Visitors to Jaitpur (a small town in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh) miss the constant hum of handlooms. For nearly 20 months the looms of weavers have been silent here, signalling the sudden unemployment of nearly 7000 weavers in this town and neighbouring villages.

Jaitpur has been one of the famous centres of ‘Khadi’ cloth in India. Khadi is cloth which is hand spun as well as hand woven. During the freedom movement in India khadi cloth was popularised particularly by Mahatma Gandhi for its capacity to provide employment to a very large number of people in villages and small towns in a self-reliant way.

Khadi cloth is considered healthy for skin. It is also the most environment friendly fabric, causing no emission of greenhouse gases and requiring no commercial energy. There is thus tremendous scope for marketing it as an environment-friendly product with a tremendous capacity for providing employment and reducing poverty in remote villages.

Even without such special efforts, weavers of Jaitpur had managed to hold their own against the competition provided by mills and powerlooms because of the well-established quality of their cloth.

“We know there are no big profits in our trade, but several years we earned a honest and satisfactory livelihood and we had no complaints,” says Panni, a weaver. “In addition to their weaving work there were several related employments in spinning, colouring, tailoring, packing and related work so that in all about nine thousand people were directly supported by this work.”, adds Abhishek, a social activist who has done much to help weavers.

Then what went wrong? About two years ago a person with criminal connections managed to occupy the key post in the local Gandhi Ashram (as the Khadi-networking institutions are generally called). He threatened several people with violence to grab this post, and always goes around in the company of gunmen.

Then, villagers allege, he started buying cheap, poor quality cloth from elsewhere. This cloth was stamped as ‘Jaitpur Khadi’ and sold at a high price. Thus while the main official earned huge profits, the local weavers did not get any orders so that their work came to a standstill.

The workers went from pillar to post to get justice, but the criminals proved more powerful than them. After a long time the Commissioner, an upright officer named Mr. V.S. Pandey took some action and the election of Gandhi Ashram, Jaitpur, was held to be illegal. However soon the Commissioner who had issued this order was himself transferred so that the process of restarting the work has been delayed. Meanwhile the weavers and social activists who are playing a leading role have faced threats to their life from criminals.

Weavers have been forced to go to far away places like Delhi and Punjab to meet their subsistence needs. A woman Rampyari says proudly that her son is considered one of the most skilled weavers. “Ask anyone”, she challenges. She insists that I should enter her home to see the cloth he had woven earlier. “But now we’re without work, without any earning,” she laments.

All this can lead to a long term crisis from which the Jaitpur weavers and their Khadi trade may never recover. This can happen if the supply of poor quality cloth under the name of Jaitpur Khadi is allowed to continue for some more time. As Abhishek says, “This will be most tragic for the entire Bundelkhand region. We were thinking of using the base provided by Jaitpur to spread this work to other areas as well, but now the very source from which we could learn is threatened.”

This tragic turn of events in Jaitpur is particularly unfortunate at a time when weavers are facing global competition. As Bhagwat a social activist says, “This is a time when weavers particularly Khadi weavers need all the encouragement they can get from the government and from ethically conscious consumers.”

Even though efforts to get the work re-started at Jaitpur continue, this tragic situation has drawn attention to the wider problems of corrupt and criminal persons trying to enter Khadi institutions – institutions which were once considered sacred due to their close association with the freedom movement. This should be resisted and checked so that the work of Khadi along with other village and cottage industries can continue to benefit artisans who are facing increasing difficulties due to competition from machine-made, factory-produced goods. In the middle of difficulties, there is also a growing market for their products in the ethical market segment which will value the contribution their hand-made goods make to reduction of poverty and protection of environment.

Note: This report was written on the basis of a visit in year 2005. Since this report was written, small initiatives have already started to again provide livelihood avenues to unemployed weavers.