For centuries, it was known as the silk city of India, visited even by Chinese travelers Fa Hien in 399-412 AD and Hiuen Tsang in 635 AD. For, silk gave the city on the southern bank of the Ganga its identity.
But now there is nothing silky about this dusty city of Bhagalpur, 220 km east of Patna.
After a high of posting a Rs 300-crore business in 2007, the famed banana-smooth tusser — a variant of silk fabric, which is a specialty of Bhagalpur weavers —has grossed barely Rs 60 crore last year. Weavers now find it impossible even to make both ends meet. With the Bihar government turning its back on the industry, Bhagalpur weavers are a disenchanted lot. Add to this active promotion of power looms and the rise of the middleman.
According to a survey by Aseed, a non-government organsation operating a weaver’s centre, there were over 35,000 full-time weavers in 2000, which has shrunk to 17,000 in 2007. There are another 2,000-3,000 part-timers. The number of registered weavers with the cooperatives is just 7,500 to 8,000.
Most weavers are paid Rs 20 for each metre of tusser silk, while the middleman makes four times as much. And for the exporters who employ them as their front men, the profit is unfathomable, at least in Germany, the US, the UK and West Asia.
Maskan Bari, a cluster of about 200 weavers’ families, still favours the ancient pit-looms, which burn out weavers in double-quick time. Ram Lakhan Tanti is one such weaver. He is barely 44, but looks an old man.
Barely able to stand erect, he hobbles over to his loom and carefully places his legs in the pit below the loom. “I get paid Rs 20 for a metre. I have three children. How can I send them to school? There’s absolutely no future in tusser silk weaving,” Tanti said.
“There was time,” recalled Mohammad Rashid, a member of the Puraini Weavers’ Centre —a 400-member-strong body of Momin (Muslim) weavers —“when the tusser produced here was a favourite of Bhagalpur’s Nawabs.”
Bijendra Prasad Yadav, Bihar Industries Minister, however, has a torrent of promises. “We are now providing weavers with modern looms at subsidised rates. The state has also decided to waive their loans.”
“The government is also mulling providing them subsidised power. The Centre and the state are jointly working towards the development of a handloom park that will have all the facilities,” Yadav assures.
Yadav’s third assurance is even more comforting: “Banks have been directed to advance loans to weavers without insisting on collaterals.”
Once Bhagalpur’s silk was famous for its iridescence. Today, the preferred textile
is a mishmash of mercerised cotton, nylon and Korean or Chinese synthetic yarn that look like silk, but lack the intrinsic qualities of raw silk.
The Bhagalpur riots in October 1989, too, took away some sheen. “While the looms of the tantis (Hindu weavers) were spared, those of the Momins were reduced to ashes,” remarked Mohammad Mehboob, adding the industry never recovered its lost glory.
The shortfall in cocoon production and power shortage have added to the gloom. “This season, the dip is as much as 60 per cent,” said deputy director (sericulture) Shyam Bihari Gupta.
Hemmed in by constraints all over, the Bhagalpur fabric has started fading fast.