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Revived China silk trade hits Indian weavers
Author:  admin     PublishDate:  2007-08-02      Hit:  6123

KOLKATA - As the unexpected morning rain sweeps across the congested lane in Bara Bazaar, home to hundreds of silk weavers in the temple city of Varanasi in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Mushtaq anxiously waits for the rain to stop to go to work as a salesman in the market. Had it been about a year back, though, he wouldn't have had to worry, for he would have been busy by now weaving his own silk brocade with the help of the now-silenthand loom lying next to him.

But as this second-generation silk weaver gazes reminiscently at the idle wooden, hand-driven weaving machine that helped him earn his living not so long back, he is not the only one suffering.

A trip down the mohallas (neighborhoods) of silk weavers in Varanasi will reveal that every household has more non-functional looms than functional ones, while many weavers like Mushtaq have been compelled to move away from their trade and resort to such menial labor as pulling rickshaws and construction work for survival.

The scene is no different in the town of Ramanagram, near Bangalore, an erstwhile silk-processing (turning silk to silk yarn and then to fabric) center in Karnataka, southern India, which in contrast to Bangalore's booming information-technology sector is almost deserted, and full of closed silk-processing units.

"A combination of the abolition of quantitative restrictions, declining tariffs on textile imports, and events like the opening of the Nathu La Pass are resulting in cheap imports of silk, especially from China, which is posing serious competition to the Indian silk-weaving industry," said Ritu Sethi, managing trustee of Craft Revival Trust, a Delhi-based not-for-profit organization engaged in promotion of arts and crafts in the country, "as a result of which this hand loom sector is facing its worst slump ever."

Indeed, even as the two Asian giants, India and China, celebrate the first anniversary this month of the opening of Nathu La to trade 44 years after a border conflict between the countries had shut this Himalayan border pass on the ancient trade route called the "Silk Road", its landmark reopening has been anything but beneficial for India. While local silk-industry sources allege that this route is increasingly facilitating illegal import or dumping of Chinese silk and other commodities, other sections of Indian industry say that the official trade between the two countries is hardly worth talking about.

Reports say the biggest problem is that the reopening of this route has made the borders even more porous for unofficial imports of commodities, many of which are silk and other textiles.

"For the handwoven silk industry in particular," said Sethi, "the market is getting flooded by cheap copies of traditional woven silk fabrics and saris, where local silk weavers have failed to compete."

She added that the most affected is the silk-weaving segment of Varanasi (famous for their hand-made silk saris and fabrics called Benarasi silk) because most of their designs are being copied in China and dumped in India. "I must also add that local [in Surat, Gujarat] power looms are also weaving copies of Benarasi silk [out of cheaper Chinese silk yarn] and flooding the market," Sethi said.

Benarasi silk saris and brocades, renowned for their fine fabrics and exquisite designs, are woven by highly skilled weavers who primarily come from Varanasi (earlier called Benares or Banaras). Until recently Benarasi silk was exclusively woven from yarns produced (and processed mainly in) southern India. For centuries, Benarasi silk was largely a home-based industry, where the fabric was woven by manually operated hand looms that enabled the weavers to churn out their artistic designs and exclusive motifs that made Benarasi silk famous.

Over the past decade, however, the structure of the handwoven-silk industry in India has undergone significant changes. For one, because of increasing prices of raw materials, particularly silk yarn, prices of handwoven silk have also shot up, making its machine-made (power loom) counterparts much cheaper. Second, "exports of huge quantities of both silk yarn and textile/fabrics by China have resulted in a slump in demand of the Benarasi or hand-made silk industry in the country", said Nesar Ahmed, who recently completed a study on the impact of globalization on the Indian hand-made-silk industry for the Delhi-based All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA).

Consequently, "the livelihoods of thousands of traditional [silk] weavers are displaced, while many are living in penury", says the AIACA. In the Varanasi cluster, for instance, the industry estimates that more than 50,000 (out of an estimated population of 125,000) weavers are now either unemployed or have taken up other, menial jobs.

Although there is a consensus about the fact that the industry faces a crisis, different stakeholders perceive the reasons for their plight differently.

"While the weavers blame the power looms as the biggest culprits for their misery," because these machines can easily copy every design and innovation of the weavers and churn out low-quality products at a much lower price, says the AIACA study, "the traders feel that the import of Chinese fabrics, which are also embroidered and sold as hand-made silk, are the main reason for the declining demand for Benarasi and Karnataka silk."

The dumping, though, hasn't really gone unnoticed. After an investigation revealed there was US$180 million in Chinese silk

imports in 2004, a 47% jump over the previous year, as a result of appeals from industry associations such as the Karnataka Weavers Federation (Bangalore) and the Silk Trade Association (Varanasi), the Indian government imposed an anti-dumping duty for five years of $27.98 per kilogram for Chinese imports of mulberry raw silk (termed 2A variety) in the middle of 2005. Provisional tariffs ranging from 57-108% were also imposed on other silk imports from China.

But those measures hardly solved the problems, say industry sources.

"The Chinese companies increased exports of other silk products like fabrics and textiles to India," said an industry observer, "which were dumped in the country at around $1-1.5 per meter, half the price at which Indian silks sell."

Sources also allege that since the duty was imposed, Chinese exporters have also tried marking the 2A variety of silk as 3A, which is lower-quality and outside the Indian anti-dumping levy, and pushed it into India.

The Chinese exporters, though, deny that silk from the Middle Kingdom is "dumped" in India. The China Chamber of Commerce for the Import and Export of Textiles, for instance, claims that while calculating the Chinese prices, India has not considered the Chinese exporters' true production costs, instead assuming a much lower cost and concluding that silk products are being "dumped". Moreover, the chamber claims that Chinese exports to India actually benefit the Indian silk industry because demand for silk yarn and fabrics in India is far more than what the country can produce.

This could be true, partially at least, because according to the Mysore-based Central Sericulture Research and Training Institute, against an annual requirement of about 25,000 tonnes of silk, India produces only about 15,000 tonnes. "So from that perspective, Chinese imports [of silk yarn] could be beneficial for the Indian silk industry," said Ritu Sethi of Craft Revival Trust.

Still, even as the Indian handwoven-silk industry struggles to find out ways to combat the Chinese, another segment of the Indian handicrafts industry that is facing severe threats from China's manufacturing prowess is chikankari, which is fine and intricate embroidery done with white untwisted yarn on muslins.

Its name derives from the Persian word chakin, meaning the rendering of delicate patterns on fabric, and until now it has been considered an exclusive preserve of artisans in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. Like handwoven silk fabrics or brocades, chikankari is labor-intensive and time-consuming, where a craftsman can take as much as 15-20 years to be adept in the art, and sometimes 10-15 days to complete an entire chikan ensemble. According to the Association of Chikan Manufacturers in Lucknow, the Chinese textile industry has also mastered the art of "machine-made" chikankari and is "flooding the local market with made-in-China chikankari products".

Nevertheless, although the business communities of the two countries are still watching the reopening of the Nathu La Pass warily, the northeastern states of India, particularly Sikkim, are looking forward to the potential that this fabled "Silk Route" promises.

"Unlike the border trade agreements signed by the Indian government with its neighboring countries including Myanmar and Bangladesh, this agreement [opening of the Nathu La Pass] is likely to have a much larger scope both in terms of coverage of geographical regions and services," said a spokesperson for the Department of Commerce and Industries of the government of Sikkim. "Besides direct gain to India, the opening of this trade route could generate a whole lot of benefits to the otherwise landlocked Sikkim and the neighboring states [of] the northeast region and West Bengal."

By Indrajit Basu
Indrajit Basu is a Kolkata-based journalist.
Source: atimes.com
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