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Khadi, the homespun fabric that was a metaphor for India’s freedom movement, could get a new lease of life with solar looms that will use less water, generate employment and boost productivity

A woman spinning a traditional 'charkha' or a spinning wheel (Image by Nevil Zaveri)

A woman spinning yarn on an eco-friendly, traditional ‘charkha’ or a spinning wheel (Image by Nevil Zaveri)

The push by India’s ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) to promote the use of solar ‘charkhas’ (looms) in the moribund khadi (loom-woven fabric) cottage industry augurs well. The move will not only make khadi a zero-carbon footprint fabric by eliminating the use of electricity during production, it will also generate employment for thousands of poor artisans and bolster productivity through modern technology.

Giriraj Singh, minister of state for MSME, who has catalysed the charkha solarisation project, said recently that harnessing solar power for spinning khadi yarn makes it an eco-friendly, green fabric as it whittles down the consumption of water at the production stage. As against 55 litres of water guzzled by mill fabric during production, khadi requires a meagre three litres, he said.

Among the ministry’s other plans to popularise solar looms are providing employment to over 50 million women by giving them the new machines over the next 10 years. “The measure will dramatically augment khadi’s share in the Indian textile industry from the present 1.4%,” said a ministry official. “We also hope to create 70 to 80 lakh (7-8 million) additional jobs in 2016-17 by extending the solar charkha scheme to all the villages in India covered under the Adarsh Gram Yojna (Ideal Village Plan).” The plan was launched in 2014 for rural development and social mobilisation of village communities.

Though solar charkhas have sporadically and experimentally been in use across India, this is the first concerted push by the government to introduce them on a mega scale with private and public participation. Field trials of solarised charkhas in Khanwa village of Nawada district in the eastern state of Bihar have been encouraging.

According to the MSME ministry’s estimates, these charkhas have the potential to be a force multiplier for the economy. They can boost productivity and augment artisans’ incomes. Conventional wheels hold three to eight spindles of khadi and can only produce 25 hanks of yarn in eight hours. Solar-powered spinning wheels with up to 36 spindles can crank out 100 hanks in the same time.

The new machines have been developed by the state-run Khadi and Village Industry Commission (KVIC), the premier organisation for the promotion and use of khadi in India, in synergy with two Maharashtra-based organisations — Gandhigram Urja Vikas Sanstha and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Rural Industrialisation (MGIRI).

Experts predict that the new looms have the potential to dramatically alter the khadi industry’s landscape in the country apart from minimising physical strain for both spinners and weavers. The new spinning wheel kit (which can be attached to hand-operated charkhas) will provide high quality yarn by maintaining a constant rotation speed during weaving.

As the cost of a solar-powered spinning wheel is pegged at around Rs.30,000 (approx. $45) — against a manual one which costs Rs.13,500 ($200) —  the government will also pitch in with subsidies for poor artisans and underfunded organisations, said an official at MGIRI, an organisation which accelerates rural industrialisation by providing technological support.

“A weaver can earn about Rs.100 on the solar charkha as against the Rs.40 they get for manual weaving. This will especially help women who from the bulk of khadi workers,” said Arun Kumar Jha, chief executive officer, KVIC. “Such returns aren’t possible with hand-spun charkhas.”

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the new technology will be thousands of artisans languishing in remote outposts where uninterrupted electricity is still a chimera. In these underdeveloped areas, especially in the hilly north and southern states, sunshine is available aplenty which can be leveraged for industrial gain.

A report titled Technology Transfer of Solar Charkha in Khadi Sector says the solar charkha can be a vital source of employment for the rural masses. An effective intervention like the solarisation of charkha, it states, can prevent millions of charkhas from being abandoned and artisans left in the lurch.

The new user-friendly charkha is also in sync with the central government’s aim to attract more artisans (especially the disabled) to the dying craft of khadi spinning. Two Gujarat-based institutes — Udyog Bharti Trust and Khadi Gram Udyog Sangh-Samanvay — have already signed a memorandum of understanding with KVIC to supply the new machines to khadi institutions and artisans across India. The Khadi Gram Udyog Sangh-Samanvay, based in Rajkot, Gujarat, that manufactures and sells khadi garments in the state, will provide 100 solar charkhas to their artisans. Plans are also afoot to buy traditional charkhas and convert them into solarised ones with MGIRI’s help. The MSME also plans to revamp the 7,000-odd KVIC centres across the country.

Khadi institutions provide employment to about a million artisans across the country, but their earnings remain meagre. Experts say khadi has so far remained an uncompetitive product in the Indian market due to the government’s lacklustre approach to promotion. Studies suggest that the market potential for khadi goods — especially as uniforms for schools, railways and hotels — stands at about $6 billion in India. Plus, there is a 24-million strong middle class with potential purchasing power that is keen to explore options beyond malls and branded goods. With the changed market dynamics, and technological innovations in the field, market analysts predict the fabric can become an economically viable one for manufacturers, distributors as well as buyers.

Such optimism notwithstanding, experts feel that a comprehensive and sustainable roadmap to revive the sector is an important prerequisite to usher in lasting change. Jaya Jaitley, founder of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a non-profit that works with craftspeople to promote traditional crafts, believes that any technological advancement that helps poor artisans improve their productivity and enhance incomes is a welcome development. “However,” she adds, “the government needs to ensure that apart from providing solar charkhas, a blueprint is also  drawn up for the revival of craftsmanship in India. We need to turn the cottage industry into a successful enterprise through modern design development and provisioning of market linkages.”

For many freedom fighters, khadi was not just a piece of cloth but a metaphor for ushering in a revolution. Mahatma Gandhi believed in the spinning wheel as a powerful instrument for the eradication of poverty and unemployment. Solar charkhas, it seems, can wheel in change and take the Mahatma’s legacy forward.

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