For centuries, the silk saris woven by hand in Varanasi have been prized by Indian women, but an influx of cheap Chinese-made copies is destroying the local industry. Badruddin Ansari, one of the few weavers still in business, said that most of his former colleagues now struggle to eke out a living as vegetable sellers, tea stall operators or rickshaw drivers. “When a person loses his home and his livelihood, where can he go?” he asked.
“I hope the art of making Banarasi saris will survive. The government must ban these imported saris or put a heavier duty on them to save the domestic industry.”
Banarasi silk saris are famed for their embroidery and still sought after by northern Indian brides for their big day, even though the dresses are now normally made in China. Rajni Kant, director of the Human Welfare Association, a non-profit group working with weavers in Varanasi since 1993, has seen the damaging effect of Chinese imports.
“To give just one example, a 55-year-old man I know started weaving at the age of 15,” he said. “He quit the handloom three years ago and now works as a manual labourer. There are hundreds of thousands of people like him.”
More than 60% of the handloom industry has collapsed in Varanasi since 2003, according to Kant. In 2007 reports emerged of weavers in Varanasi selling their blood to make ends meet as Chinese imitation saris flooded the market, costing about R2,500 ($55) compared with at least R4,000 for an original.
Official import figures for saris from China are low, but textile experts say much of the material is imported as fabric, not as tailored saris, and a lot makes its way into India as contraband via Nepal. “It's doubtful whether these imitation saris even enter India as saris. They are probably imported as fabric, bales of silk which traders then cut and sell as saris,” said Ritu Sethi, head of the non-profit Crafts Revival Trust.
Registered Indian imports of silk fabrics from China increased by 23% between 2008-09 and 2009-10, amounting to nearly R6.4 billion despite India imposing an anti-dumping duty on silk fabric.