The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) is no more the moribund institution it once was. Its outlook has become aggressive, and it seems the 61-year-old organisation will not shy away from hard tackling competitors to protect its turf. On Monday, KVIC threatened legal action against ethnic wear retailer Fabindia for selling its cotton garments as Khadi products without proper approvals from the Commission.
The KVIC’s legal notice to Fabindia Overseas said the retailer was continuing to sell its garments in the “name and style of Khadi” despite earlier warnings by KVIC and assurances by Fabindia that it will not do so. In 2015, the Commission had asked the retailer to stop advertising and selling products in the name of Khadi.
In the last few years, KVIC has been reviving the iconic brand: As many as 143 defunct Khadi units started since April 2014 and steps are afoot to start production at 124 more units. The organisation is taking “pro-active” steps to revive defunct Khadi institutions, which have closed due to low wages, lack of funds for replacement of charkhas and looms and inadequate marketing support.
Yet, the fight between KVIC and FabIndia is more than just a brand war. It’s a battle of mind space of consumers that the KVIC and the government don’t want to cede control. Only a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image replaced that of the original model on Khadi Udyog merchandise: The Mahatma. This led to a furor but the KVIC chairman VK Saxena said this was “not unusual” and there have been deviations in the past.
While KVIC and Fabindia slug it out, one must not lose sight of three issues: One, there is no unanimity about what is ‘Khadi’. By definition, Khadi is “handspun, handwoven fabric”. In an article in MINT, textile scholar and revivalist Rta Kapur Chishti raises questions about the authenticity of what’s paraded as Khadi, saying that most, if not all Khadi sold by KVIC institutions is from semi-mechanised Ambar Charkhas. Desi charkhas have been forsaken because they are slow in production. So is it okay to accept Ambar Charkha Khadi sold by KVIC and its regulated institutions as authentic Khadi because of the Khadi Mark tag?
Legally, as the article says, the last is correct, but realistically, there are very few Khadi centres that still make handspun, handwoven Khadi. Second, and a more critical question: Is Khadi’s economic growth as an aspirational fabric and “protection of rural artisans”— as KVIC claims — strictly the prerogative of the government? Many would disagree with that because what KVIC is selling — as experts have pointed out — is also not authentic Khadi.