economic underdevelopment and widespread poverty. As mentioned earlier, at the time the handloom sector was the second-largest source of rural employment after agriculture. Therefore, the story of this sector highlights the fate of the countryside and that of large numbers of ordinary Indians through the seventy-five years of India’s journey as an independent nation.

A close look at textile policy offers insights. Though some policy measures including the institution of handloom cooperatives have proven to be beneficial to a limited extent, the larger picture is extraordinarily bleak.

Handloom weavers – as well as powerloom and mill workers – have always been underpaid, overworked, and compelled by their circumstances to live and labour in poor conditions. To make a long story short, the thrust of textile policies has been to privilege production and profits over the ordinary producer at the bottom of the ladder. One of the main policy planks to achieve this end was to back the phenomenal growth of electricity-driven powerlooms.

The first few decades after independence witnessed the extensive growth of powerloom units in a few textile towns, which caused massive displacement in the handloom sector. Arguably, the early years after 1947 defined the direction of textile policy, which effectively dealt a severe blow to handlooms.

Barely five years after independence, the Indian government constituted the Textile Enquiry Committee headed by Nityanand Kanungo – an MP from Orissa and later a union minister – whose pivotal report would usher in the era of powerlooms. It was the Kanungo Report which very early on legitimised the powerloom sector in state policy and unequivocally advocated its spectacular growth.

The Kanungo Committee was presented with a moment of choice to determine the future of the cotton textile industry. Its crucial report in 1954 prescribed a phased and near total shift from handlooms to powerlooms in the name of the welfare of the handloom weaver. However, this would go on to effect the tragic displacement of handloom weavers in large numbers from their only means of livelihood.

Moreover, and importantly, India’s economy was expected to grow significantly over the low baseline of 1947, and the existing mill capacity was inadequate to meet the increase in demand for cloth. Therefore, there was promising potential for the handloom sector to meet part of the rising demand, if only it was encouraged to grow and adequately protected.

It is in this respect that textile policy in the early years could have made a vital impact by creating new jobs in significant numbers in the handloom sector. Instead, the Kanungo Report ignored this huge window of opportunity. Coming close on the heels of independence, this report is doubly important as it set policy trends for the future.

A decade after the release of this report, the government constituted the Powerloom Enquiry Committee to enquire into the problems of the powerloom industry. In its 1964 report, the committee declared that the “transition towards the adoption of powerlooms is natural and should not be resisted”, and recommended the removal of controls over powerlooms.

But as the history of the Indian textile industry since the colonial period shows, there is nothing “natural” about the transition towards mechanisation or industrial production, which in fact has always been effected by the state’s policies and actions. For instance, in independent India certain policy and legal mechanisms as well as the lack of implementation of others allowed powerloom units to evade taxes, flout labour laws and violate the measures intended to protect the handloom sector.

Both these early textile reports had glibly, if not disingenuously, claimed that the expansion of powerlooms advocated by them would not displace handloom weavers in large numbers. To quote from the latter, “the fear of … unemployment amongst the existing handloom weavers being caused by the introduction of powerlooms is not real since the powerlooms will be installed in the handloom sector for production of the additional requirement of cloth for the country.” But this was just rhetoric that was convenient to push through government policy favouring powerlooms.

Another decade later, it was clear that both these textile reports had been wrong. The 1974 Report of the High Powered Study Team on the Problems of the Handloom Industry found that every new powerloom put six handlooms out of action. By then, powerlooms had already proliferated. For every job created in the powerloom sector, fourteen handloom weavers were displaced. With the advance of technology, a much more sophisticated powerloom today displaces that many more.

The decisive 1985 New Textile Policy proved to be another important iteration in a series of anti-handloom government measures, which leads us to the plight of weavers due to the export-driven policies of the liberalisation era.

Moreover, the powerloom sector has always diverted subsidised yarn meant for the handloom sector and violated market reservations. The 1985 Handloom Reservation Act, intended to protect the handloom sector, has been observed only in its violation. All told, the mushrooming of powerlooms has disrupted the livelihoods of millions of handloom weavers.

Along with the expansion of powerlooms, the rise of synthetic fabrics proved to be detrimental to the interests of handloom weavers as well. Among synthetics, polyester is king. The incredible fortunes made by India’s most powerful corporate house Reliance on the back of its success in polyester speak volumes about the high stakes involved in this game.

According to the economic historian Tirthankar Roy, the shift to polyester accelerated after the introduction of the 1985 textile policy. The sharp expansion in the demand for polyester in the 1980s was captured almost entirely by the powerloom sector. Handlooms, which worked primarily with cotton, suffered as a result.

Nowadays it is getting increasingly difficult to find pure cotton garments for purchase, as corporations have flooded the market with cheap polyester and its blends with cotton. This is not only because of consumer preference for polyester, which is considered to be more convenient and affordable than cotton. Crucially, the transition to synthetics has been aided by the government’s policies in the liberalisation era, which in turn were influenced by the synthetic fibre industry.

The 1985 New Textile Policy was a landmark in this direction. The policy declared its main objective to be “to increase the production of cloth of acceptable quality at reasonable prices to meet the clothing requirements of a growing population”. By setting such an objective, the policy sacrificed the livelihoods of handloom weavers to make cheap cloth available to consumers, just as farmers pay the price for our cheap food.

Along with other measures of the policy, this objective was to be met by increasing the domestic production of synthetic fibres and yarn, and by progressively reducing the fiscal levies on these industrial products as well as their intermediate inputs.

Following the lead of the 1985 textile policy, subsequent government policies and reports on the textile sector in the liberalisation era continued to push for synthetics. Prioritising production over the producer, these measures failed to consider and address the resultant impacts on both the handloom weaver and the cotton farmer.

In addition to the mutually reinforcing growth of powerlooms and polyester, other equally important issues affecting handloom weavers include the lack of access to reasonably priced yarn and markets, inadequate government investment, and low wages, which are beyond the scope of this article.

As this brief survey shows, all governments from those of Nehru onwards are responsible for the current state of affairs, and the Modi dispensation is no different. This government’s negatively disruptive economic policies of demonetisation and the GST regime have frayed the agrarian economy.

While the note ban plunged rural India into a crisis, the imposition of GST places an additional burden on artisans and handloom weavers. Though Modi has declared his support for khadi on several occasions, the much-anticipated celebrations of the 75th anniversary of Indian independence with powerloom and polyester flags will fly in the face of his avowed claims.

The government’s policies on the farm sector also do not inspire much confidence, especially considering that farmers had to protest courageously for an entire year to get three contentious farm laws repealed.

The long road traversed by the Indian handloom sector has thus left a sad record of the consequences of the country’s policy choices for human welfare. According to textile ministry reports, powerlooms account for 60% of cloth production in the country today, while the share of handlooms is 15%. But the handloom production statistics are grossly inflated. With the secular decline of the sector, its production is a small fraction of the official figure, which points to the extent of displacement in the sector. Having to leave their looms idle, skilled weavers are reduced to manual labour as construction workers or farmhands, if at all such work is regularly available.

In this way, India’s once-famed artisans, who were impoverished in the colonial period, have also been failed by our own governments. Ironically, through policies which marginalised the handloom sector, successive governments of India have managed to achieve what the British could not fully accomplish.

As mentioned earlier, by offering the textile market to the powerloom sector on a platter, government policy has also in effect ignored the potential of handloom and khadi to generate much needed new employment. In today’s times, it is questionable whether hand production can generate new employment on a large scale, for various reasons. But that was not the case for a long time after 1947, when India’s economy was very different from its current form, and the handloom and khadi sectors carried enormous promise to create critical new jobs.

It is a fact that even in the hostile environment of the late colonial period, Gandhi’s Charkha Sangh had distributed over 7 crores rupees as wages – a significant amount at the time – among 4.5 lakh spinners and weavers across 20,000 Indian villages over the 25 years of its existence.

While industrial and mechanised production does not create enough jobs, it also displaces many more jobs than it creates, as the story of powerlooms and handlooms shows.

A case in point is the 1980 Report of the Expert Committee on Tax Measures to Promote Employment of the Finance Ministry, according to which “the per unit employment in the [textile] mill industry is 9.1% of [that] in the handloom industry”. Thus, if only early textile policy had supported and protected the handloom sector, it could have provided meaningful work to a significant extent in the countryside. Instead, a developing India relegated its rural citizenry to the economic margins time and again.

Apart from this human story, the environmental damage caused by industrial textile production is no less staggering, with fast fashion today adding fuel to the fire. In parallel, the story of the cotton farming economy – which provides the raw material for cotton textile production – is also one of putting production on a technology treadmill while ignoring the plight of farmers.

This quick run through independent India’s textile history shows how policy choices have excluded handloom weavers from the economy both as producers and consumers. Despite such an unsupportive policy environment, in 2010, according to government data 27 lakh households across the country were engaged in handloom weaving and allied activities, which speaks volumes about their resilience.

The agrarian economy is in a shambles today, with a dearth of alternative livelihood opportunities available for these artisans. Regardless of the position one takes on industrialisation or the nature of development we should pursue, the question 75 years after independence remains – what happens to them?

Neeta Deshpande is working on a book on the handloom industry and cotton farming in modern India. She is a Fellow of the New India Foundation.

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