Why Karnataka’s silk farmers are going through a rough patch

Hindustan Times | BySibi Arasu
Nov 28, 2018 10:23 AM IST

Once among the most profitable farming sectors, sericulture is losing its sheen due to falling prices

There is silence in most parts of the Ramanagara silk cocoon market, about 60 kilometers from Bengaluru. The e-auctioning of cocoons is underway in Asia’s largest silk cocoons market. Hundreds of farmers from across Karnataka and the rest of India have brought their produce to be sold through bidding. Having emptied their cocoons onto the market’s tables, they stand next to their produce. Dozens of reelers – those who reel the cocoons together to produce silk threads – have come to the market to buy cocoons. The four warehouses in the market are choc-a-bloc with loads of silk cocoons of various grades and qualities.

A farmer moves his silk cocoons during bidding at the government cocoon market in Ramnagara near Bengaluru.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)
A farmer moves his silk cocoons during bidding at the government cocoon market in Ramnagara near Bengaluru.(Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Reelers make their way around the market, observing the quality of cocoons and silently making their bids over a mobile phone app. Most of the farmers look forlorn. The reelers don’t seem too happy either. “We’re not even making the costs of production nowadays, how can we be happy,” says Ashok Hanabaretti, a farmer who has come from Belgaum, 530 kilometers from Ramanagara.

Severe price drop
“In the last few months, the price for cocoons has gone as low as it was in 2015 when ten farmers committed suicide because they couldn’t repay their debts,” says Gautam Gowda, silk farmer and president of the Ramanagara District Sericulture Farmers’ Welfare Association. Gowda, like countless others, comes to the Ramanagara silk market every month to sell his produce. The average price of the two most sold silk cocoon types, Bivoltine silk and Cross Breed silk, were 360 and 290 respectively at the end of September as compared to 491 and 395 last year, as per Karnataka’s Department of Sericulture. “The government needs to intervene and assist us, otherwise we will fall into debt,” says Gowda.

In July, silk farmers marched to Freedom Park, Bengaluru, to protest the fall in prices. They were hoping that the state legislative assembly elections in May would bring about proactive changes in sericulture but to no avail. In fact, upon coming to power, SR Mahesh, the incumbent minister for sericulture, announced that Mysuru silk saris would be sold at half the price by the Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation (KSIC). His ‘half-price’ offer was withdrawn a month later after multiple disturbances outside silk stores across the state.

The minister’s announcement turned out to be premature as the state lacked the capacity to back his promise. “The state seems to be doing only foolish things and the centre is supporting only weavers and traders, most of who are in the north, in places like Varanasi. Who do we go to with our issues?” asks Shanta Kumar, a silk farmer from Karnataka’s Davanagere district.

India is the second largest producer of silk in the world. Half of India’s silk is produced in Karnataka.

Heavy rain in silk producing districts of Ramanagara, Mysuru, Chikballapur and Kolar have filled the silk cocoons filled with moisture. “The cocoon needs to be dry and soft and not hard like this,” KM Jaffar, a reeler, tells us, pressing a cocoon from a farmer’s produce. “We’ll need up to 10 kilograms of such substandard cocoons to produce one kilo of pure silk. This is leaving us with no profit,” he says.

Another reason attributed to the low prices is the five per cent GST on silk yarn and fabric. Farmers and reelers say this is passed down the supply chain, because of which they have to bear extra burden.

Farmers also say that silk yarn imported from China is preferred by weavers for its low price and this has put the domestic market in further peril.

A temporary setback
The State Department of Sericulture and the Central Silk Board (CSB), a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Textiles, say this is only a temporary setback. The CSB is a research and development organisation whose mandate is to provide technical and technological support to the silk industry. “We are constantly working to improve productivity and reduce risk factors and believe the rates should improve again soon,” adds the official.

KS Manjunath, commissioner for sericulture development, Karnataka, says that the decline in prices is the result of surplus in supply as well as the excessive rains. “As more and more farmers are getting into sericulture there is a lot of supply of silk cocoons. Silk farmers are getting eight to ten crops in a year now. We’re providing subsidies to farmers for setting up rearing houses, medicines for plants and other equipment and are ready to help them in any other way we can,” he says.

Heavy rain and increasing competition from Chinese silk have drastically affected the prices of cocoons this year. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)
Heavy rain and increasing competition from Chinese silk have drastically affected the prices of cocoons this year. (Arijit Sen/HT Photo)

Munshi Basaiah, deputy director of sericulture in Ramanagara, concedes that low rates have led to low profit margins for the farmers. “This is where farmers from all over the country get the best prices for their cocoons between February and May, and then August through October. We have sanctioned 52 automatic silk reeling machines which produce world-class silk. Once these machines are up and running, the quality of the silk thread will also improve and both reelers and farmers should get better profits,” he says.

Meanwhile, inside the Ramanagara market, the bidding had come to a close. M Manu, a farmer from Maddur, has sold Bivoltine silk, which usually fetches at least 400 per kilo, for only 250 per kilo. He says, “We had no choice but to sell it for such a low price as there were no better offers. My family and I don’t know what to do if this situation continues.”

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