After two months of silence, the clickety-clack of looms was back in Bajardiha, but it no longer reverberated through the neighbourhood. Instead, in the first week of June, the sound emerged only from a few homes in this sprawling weavers locality in Varanasi.
“Maan lijiye, if there are 5,000 looms,” said Mohammad Ramzan, standing in a clearing where children played with marbles and young men fiddled with their phones, “then only about 30 are working.”
“Jitna ladka hai din bhar baithe rehte hai. All the boys spend all their time sitting around,” said the 50-year-old, waving his hand around. “There is no work, no trade.”
Had the raees log, the wealthy members of the community, not distributed food through the lockdown, people would have starved, a chorus of voices rose as a small group gathered in the clearing. “Prashashan se koi vyavastha nahi. No help from the administration.”
A faint glimmer of hope emerged in early May. Application forms were distributed in Bajardiha, with the promise that weavers would get cash assistance under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, the Central government’s relief package announced on March 24. About 350 people filled the form in Bajardiha, said the men.
A few days later, a list circulated with the names, addresses, bank account numbers, Aadhaar numbers, mobile numbers of those whose applications had presumably been approved.
At this stage, they were asked to pay Rs 100. “We were told adhikari logon ko dena hai, the officials have to be paid,” said Nazmuddin Ansari, a young man in his mid-twenties. “If you give Rs 100, you will get Rs 1,000 every month.”
“Bhai, people thought in these tough times, the money will help,” said Mohammad Ramzan. “Rs 100 is a small amount to get Rs 1,000 every month for three months.”
The trouble or takleef was that despite paying Rs 100, they had not received the assistance, he said. If the money had come, there would be sukun or relief.
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No amount of prodding could get the weavers to disclose the name of the person who asked for the bribe. They feared trouble.
“It must have been a middleman, someone from the community itself,” said Nitesh Dhawan, assistant commissioner in the Uttar Pradesh government’s handloom and textiles department. “I can assure you that no one from the department has taken any money.”
Dhawan said the Varanasi district administration had asked his department to identify weavers who could be given monthly cash assistance under the Central government’s relief package. “As far as I know, no such exercise is going on in other districts and regions,” said the officer. “The GO [government order] for Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana does not explicitly mention the handloom sector.”
Could Varanasi have been singled out because it is the Prime Minister’s constituency? “Yes, possibly.”
Over 12,000 weavers had filled up applications, he said, which had been consolidated into a database and shared with the district administration. The cash assistance was for two months, not three, he clarified. Bank transfers of Rs 2,000 had already been made to 1,800 weavers and the others were under process, he added.
But these numbers are minuscule.
Varanasi is a thriving centre for handloom and powerloom weavers who make the famous Banarasi sari. While silk saris handwoven with gold and silver threads fetch a price in lakhs, the majority of the weavers make cheaper synthetic saris on powerlooms, which are sold for a few thousands. In either case, the weavers earn only a small fraction of the final retail price.
In 2018, a nationwide census of the handloom sector commissioned by the Central textile ministry found over 50,000 handloom weavers in Varanasi. In addition, there are about 25,000 powerloom households, which means about 75,000 powerloom weavers, said Dhawan.
Why weren’t these databases used to make cash transfers? “Because there was a specific criteria,” he said. The district authorities had to weed out those registered with the labour department and those enrolled in the Antyodaya Anna Yojana and five pension schemes, he said. “The idea was to help those who had been left out of other schemes.”
In Bajardiha, the weavers say they received no help from the government, other than the extra 5 kg foodgrain per person for those registered in the public distribution system.
“That too, they sent rice, knowing we eat rotis,” said Ajaz Ahmad, 43. “And such poor quality rice that we would never buy from a shop. We are eating it out of majboori.”
Some in the neighbourhood did not even get that. Hadeer Ali, 45, said his family did not have a ration card because his wife did not have an Aadhaar card. His family of six survived on the earnings from the powerloom machine he owned and operated at home. “At best, I am able to make 20 saris in a month,” he said. One sari was sold for Rs 300 to the trader who supplied him thread. It was impossible to save money from such meagre income, he said, and whatever savings he had, the lockdown had wiped them out.
Much like the boatmen of Banaras, many weavers too believe the lockdown was premature.
“Itna jaldi lagaana tha?” said Ahmad, his voice rising. Did it have to come so early?
“Mua diye sab gareeb ko.” You killed all the poor.
“Now, that the poor have died, you are opening up,” he continued, his voice booming, his face flush with anger.
Turning to others for validation, he repeated the common refrain: more poor people died of hunger during the lockdown than coronavirus. “Wo muana chah rahe hain, mua deyin sab ko, tab uske baad khole…” They wanted to kill the poor. After killing them, they are opening up.
Mohammad Ramzan chipped in: “The day the lockdown was done in Hindustan, there were just 50 patients.” The actual count was about 400. “Today, there are 10,000 fresh cases everyday, and the lockdown is being lifted. Sochne waali baat hai. It is something to think about.”
Even the lifting of the lockdown has not brought work to the weavers.
Shamim Akhtar and his four brothers operate five powerlooms inside their house in Bajardiha. Only one was working on June 4. The youngest brother, Sultan, 22, was weaving a red-and-gold banarasi, with his earphone plugged into music.
“We had some leftover thread,” explained Akhtar. “Once this thread is over, the machine will stop.”
While some weavers buy their own thread to make saris and sell to traders, most work on commissions with traders supplying them the thread. They are paid only for their labour.
There is less risk involved in commissioned work, since the trader invests working capital and is bound to buy the final product. But such work is hostage to the trader’s business cycle, said Akhtar. “After four days of work, if he does not supply the thread, the loom sits idle.”
To ensure their looms work continuously, Akhtar’s family simultaneously buys their own thread. “Three machines work on the traders’ thread, two on our own,” he said.
For now, neither option seemed feasible. Buying their own thread did not make sense since it was impossible to sell saris to traders as long as the market was frozen. And no trader was commissioning work either.
Worse, payments for work completed before the lockdown started were still pending. “For 60 saris, traders owe me Rs 22,000,” said Akhtar. “Wo bolte hai aage paisa phansa hua hai. They say their payments too are stuck.”
Noor Alam, 24, has an even bigger amount pending with a trader: Rs 45,000.
The young man who manages a team of five weavers phoned the trader in my presence. On the first dial, the trader cut the phone. “Look, he doesn’t even take my calls,” Alam said. When he dialled again, the trader picked up but disconnected without saying a word. On the third attempt, Alam finally got through.
“Hello, bhaiya, can I get my payment?” he asked.
“Pagla wagla gaye ho kya,” said the trader. Have you gone mad?
“Bhaiya, it has been a few days since the lockdown opened up…”
“Lockdown khul gaya to paisa barasne lage kya,” said the trader. Just because the lockdown has opened up, does it mean money has started raining.
“Bhaiya, aapke paas to hoga,” said Alam, meekly. You must be having some money.
“Humare paas pedh laga hai ki humare paas hoga,” the trader said irately. You think I have a tree which sprouts money.
The trader ended the call by saying: “Wait for 15-20 days, otherwise come and take back your stock.”
Akhtar, who stood overhearing the conversation, pointed out that the weavers had no choice but to wait. “If we pressurise the trader, he will pressurise his final buyer, who in turn will return all the goods.”
“Our only hope is that transport and trade gradually resume. We start making at least Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500. Dal roti chalne lage,” he said. Enough to eat dal roti.
“Otherwise, the situation will be so bad,” said Akhtar, “mangne ki naubat aa jayegi.” We will be forced to beg and borrow.
A weaver who works for Alam, Shamshud Areefudin, 49, said he had already been forced to borrow money. His family used to have a ration card, which was struck off when he went away to Punjab for two months to attend a family wedding. Now, he neither had work, nor free rations, and he had given up hope of getting the promised cash assistance.