Still a ‘silk city’? The Decline of Silk Industry in Bhagalpur

Still a ‘silk city’? The Decline of Silk Industry in Bhagalpur

We remain in a custom of glorifying beauties of past, with our reminiscence of the good old days. Dipankar Ghose’s article in The Indian Express drew my attention to the presence of the sobriquet “Silk City”, on the traffic signals, district administration websites, advertisement boards, milestones, and where not, in Bhagalpur. We, unfortunately, couldn’t move beyond this.

The Decline of Silk Industry in Bhagalpur

I believe, these are a deliberate attempt of escapism from the fact that we have, at present virtually lost the right and meaning to call Bhagalpur “silk city of India”. Hard to accept? Google ‘silk city of India’. Pochampally leads the search results, followed by some other cities, and Bhagalpur somehow finds its way in some corner, because past glory still has some wisps left behind.  

The Bihar Spun Silk Mill, at Zero Mile which started functioning in 1972, is now almost entirely in ruins. The mill stopped production in 1993 when its 300 employees stopped getting their salary. It still has traces of hefty Japanese machines, and silk cocoons in its ‘densely forested’ ambit. Few of the erstwhile workers still reside around the industry, looking forward to the Utopian Days when the mill would resume functioning.

Not a forest; it’s the ambit of the deserted Bihar Spun Silk Mill, at Zero Mile, Bhagalpur

Why did the silk industry of the silk city decline?

New centres have emerged in ‘big cities’ like Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, against which Bhagalpur isn’t yet prepared to compete with. There had been chronic power shortages for long, due to which many weavers were forced to sell off their power looms. Ijaz Ahmed, a co-owner at one of the silk manufacturing units in Bihar, speaking to Livemint said that a decent supply of electricity in the town could have cut down the cost of production by almost 25% and increased productivity by almost 50%.

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There has been large-scale migration of weavers to other cities over a period of time, and the government has done little in this regard. Alim Ansari, a member of the Bihar Weavers Welfare Association told the Asian Age that political neglect and government’s indifference has driven loom workers and traditional weavers to other states. Business Standard puts this across firmly and blatantly, “Whatever industries are left in Bhagalpur today are not because of the government but despite it”.

Weavers are under the debt burden. They take credit from markets but are unable to pay back, as their payments get delayed. The import of silk from China and South Korea has reduced the demand for our Tassar Silk. Added to this is the challenge of a lack of marketing.

Lack of transport facilities is yet another cause of the decline of the silk industry. Bhagalpur doesn’t have a functional airport and lacks direct connectivity with major South Indian cities. The Roads also are apparently ‘non-perennial’. The demand for Tassar silk coming from Europe and the United States have fallen, owing to logistic problems.

Business Standard reports that big ‘seths’ from metro cities control the silk trade through local agents. The role of intermediary, therefore, becomes paramount. I wouldn’t refrain from calling such an arrangement a form of neo-feudalism, inherently exploitative towards the working class.

An ordinary weaver earns only as much as ₹50-70 /day, making 4-5m of silk clothes. Md. Shoaib Ansari told The Indian Express how his income declined from ₹500-600 per day to ₹100/ day and that too from selling vegetables. ANI reports that in Radha Nagar, a centre point of handloom silk work in Bhagalpur, families, despite working 18 hours on a saree earn merely ₹150.

The decline in education leads to institutional, structural, economic, and social degeneration. This is what the Bihar Institute of Silk and Textile faced. It used to offer a four-year Bachelor of Engineering/ B. Tech degree in Silk and Textile. After severe neglect on the part of the state government, the college was eventually shut down. There have been no concrete plans for its revival thenceforth. The building remains discarded, deserted, partly in ruins.

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The Bihar Institute of Silk and Textile

In an interview given to Livemint, a top district administration official of Bhagalpur, who didn’t want to be identified revealed that the subsidies Bihar state government gave to the silk-producing units in Bhagalpur were siphoned off by certain groups (the groups weren’t named).

Law and order situation had also always been a major hampering factor. M.D Agrawal, one of the former chiefs of the local unit of the PHD Chambers of Commerce and Industry said that many industrialists, despite coming to Bhagalpur with an aim to deal in silk, left very soon. “Who wants his son to be kidnapped every now and then for ransom?” remarked Agrawal.

 What could be the possible solutions?

 Was the decline inevitable? No. Is revival possible? Definitely yes.

 Ijaz Ahmed further spoke of the threat of large orders being rejected on small quality issues. A better-organized industry would omit the problems of quality issues. Heterogeneity in the form of minor differences would continue, but that would not amount to being rejected on the grounds of quality.  

 Zia Ur Rahman, a weaver from Nagara locality estimates that the worth of the silk industry of Bhagalpur has fallen from over ₹500 crores to under ₹100 crores. While speaking to Business Standard, he urged that the conditions of weavers could improve greatly, if the government provides some capital through banks and schemes made for them, for instance, the Bunkar Credit Cards. 

Pranav Kumar, DM, Bhagalpur has assured that they are looking at this sector. The long-term plan includes planting trees for cocoons and subsequent availability of raw materials. As short-term plans, they are urging small factory owners to increase work opportunities for weavers.

In his project report published on ResearchGate, Chandan Kumar has come up with some interesting findings. The report remarks that weavers lack a strong union to negotiate on their behalf to the government and the companies. Very few NGOs or Self-Help Groups are dedicated specifically to weaver’s welfare.

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The Bihar Institute of Silk and Textile needs a revival. Not only would this provide students with an alternative career option, but would also increase the employment opportunities for a manifold section of job-seekers. The institute can work closely in terms of Research and Development with similar institutes across the globe. This would help to increase productivity, develop a new marketing strategy, facilitate direct advertisements, investments and trade.

Tassar (also spelled as Tussar) Silk of Bhagalpur

Bhagalpur had once been a prosperous town on the ancient Silk Route, a major trade link between China, India, and Europe. The potential to become a trading centre still exists in the city. Bihar needs to push this forward as a popular mandate, to make sure that political establishment considers this as an exigent point in their manifesto. And we must be hopeful that the city that once used to take pride upon a silk industry with an estimated turnover of around ₹500 crores will regain its lost glory.

References

  • Bhaskar, Utpal (2009, May 8). Bhagalpur silk industry losing its sheen, Livemint.

https://www.livemint.com/Politics/O6FfsID95g9wVf1H0SdIXO/Bhagalpur-silk-industry-losing-its-sheen.html  Accessed on 08.07.2020

  • Singh, D.K. (2013, Jan 28). Bhagalpur silk industry, a tale of political neglect, Business Standard.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/bhagalpur-silk-industry-a-tale-of-political-neglect-105102401018_1.html Accessed on 08.07.2020

  • Ghose, Dipankar (2020, July 7). In Bhagalpur silk hub, looms tell a story: ‘95% collapse’, The Indian Express.

https://indianexpress.com/article/india/coronavirus-in-bhagalpur-silk-hub-looms-tell-a-story-95-collapse-6476659/ Accessed on 08.07.2020

  • Azad, Nayear (2017, June 9). Bhagalpur silk industry victim of political neglect, The Asian Age

https://www.asianage.com/india/all-india/090617/bhagalpur-silk-industry-victim-of-political-neglect.html Accessed on 18.07.2020

  • Prasad, Archana (2019, April 17). Bihar: Handloom weavers seek govt support to revive ‘dying art’, ANI

https://www.aninews.in/news/national/features/bihar-handloom-weavers-seek-govt-support-to-revive-dying-art20190417101225/ Accessed on 18.07.2020

  • Kumar, Chandan (May, 2000). Blueprint for Development of Weavers of Bhagalpur, ResearchGate
  • IL&Fs (2007, April 24). A Report on Diagnostic Survey and Business Plans for Handloom Sector in Bihar, department of Industries, Govt. of Bihar.

http://industries.bih.nic.in/acts/ad-02-24-04-2007.pdf  Accessed on 18.07.2020

  • Sarmistha, Uma (2015). Rural Handloom Textile Industry in Bihar: A Case of Rural Informal Sector.Social Change, Vol. 45(1), pp 107-117.

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