Sunday, July 20, 2008

Belatal's Weavers

The daily rain that has filled the majestic lakes constructed by the Chandels in Mahoba does not fill Rekha Rani’s stomach or that of her family of six. They still eat a meal of dry chapattis and sometimes vegetables once a day. “We have not seen dal in three years”, says an embarrassed Rekha who has been unemployed like eight hundred other such families of weavers since the past five years in village Belatal in the interiors of Mahoba.

“The weavers of Belatal have no land, they have never had any occupation other than weaving khadi for the Gandhi Ashram that was shut down in 2001”, explains Abhishek Singh who’s NGO Arunoday Sansthan has helped the weaver-women form self help groups. “The Gandhi Asharam was reopened in 2005 after a long struggle and our petitioning to the boards in Lucknow and Mumbai, but it was shut down within nine months because the authorities claimed there was no market for the products”, says Abhishek.

This is ironic because tourist spot Khajuraho is only fifty kilometers from Mahoba. “We have heard they sell inferior quality cloth for as much as one hundred and sixty rupees a meter in Khajuraho shops”, says Manni Lal. The small gathering of women gasp in horror.

Every house in the village has a charkha or handloom to weave khaadi. Most charkhas are kept under little mud shelves made for pooja. The Belatal weavers are proud of their prowess in weaving and despite the gap between their last productions, they have maintained their looms and charkhas. “Such was the quality of their khadi that at an exhibition in Delhi, a local minister from Mahoba asked the organizers to show him the best khadi and on being shown Belatal khadi, he asked where it was from thinking it was from Rajasthan. He was shocked to learn that Belatal was a village in his own constituency Mahoba”, laughs Abhishek.

Unlike the other men of his village, Manni Lal chose not to migrate and has been fighting for the Ashram to be reopened since 2001. “Approximately five thousand families in eleven villages have been affected by the shutting down of this Asharam, only forty five families remain in Belatal”, claims Manni Lal who believes that if a project or a new opportunity for weaving is introduced in the area the migrants and their families will return.

Such migration has decreased in nearby Banda because of the national rural employment guarantee scheme, on being asked whether anyone in their village has benefited from the scheme Rekha Rani and Beti Bai bring out over one hundred and sixty job cards and place them before the gathering. Quietly, they flip open the pages of the cards, no sign of work. “It took us six months to get these cards, when we did get them the Pradhan gave us no work. He says there is none”, says an angry Beti Bai who has walked with other women to the block development officer’s house to demand work. Rekha Rani is the district head of the ‘Chingaari’ group of women and has been fighting for job cards since over six months for the group’s rights.

“Technically and in accordance with NREGA, the women should be getting sixty rupees a day if no employment is found for them within fifteen days of them demanding it but none of them have received this money”, adds Abhishek who has been helping the women write joint job applications for benefiting from the scheme. None of the women have been called to participate in the Bundelkhand special plantation drive either. “Four thousand saplings are being given to every gram panchayat to plant in the area, NREGA beneficiaries are supposed to be planting these trees yet the Pradhan says there is no employment for these women”, says another disheartened activist.

It begins to rain and the gathering disperses. Inside Rekha Rani’s house with its five foot high roof and damp interior, sits a loom which she keeps clean in the hope that one day, it might earn her just enough to feed her family two meals a day and maybe sometimes, a little dal. She hopes it might even bring her husband back from Surat. Manni Lal believes it will, so does Beti Bai.


Deepak said...

Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned an India where every house would weave its own khadi. He made the simple Chakra his weapon of choice against British clothes.

Its sadly ironic that after half a century of Independence the people who actually followed him are going hungry while we run after western tags.

Arnav said...

The problem here is the complete autonomy of local ministers as they are not answerable to anyone regarding local economic and social factors. The apathy of the govt regarding the same adds more to the lack of knowledge and structured reforms. Furthermore, since there is sheer indifference among the authorities, they just DO NOT have enough information as to where to outsource a particular skill/product. The story everywhere is the same, weavers in Belatal, farmers in Punjab or coal miners in Orissa.

@ Shinjini.
Nice insightful article.

Its not really that "while we run after western tags" the weavers will go hungry. The people who are politically responsible for the industry are illiterate (most of the ministers are) and just dont have enough information as to what to do with a particular skillset. Take for example the Khadi Gram Udyod in Shimla. Its profiting well simply coz Shimla attracts a lot of foreigners and they like to have hand crafted clothes like Khadi. (Belatal khadi could be outsourced to Shimla, but do the ministers have this info? they dont) Again, the coal from Orissa could be outsourced to coal-consuming states, especially with nuclear and thermal reactors, but the states (and the center) are happy importing the same. Again, Himachal produces grade-A apples which are NOT EVEN circulated in India and are directly exported, to make hefty profit. These apples are then IMPORTED BACK at double the price which we pay for them.

The root problem is thus the sheer lack of information of the authorities as to what resources their own country produces and how to outsource/insource the same.

prashant said...

Let's look at things practically instead of harping about a useless government which is interested in filling it's pockets, and a khadi ashram which does some good work in some places, but is limited by it's size.

This article presents a perfect opportunity for business, where a lot of people can benefit. All we need to do is -
1. Find someone who is in the business of selling handmade clothes.

2. See if what these people produce is what is required or they need some skill updation.

Business economics will take care of the rest!