The once-famous Benarasi saris of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and their makers are under threat from globalization. The looms that used to clap in homes in and around the holy city are falling silent because work is simply vanishing. First came the power looms. They snatched away the jobs of hundreds of thousands. To make matters worse, China-made saris and silks then began to flood the market. While the Central government's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) proscribes machines in work to be offered to the rural poor, there is no such law to protect the sari artisans.
Today, the Muslim-dominated Daniyalpur and Dubkiyan villages in Chirai Gaon Block of Varanasi district has been deeply affected by this trend. For generations, families here have woven the finest silk saris. Unfortunately, if five years ago a family of six members, including children, could produce a sari a week and earn Rs 500 (US$1=Rs 43.2), today they get only Rs 400 for the same amount of work. Ironically, while prices of all the essential commodities have risen, the wages of the artisans keep falling. They now get to weave no more than two or three saris per month, and that only because the designs are too intricate for the power looms to manage.
Two decades ago, Afsana, around 45 years, and other members of her community worked on a contract basis and were paid per sari by the middlemen. Her earnings enabled the family to buy their own home in Daniyalpur. But the good times soon ended. Today, the family can often only afford to eat a few mashed potatoes with the sub-standard rice they get from the Public Distribution System (PDS). They have no other source of livelihood. They have not even considered the idea of working under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (a government initiative to provide a guaranteed job for 100 days a year to one member of a family) because they think it below their dignity to do unskilled manual labour. "We would rather commit suicide than dig and carry earth as laborers," says Afsana. She smiles while she says this, bravely trying to hide her desperation.
On the other side of Varanasi, in the Araji Line Block, are Hindu families who had until some time ago also pursued the tradition of weaving Benarasi saris made of imitation silk. While the saris they made were cheaper and of a simpler design than those made by Afsana's family, their earnings were considerably higher. In fact, a family in the Araji Line Block could earn almost Rs 400 per day. Today, they too have been displaced from the market. With charges in the child labour law and with the city of Surat emerging as a textile centre, the weavers in Araji Line Block have lost their only source of earning a livelihood.
As their looms came to a standstill, this particular community did take refuge under the NREGA. But there are problems. These weavers admit that they are not physically strong enough to do hard manual work as they were used to working only on looms. As a result they are unable to meet the prescribed schedule of rates. Under the NREGA, a worker gets Rs 100 for digging 100 cubic feet of earth in a day. The weavers, however, are not able to earn more than Rs 40 per day. Bela Devi, Savitri Devi, Prabhawati, Nagina, Nirmala, Chamela, Amrawati, Munta Devi, Sushila, Phulgena, Tara Devi and Malti Devi of Sajoi village now wonder how they are expected to feed their families on such low wages.
What makes matters worse is that women have been totally overlooked in the allocation of work. Among the list of 10,000 workers registered in Araji Line Block who work under the job scheme, there are hardly 10 to 15 women. It has become the norm in UP not to include the names of women in the job cards given to families, although by law the job card should carry the names of all the adult family members in a family who desire to working under the scheme.
It is the same story in village after village. Social audits of the NREGA conducted in the four blocks of Hardoi and Unnao districts of central UP between 2006 and 2008 clearly revealed this reality. The women were just not aware that their names should rightfully figure on the job cards. The Village Development Officer or pradhan (village head) issued the job cards only in the name of the male head of the family. Even families headed by women were not issued job cards. The officials were of the firm view that women would not work because, traditionally, they did not do work that involved digging. Yet, when the women themselves were interviewed, they all indicated that they wanted work. In a couple of cases in Sitapur district, when women arrived at the work site demanding their right to work, the pradhans brought the work to a halt rather than include them.
Unlike in the neighboring states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where women have exceeded the quota of 33 per cent reserved for them at some work sites under the NREGA, there is a clear bias against women in UP. They are being systematically denied work. The implementing authorities fear that if women are not able to do enough work to meet the schedule of rates then they would have difficulties completing their measurement books. However, this is just an excuse. The muster rolls and measurement books are still being fudged to indicate that more work is being done than is actually the case in order to siphon off money.
P.K. Jha, Commissioner of Allahabad Zone until recently, has shown how through innovative approaches women can be included in NREGA schemes and their work targets met. But this requires political will and a commitment to empower poor women. But both will and commitment are sadly lacking in a region that was once the home of the resplendent Benarasi sari.