Why you should care
Because automation is coming for all of us — and this is how one world is responding.
Across newspapers and televisions in the world’s largest democracy, there’s one business message being blasted by the ruling party: 70 years after the end of British colonial rule, it is time for India to start making things. The call to create is both for a global audience and uniquely Indian, converging the maker movement with Mahatma Gandhi’s once-revolutionary cry for Indians to boycott British-made goods in favor of the homespun. It is, in this sense, a romantic, seemingly people-powered moment for the country.
And yet, the Make in India initiative, as the manufacturing call to action has been christened, has been largely about bulking up big industry such as automobiles, ports and shipping or biotechnology products and far less about the kind of hyperlocal industry Gandhi championed. Though “textiles and garments” is listed as one among several sectors that Make in India hopes to electroshock, a vibrant and beloved element of that sector is under threat by advancing manufacturing techniques — that of the unique, regionally specific brands of saris, traditional attire worn by Indian women.
In a small Muslim neighborhood on the periphery of the north Indian city of Varanasi, we encounter a locality undergoing a tide shift.
Sari weavers have long made their wares by hand, spending weeks weaving cotton and silk, embellishing the 6-foot-long pieces of cloth with zari, or fine gold- and silver-colored thread onto the borders — a technique as old as the Mughal Empire, and once performed with actual gold and silver. A handloom-spun sari made in three weeks might go on the market for $150 to $180. But today, as power looms become increasingly available and upper middle-class women relegate their saris to the “special occasion” cabinet, sari connoisseurs are disappearing. Those who still wear saris, preferring price over quality, are choosing power loom–made products, which require a tenth of the time to make and could go for under $15. “There’s a serious threat by these power looms,” says Suresh Bhagavatula, professor at the Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore, who has studied the sari handloom industry.
And it’s a threat that is surprisingly unassuming. To watch these power looms in action is to witness what is hardly recognizable as “automation.” These are not robots or heavy factory machinery. A power loom, invented in the 18th century during the first Industrial Revolution, is an underwhelming wooden structure, almost the same as a handloom, but which relies on harnesses and cloth beams to speed things along. Indeed, the dark rooms where these are operated by boys who nearly always look too young to be at work recall the kinds of conditions that inspired Marx — not those gleaming Jetsons dreams launching us into our highly automated future.
The textile industry, India’s second largest after agriculture, accounts for 14 percent of industrial production and 30 percent of exports, according to the industry site Fibre2Fashion. Handlooms are 20 percent of the textile sector and 35 percent of manufacturing employment, according to a 2015 report by the Centre for Handloom Information and Policy Advocacy. These numbers take shape in the neighborhoods where handloom trades have been passed down by caste. In a small Muslim neighborhood on the periphery of the north Indian city of Varanasi, famed for its silk zari-embroidered saris, we encounter a locality undergoing a tide shift. The alleyways are filled with thunderous power looms at work; these machines are large and distinctly nonfuturistic — two of them take up an entire room, monitored by one worker performing the drab task of ensuring no tangles arise in the fabric. Some buildings house buzzing, humanless embroidery machines that drill computer-generated patterns onto low-quality cloth.
Arif Khan, 32, is a new entrepreneur in this business. He and his father recently spent all their savings — $1,500 or so — on a couple of power looms staffed by a life-worn man named Mohammed Nassim. Nassim works 12 hours a day earning less than $4 a day for Khan; the low labor costs and electricity subsidy of a few dollars per month that Khan receives from the state allows him to bring in about $230 monthly. Around the corner, Arib Ansari is rattling away, alone, in a sunken pit of a room at the front of his house, weaving an orange sari on a handloom. His progress is spasmodic as the fabric repeatedly becomes ensnared in the loom. This is all his family has done for generations, he says, and he doesn’t have the money to buy a power loom, as he makes about $60 a month. “Of course the power loom is bad for me,” he shrugs. “But what will I do?”
But really? What is the point of fighting to save this?
— Abdul Gani, sari weaver
Power looms are pushing out older weavers more than their younger counterparts, Bhagavatula says, meaning the skill of making handmade saris could be lost in a generation. Young people opt for jobs as security guards or household help in big cities. Indeed, Ansari has no intention of passing on his craft to his kids. Power loom saris masquerading as handlooms will creep into stores, Bhagavatula guesses, and distinguished taste may disappear from daily shopping. Many women are unable to distinguish between silk and polyester. But a high-end market for wedding saris will remain, Bhagavatula predicts. The most vulnerable are those who make plain saris, like the weavers of the south Indian state of Kerala, where the favored style is a simple white look.
Across town, in the heart of the city near some of the most famous sari shops around, Saiyyad Nishat Ali is still comfortably occupying a large space where he and his workers do the intricate zari embroidery that adorns high-end handloom saris. He’s noticed silk coming from China rather than Bangalore, which he disdains, and he hadn’t wanted to touch the polyester nonsense, but even he stocks some. “Now, the sari craze is over,” he says. All the same, new brides and foreigners still traipse into the shop here and there, and employee Tallu Gulangars is posted up, sewing with gold thread in public view, a kind of premature museum display for the curious passerby.
Ali invites us to try our hand at the sewing. “It’s so easy,” he swears. He hands over a tiny, delicate needle. I cannot even thread it, so inept am I in the ways of domesticity. With help, I pass the thread through the eye of the needle and attempt to make a stitch. Over and over, the needle penetrates and then nastily rips the thin silk fabric. I am killing it, centuries of tradition. No one seems much bothered, though. They laugh. There is more fabric nearby. And they can fix it. This is their trade.
The tale of an old industry facing modernity, technology and changing taste is perhaps unsurprising, but in India it stings all that much more because of the colonial past. Under the British, Indians were economically discouraged from buying home-brewed goods by high taxes and tariffs — hence Gandhi’s swadeshi (national self-sufficiency) movement, an economic insurrection as radical as his nonviolence. The government, whose Ministry of Textiles didn’t reply to request for comment, is not cold to the shift and is keenly offering health insurance schemes and training to preserve artisanal industries. “The handloom brand is incredibly strong,” Bhagavatula says. Khan knows this, and doesn’t pretend that his power loom saris are works of art. “They’ll just go to different customers,” he says.
And not everyone is nostalgic. Automation, economists predict, will eliminate some jobs and create others. Near Gani’s shop are other artisans, hard at work sewing little badges that will sit on the blazers of schoolchildren in India and even England. Their work is hardly recognizable as fine handcraftsmanship, and the parents who dress their kids in the work these creators made for as little as 20 rupees (30 cents) a pop will certainly not treat the work with the kind of tenderness with which a new bride would caress a Varanasi sari. And yet, Bhagavatula identifies that sort of trade as a creative solution to an industry’s decline. Others are quietly making their way into the new territory. Abdul Gani has made the switch from handloom to power loom; squatting on the floor of his workshop, he watches as a young man handles the machine in a desultory fashion. He wanted to become his own boss, he says, and finds this work more challenging and rewarding because of the new technology. “This is also a Varanasi sari,” he says, inviting me to finger the mediocre, rough cloth that will soon be fed into the power loom.
“But really?” he asks. “What is the point of fighting to save this? Years ago, politicians were saying handlooms would die, and they are.” The times are changing, and Gani suggests weavers hop on the train to the future. He sits back to watch his employee work. He is 75 years old.