Benarasi Weavers

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Our inclusive livelihood model for Benarasi weavers is being carried out for PACS in the the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh by  Traidcraft Exchange (U.K.) and the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA). It focuses on working with 5000 weaving households, the majority of whom belong to the Muslim community, to help them to earn a sustainable income from this highly skilled craft.

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Project summary

This model involves:

Project context

The city of Varanasi (also known as Benares) is famous for its handicrafts, including weaving. According to estimates there are about 100000 weavers in Varanasi, 80% of whom are Muslims. ‘Benarasi’ saris are particularly famous, made of finely woven silk with a unique additional embellishment (called supplementary weft) upon the regular weave.

Benarasi saris are sold for a high price due to the skill that goes into making them. However, the weaving industry in Benares operates on a feudal structure. The Gaddidars (middle men) are at the top - they sell to retailers and wholesalers. The Gaddidars buy from the Grihasta (Master Weavers, like Vakar) who, in turn, provide work to the individual weavers, like Abdul. As a result, the majority of the profit is appropriated at the Gaddidar level whilst individual weavers, who work for 10-12 hours per day, only earn a daily wage of 100-250 rupees.

Benarasi saris are made using traditional handlooms and techniques. However, cheap imports from China and Dhaka, mechanised power looms and shifting consumer taste have negatively impacted the industry in recent years. Many weavers have been forced to move away from traditional techniques to focus on producing cheaper, lower quality goods to compete.

Despite this, the forecast for the handloom industry in India is positive. Growth, both within India and internationally, is predicted for the sector. The burgeoning middle class in India has more disposable income and is willing to spend more on handcrafted, artisan products. There is therefore real opportunity for the Benarasi weaving community.

The Varanasi Weavers Hub

Whilst some weavers in Varanasi belong to producer collectives, we found these to be weak and unorganised. The Varanasi Weavers Hub has therefore been set up under the project to bring Master Weavers together to avoid the middlemen and sell directly to traders, thereby increasing the amount of money they get for their highly skilled work. It is also a centre for learning and facilitation.

As Pragya Majumder - the Project Manager from Traidcraft Exchange (U.K.) - says "It will bring the Master Weavers together. If they stand united they can move forward and actually cut out the top level middle men."

The hub currently has over 280 members and is supporting the weavers by:

  • Providing advice and support on a range of issues including product development, product design, raw materials, quality assurance, packaging, labeling, production methods, export licences and logistics.
  • Providing market information including prices, suppliers and information about new technologies and trends.
  • Supporting direct market linkages with domestic and international channels for sales.
  • Mentoring and coaching on business skills such as cash flow management, inventory management, costing, pricing and book keeping.
  • Helping them to access government schemes and other institutional resources available for their welfare.

The Varanasi Weavers Hub has its own website (http://varanasiweavershub.com) with an online shop, an Artisans Directory of weaver members and other information regarding the Varanasi weaving heritage.

Development and diversification

Currently the Benarasi weaving community is mainly focused on producing saris. However, this is a very niche market. As part of the project, producers are being supported (via the Varanasi Weavers Hub) to diversify and develop additional ranges of homeware and clothing products to appeal to a variety of consumers and tastes. Items include dupattas (stoles), table linen and cushion covers. By diversifying into different products, weavers do not have to be so reliant on one product for their income and are able to access new and emerging markets.

A textile designer has also been commissioned to produce a range of new and unique sari designs to appeal to modern consumer tastes. As Varanasi is an ancient weaving cluster, there are already a wide range of sari patterns and motifs. Therefore the new patterns have been designed to be unique and fresh. 5 new sari designs came "off-the-loom" on 15 July 2015 and will soon be available to buy online.

Marketing strategies

The Varanasi Weavers Hub is developing marketing strategies to reach both national and international markets. This includes establishing direct linkages with buyers and setting up an online shop to reach wider markets.

As part of the marketing strategies, weavers are being supported to gain Craftmark certification - a trademark of the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA). The Craftmark is granted for genuine Indian handloom and handicraft products. As of July 2015, one applicant has been successfully granted the licence to use the seal on their products and 19 other applicants were in the process of getting Craftmark accreditation.

Products woven in Benares and neighbouring districts are also able to apply for Geographical Indication (GI) certification and the weavers’ collectives are supported to apply for and meet the requirements for this.

Both these certifications help to act as a marker of quality and authenticity, helping the weavers to gain access to international and domestic markets and achieve higher prices.

Linking with government schemes

Although government schemes for weavers have, in the past, favoured mechanisation and power looms, there are various funds available that handloom weavers can access.

The project is helping the weaving community to understand and access their rights and entitlements under various schemes including:

  1. The Handloom Weavers’ Comprehensive Welfare Scheme. This scheme comprises:
    • A health insurance scheme that provides cashless treatment (up to 15000 rupees in total) at health centres and hospitals for 4 members in each family.
    • The Mahatama Gandhi Bunkar Bima Yojana life insurance scheme that covers weavers for accidental death, natural death, total disability and partial disability.
  2. The Integrated Handlooms Development Scheme. This scheme provides financial assistance to clusters of weavers. The money can be used to pay for new looms and accessories, training, marketing opportunities and construction of work sheds.
  3. A Handloom weavers’ Credit Card. This allows weavers access to credit through the Credit Guarantee Trust Fund for Micro and Small Enterprises. Each weaver can borrow between 25000 and 200000 rupees and has to pay it back within 3 years.
  4. The Government of India’s Handloom Package. Under this Package 3884 crores are available, aimed at the revival of 15000 Weaver Cooperatives Societies (WSC) and 3 lakh Handloom Weavers.

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