Regional cafe: Weaving heritage and future together

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Published: October 30, 2015 12:21 AM

Co-optex’s story poses seminal questions for the future of handloom co-operatives

Tamil Nadu has the maximum number of handlooms in the country. Handloom weaving continues to be one of the largest economic activities in the state. The sector provides employment to 6.08 lakh weavers. This is why prime minister Narendra Modi celebrated the first National Handloom Day in Chennai in April this year. He said that that the country has not been able to market its handloom products well in recent times, adding that with the world becoming progressively more aware about the environment and holistic healthcare, there is a need to highlight the eco-friendly aspects of handloom products.

The Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society Ltd.—popularly known as Co-optex—has been trying to do exactly that by encouraging weavers to come out with environmentally-friendly products. It has recently introduced organic cotton sarees which are dyed with natural colours.

Co-optex was established in 1935 and has been marketing handloom products for 80 years now. There are around 4 lakh handlooms in Tamil Nadu, of which around 2 lakh are in the co-operatives’ fold. Co-optex has a network of 200 showrooms spread all over India, with an annual turnover of around Rs 1,000 crore. It ranks numero uno among the handloom co-operative societies in the country.

By the 1980s, the popularity of handlooms had started declining. To help weavers survive, the 1985 Textile Policy recommended reservation of 22 items for production by handlooms, and also said that spinning mills must produce 50% of their output as hank yarn which is used by the handlooms. But these recommendations have not been easy to implement. The problems of the handloom industry increased when export of yarn was allowed. Yarn meant for the handloom sector invariably gets diverted to the power loom sector. Fiscal incentives have also been slowly withdrawn.

Being the leader among handloom co-operative societies does not mean that life has been easy for Co-optex. The organisation has faced many crises during its existence. The weavers’ co-operatives are heavily dependent on government subsidies, and in 1992-93, the Tamil Nadu government ran out of funds to pick up the janata sarees and dhotis meant for free distribution. The weavers were literally out on the streets. Every political party jumped in to support the weavers. The state government finally yielded. It announced an allocation of Rs 25 crore to lift stocks from all the primary weavers’ co-operative societies which brought much-needed relief.

Both weavers and Co-optex have soldiered on since. In 2005, Co-optex again found itself in trouble. It had piled up losses of R89 crore. Paying salaries had become difficult. The organisation undertook massive cost-cutting and downsizing. About 600 employees left, opting for VRS. Uneconomic showrooms were shut down, with the number coming down to 200 from the earlier 260. Co-optex cut down warehouse strength by improving logistics. The central government released funds to help the organisation with the condition that there should be no fresh recruitment for 5 years. These measures have helped. Co-optex has wiped out its accumulated losses and has started making profits. Between 2014 and so far in 2015, its retail sales amounted to Rs 306.5 crore—an improvement over the R301 crore made in the year before that. Last year, it made a profit of Rs 12.6 crore.

What Co-optex and every other handloom co-operative is facing is dwindling demand, and equally worryingly, dwindling number of weavers. The next generation in weaver families no longer want to continue with the occupation that their parents and forefathers were trained in. They want better-paying jobs. Apprentices, too, are hard to come by. In Pillayar Palayam, a colony of silk weavers in Kancheepuram—the district eponymous with the finest silk sarees in the country—weaver households numbered around 1,000 just a couple of decades ago. There are just 60-70 today. Automobile factories have come up in the nearby areas and the jobs they offer are a great draw for the youngsters.

The threat to handlooms also comes from power looms. Power looms today can reproduce almost anything handlooms can weave with less cost and less effort. The retail boom has meant there are too many textile showrooms competing with Co-optex outlets. Co-optex tries to keep up with competition by retailing products made from power loom and also blended material.

T N Venkatesh, an IAS officer and the managing director of Co-optex, however, is optimistic about the future of handlooms and the survival of Co-optex. “We are trying to create contemporary and classical designs to cater to different tastes”, he says. Co-optex is slowly modernising its showrooms. Graduates from elite design schools, such as the National Institute of Design, work on styling the new range. “The showroom in Chennai near the IT belt attracts a lot of youngsters. They are getting increasingly drawn towards handlooms,” says Venkatesh. Co-optex has tied up with e-commerce sites such as Flipkart and Snapdeal. One can also order from Co-optex’s website as well. “The response has been better than what we expected. People are today willing to order wedding sarees online”, Venkatesh says. The Union ministry of commerce recently recognised Co-optex’s website as the best e-commerce site among such government-run portals.

Venkatesh is also working with the remaining weavers to revive forgotten designs. Weavers’ names and addresses are attached to all price tags to improve their visibility as well as offer the buyer the provenance of the item. Co-optex has been taking the ‘Weaves from Tamil Nadu’ exhibition to almost everywhere in the country. “This attracted a lot of response,” its MD says.

Of its Rs 1,000-crore sales, nearly Rs 700 crore comes from government orders. It supplies four sets of uniforms to students of government schools, all Chennai corporation schools, uniforms for anganwadi nurses, bed sheets to government-run hospitals, sarees and dhotis for old age pensioners and so on. “Other states are studying our model,” says Venkatesh.

In today’s context, are societies like Co-optex relevant? Many weavers lead a very precarious existence. Till the time they are able to handle their own marketing, a Co-optex is absolutely necessary, believe textile industry sources.

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