The handlooms in West Bengal's Nadia district have fallen silent at a time when their activity should have been at the peak owing to the upcoming Durga Puja. A handloom machine, locally called 'tant', could be found in every household in Shantipur, Phulia and Samudragarh areas where weaving is the traditional occupation.
The weavers of the region once employed around 20,000 workers from north Bengal. However, the COVID-19 outbreak has hit them so hard that many are now migrating to other parts of the country for jobs.
"During this season, weavers used to be very busy and worked for long hours. But the situation is so grim this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak that many are migrating to other states for jobs. "Only last week, three busloads of young men from the region went to south India to look for jobs," Dilip Basak of Phulia Byabshayee Samity, one of oldest cooperatives in the region with 665 weavers as its members, told PTI on Monday.
"Majority of our annual income is generated during the Durga Puja season. But because of the pandemic, there is no work due to lack of orders. Our peak business period has been lost," Ashwini Basak of Phulia Tangail Weavers' Cooperative Society said. This sector employed around 20,000 workers from north Bengal even a few years back but the weavers themselves are now looking for odd jobs to survive, he said.
Free ration and 100-day work under MGNREGA has prevented starvation among the weavers and their families, both of them said. The number of handlooms has been gradually decreasing due to the rise of machine looms. However, a section of customers still prefer handloom products over those of the machine looms even though they are more expensive, they said.
But the pandemic has broken the backbone of the sector. The entire ecosystem has collapsed and even the government is not procuring, they added. "There is no demand from Tantuja, a state government handloom undertaking. Aggregators are absent as the wholesale market is shut and retail sales have collapsed. Neither are large stores procuring as they don't foresee any major demand," Basak said.
The manager of a leading saree store said demand has slumped since April and existing stocks are yet to be sold off. "Then, how can we make fresh procurements and who knows till what extent the festive buying will revive?" he said.
There are an estimated six lakh weavers in the state, as per government data. Many of the weavers alleged there are no adequate welfare schemes for them.
Tantuja officials could not be contacted.