85-year-old society softens the blow for TN weavers amid handloom distress
The handlooms sector in India may be facing many headwinds and the problems may have been compounded by the falling budgetary allocation from the Centre and also the abolition of the advisory body, All India Handloom Board.
But weavers in Tamil Nadu have been saved much of the blow, thanks to India’s oldest cooperative society that supports them — Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society, popularly known as Co-optex. The society’s primary role is to mark handloom fabrics in the state; it has been spreading its wings abroad too, giving the weavers access to a lucrative market.
Established in 1935, Co-optex now supports 1,139 cooperative societies and 2.51 lakh handloom weaving units in the state through its 200-odd showrooms across the country. It has a turnover of about Rs 1,000 crore.
The society, while ending the exploitation of master weavers, has raised the standard of living of the weavers in the state and guaranteed them permanent employment, safeguarding them from the various vagaries of the business.
Like in the whole of India, in Tamil Nadu, too, weaving is the second-largest occupation after agriculture, with both handlooms and powerlooms employing more than 25 lakh people directly and indirectly. About 5 lakh people are dependent on handlooms alone, with districts such as Coimbatore, Tiruppur, Erode, Salem, Tiruvannamalai, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram having many handloom clusters.
“The Centre allows the production of 11 products, including silk sarees and towels, only through handloom,” a senior official at Co-optex said.
He said the abolition of the All India Handloom Board will not have any effect on the society. “Co-optex is different from the dissolved handloom board. Here, we focus only on marketing,” he pointed out.
Support from Dravidian parties
One of the major reasons for the success of Co-optex has been the support it has received from the Dravidian parties in the state.
In 1983, as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister, AIADMK’s M G Ramachandran introduced a scheme to distribute ‘free dhotis and sarees’ through Co-optex to beneficiaries of the public distribution system ahead of the Pongal festival, which falls in January. The scheme, launched with the intention of supporting handloom weavers, continues to this day.
In 1996, during his stint as chief minister, DMK’s M Karunanidhi, launched a 30% rebate scheme for Co-optex products to mark the birth anniversary of Annadurai on September 15 and in recognition of his efforts to support the weavers in the 1950s.
In the early 1950s, when weavers were on the throes of starvation unable to clear their stocks due to competition from textiles manufactured by machines and ready-to-wear dresses imported from abroad, the DMK, then headed by C N Annadurai, himself the son of a weaver, organised a programme to sell handloom textiles through party cadres in 1953. He launched the programme on January 4 in Tiruchy. The initiative continued all through the year. The cadres not only helped sell the stocks, they also started wearing handloom textiles themselves.
The 30 per cent rebate on handloom textiles is now offered every year between September 15 and January 31.
Karunanidhi also started a free school uniform scheme in government-run schools implemented through Co-optex.
The Co-optex, which comes under Handloom, Handricrafts, Textiles and Khadi department of the Tamil Nadu government, has kept itself relevant and contemporary with various innovations and initiatives. It, for example, introduced bedsheets with Thirukkural couplets printed on them, silk sarees with literary themes and characters, and even organic silk sarees. It was the first cooperative to use organic cotton.
It also brings out new designs and patterns of silk sarees and dhoties every year during Deepavali, the festival of lights, the peak sales season for textiles and handloom products in Tamil Nadu.
In 2012, the then managing director U Sagayam, an officer who was known for his anti-bribe activities, revived ancient saree varieties like Kandangi, Sungudi, Chinnalampatti and Koorai Nadu. He popularised handloom textiles among college students through initiatives like ‘dhoti day’. The day is observed every year on January 6.
In 2014, under T N Venkatesh, Co-optex conducted exhibitions across the country to popularise the brand beyond Tamil Nadu.
To promote sales, Co-optex offers a 20 per cent discount on its products all throughout the year. It also offers an installment scheme for buyers.
The society also won two national awards for ‘outstanding contribution for handloom in terms of production’ and ‘largest handloom producers in the country.
The society has also been tapping foreign markets through its arm, Co-optex International. The subsidiary launched a portal in 2018 that allows people from anywhere in the world to purchase Co-optex products. Co-optex has a good customer base in countries like Germany, the UK, France, Canada and UAE.
The society clocked sales of about Rs 1 crore through the portal last year. It expects the figure to double to Rs 2 crore this year.
“We have 24,000 customers under the instalment scheme,” said a senior Co-optex official. “These days, however, people don’t prefer installments. We get many orders for handloom-only, child-labour-free goods,” he said. “Our export-quality varieties such as ‘Bleeding Madras’ are now available in the state and we have opened separate showrooms in Chennai and Coimbatore. To woo customers, we have even started door-to-door delivery of sales.”
Taking products to the doorsteps of customers also helps Co-optex to create awareness about its products and handloom weaving, the officials said.
Recognising weavers’ efforts
Co-optex came with the idea of ‘Weaver’s Card’ in 2018.
The card is attached to silk sarees and it provides information about the weaver who worked on a particular saree. It has details like the name, age, experience of the weaver concerned and the amount of time he/she spent in weaving the saree.
The move was introduced to boost the self-esteem of weavers.
“The Co-optex is a lifeline for weavers,” says Rajendran, former director of Chenkumar Weavers Cooperative Society in Erode. “It is especially useful for weavers who are part of any cooperative society.”
F D Haveli, a reporter on arts and industry to the Government of Madras, first came up with the idea of creating weavers cooperatives in 1907.
In 1928, the royal commission on agriculture in 1928 observed that “for survival of village industries in fast increasing competitions, it is essential that they are developed on cooperative basis.”
Following this, the Government of India announced an annual subsidy of Rs 5 lakh in 1934 for each state government to develop the handloom industry.
With that amount, an apex body for weavers cooperatives society was formed for the first time in the country in Madras Presidency in 1935. It was named the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society and became known as Co-optex.