When Mahatma Gandhi encouraged the use of khadi, it was to promote the ideology that Indians could be self-reliant on cotton and be free from foreign cloth and clothing. It was also a movement towards rural self-employment and self-reliance. We have since achieved freedom from foreign rule, but the economic freedom that a fabric like khadi can bring about is as relevant today, as it was before independence.
Moreover, khadi effortlessly achieves what brands and companies vie hard for—sustainability. Not many would know that khadi is a zero carbon-footprint fabric, needing no electricity or machines, or any kind of fuel for its manufacture. A simple comparison of numbers—3 litres of water to produce one metre of khadi versus 55 litres for one metre in a mill—is enough to give anyone an idea of the eco-friendliness of the fabric.
But all this is nothing new, except the fact that an idea that embodied economic and political freedom and sustainability somehow got lost over the years, especially after India took giant leaps of liberalisation. Global merchandise became more accessible and shone brighter, while homegrown ideas grew paler. This included khadi.
In recent years, as rapid industrialisation and greedy consumerism started showing their darker side, the world has been looking towards terms like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘zero waste’, ‘bio-degradable’, ‘zero carbon footprint’, etc. In short, we are trying to mend our ways and undo the damage inflicted on the planet. This is where ideas like khadi make sense.
The good news is that khadi is on the brink of another revival. If the fashion industry has been rallying for the cause by promoting the fabric, the government, which provides the push to khadi as a large-scale idea, is pushing harder.
I remember how a few years back, a friend chose to go to the Khadi outlet in Connaught Place in Delhi to buy dhotis for priests coming to his house for a puja. The place symbolised everything desi, from dhotis to cow urine products and the like. Today, the same outlet houses jeans and clothes designed by Ritu Beri as well.
The jeans have another interesting story behind them, which Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) chairman VK Saxena narrates. Global jeans giant Levi’s used to buy khadi cloth from them at nominal costs, and sold the jeans at premium prices. Realising this, the KVIC terminated the contract with Levi’s and started making jeans itself. The Khadi jeans available now are priced in the range of R1,500-R2,000.
Not just products, Khadi outlets have also undergone a radical change in the recent past. What were once non-air-conditioned, dingy and compartmentalised shops selling thick shawls, sheets and drab jackets, are now modern, air-conditioned, well-designed and well-lit showrooms. Products range from organic foods, premium cosmetics, handmade paper products, exquisite muslin and silk clothes to raw silk curtains, furnishings and even shoes. Everything is arranged invitingly and one can see people from all sections of society shopping in earnest.
But the makeover is not cosmetic alone. There is a decided change in how the KVIC operates as well. From just relying on people coming to Khadi outlets for things like dhotis, the organisation is betting heavy on marketing Khadi—and its products—as a brand name. From roping in well-known designers like Ritu Beri and spreading awareness in rural areas to competitively participating in tenders and bagging big contracts, the organisation is anything but laidback in its present avatar.
In fact, as chairman Saxena tells us, the KVIC today has the luxury of being choosy in picking its partners. Craving the gravitas that being associated with a fabric like khadi can provide, the fashion industry is particularly keen on using the fabric. But to check the misuse of the brand name of Khadi and to ensure quality, any company or individual using the word ‘khadi’ to label its products has to be licensed for it by the KVIC. “Everyone wants to join hands with khadi. Everyone wants to do something for khadi. But I always ask one question: why were you not doing anything a year before? What was preventing you? Why today?” he tells us, adding, “Otherwise, they will sell mill material in the name of khadi. Who will be responsible for that?”
For instance, the KVIC resorted to legal action in a recent case when the Aditya Birla Group-owned brand Peter England advertised a khadi collection. Following the legal notice, the company apologised to the KVIC for using the trade name ‘Khadi’ without permission to promote its apparel, and removed the word from all its promotional material. This is not an isolated case, and several such notices have been sent to prevent the misuse of the word.
To encourage more artisans to take up khadi, especially the youth, minimum wages of R190 per day have been fixed for them. This serves a double purpose— promoting a sustainable idea like khadi and promoting a reliable employment tool in rural areas. In tangible terms, there has been a significant jump in turnover and sales of khadi have jumped 30% in the past 9-10 months since this initiative.
This revival has no Mahatma Gandhi behind it and certainly no emotional tug, but the idea is perhaps much more relevant than ever.
On the go
Recent orders for khadi products
Six lakh bedsheets and eight lakh pillow covers
Khadi fabric for VVIP flights; silk saris for female cabin crew, Jodhpuri bandhgala coats, trousers and jackets for male cabin crew
Khadi dress material for uniforms in all its schools, colleges and factories; 7,000 m of dress material and 2,000 pairs of industrial shoes
Department of Post, Uttarakhand
Khadi uniforms for postmen and postwomen; 5,000 m khadi cotton and 5,000 m khadi woollen clothes, etc
Khadi silk ties, stoles
Prime Minister’s Office
* 10,000 pieces of high-quality handmade paper file covers
* 377 pieces of khadi woollen overcoats and khadi woollen jerseys for staff
Indian Coast Guard
23,300 khadi silk jackets
Special Protection Group
5,000 handmade paper file covers
Khadi dress material for employees