(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
Sixty-five-year-old Sivadasan has not faced a financial crisis of this sort all these years. The handloom weaver could not work for four months starting from March 24 last year as the country went into a lockdown in four phases to stop the spread of COVID-19. Even now, he will lose work for weeks if any of his colleagues contract the virus or the civic officials impose lockdowns in his village or at his place of work. He is losing sleep when he thinks about managing the budget of his five-member family.
“Life has been so difficult since the first lockdown. I could not work for four months. I didn’t earn anything during that period. I am not able to give proper medical care to my mother. My family survived the tough time because of the state government’s food distribution programme,” he said.
Sivadasan is an employee at the Kalliasseri Weavers’ Industrial Co-operative Society in Kerala’s Kannur district, one of the largest handloom co-operative societies in the state. He has been weaving clothes for the past 45 years.
His younger colleague, 32-year-old P P Prajitha, who joined the workers’ co-operative seven years ago, too shared a similar story. She couldn’t work for four months because of the lockdown. A week after she resumed work, she contracted COVID-19 forcing her to keep away from work for more than a month. “Thus I could not work for five months. The COVID-19 infection affected my health too. I feel very tired and I can weave only five metres of cloth. I used to weave seven-metre cloth earlier,” she said.
Sivadasan and Prajitha belong to a 22,000-strong handloom workers in the state who lost wages for several months because of the lockdown. As a result, cloth sales came down drastically resulting in huge stockpiles worth crores of rupees.
The lockdown hit the handloom sector at a time when it was expecting a turnaround after the floods in 2018 and 2019.
Handloom sector in Kerala depends heavily on the state education department’s school uniform distribution programme for survival. The department has been providing free uniform clothes for students from Class 1 to 7 in government schools and students from Class 1 to 4 in aided schools. In 2019, handloom workers produced 42 lakh metres of cloth for 8.5 lakh students. Uniform cloth distribution did not happen in the last two years as schools remained shut in the wake of the pandemic.
K V Santhosh Kumar, secretary of the Kalliasseri Society, says the pandemic has hit his organisation the hardest. “School closure affected uniform cloth production. Sales went down because of the lockdown. The unprecedented rise in the raw material price compounded our woes,” he says.
According to rough estimates, workers at the society lost wages to the tune of Rs 30 lakh while the society incurred an estimated loss of Rs 10 lakh during the lockdown.
Santhosh says both the central and state governments should support the handloom sector to boost sales and take measures to control the prices of raw materials. “Weavers are passing through the most difficult phase in their lives. The government should step in and mitigate their troubles,” he says.
Weavers say the government’s decision to reopen schools has given them a fresh ray of hope. They also hope that the handloom sector will get a fair share of the Rs 74.35 crore that Kerala’s industries minister P Rajeev announced in the Assembly to revive the state's textiles sector.
“With the government announcing the school re-opening, we have begun working on the uniform cloth production. We hope to overcome the crisis and also hope COVID-19 will not trouble us further,” says Sivadasan.