Like Sujit, many weavers are leaving the profession every year. The number of looms and weavers has declined significantly across the country. According to the report of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS)’s ‘Handloom Census 2018’, more than 700 thousands weavers have switched professions in 28 years up until 2018.

Not just BBS, the handloom board’s own census is also saying the number of handlooms is decreasing. The number of power looms did not increase either. The number of people directly or indirectly involved in the handloom industry is going down as well.

Bangladesh Handloom Board (BHB) was established in 1977, with the view of ‘keeping thousands of poor and destitute weavers employed in their own occupation’ as one of the main goals. While, looms and weavers are decreasing in number, the offices and staff of the handloom board has gone up. In fact there are initiatives to expand the board even further.

There are currently 372 approved permanent and temporary posts at the handloom board. Of them, 237 are occupied at present. The process of appointing 35 people in the vacant posts is ongoing. The handloom board’s annual report of 2016-17 says, the board had 256 employees back then. If 35 people are recruited now, the total manpower will rise to 272 in number.

Meanwhile, within the period of five years (from FY2016-17 to FY2020-21), the number of the handloom board’s basic centres skyrocketed to 36 from just six. The handloom board has at least seven training and educational institutes. It has five technical services providing centres as well. Apart from that, three technical services providing centres under three projects, training centres at five basic centres, two market promotion centres and a fashion design institute are being constructed.

Speaking to Prothom Alo on 27 March about why the handloom board is failing to hold onto looms and weavers, Md Rezaul Karim, chairman of the board said that many weavers have quit their profession as handlooms were being replaced by power looms. Plus, the children of the weaver families are migrating to other occupations after being educated.

Despite acknowledging the fact that the number of weavers has declined, he does not believe that looms have decreased in numbers. He claims because of the measures they have taken, there is no need for weavers to leave the occupation. Even the weavers who had switched to other professions earlier, are reverting back, he added.

However, experts and stakeholders do not agree with the chairman of handloom board. They believe the activities of the handloom board are confined to providing training and loans mostly. Quite a few weavers from Kushtia’s Kumarkhali, Narsingdi, TangaiL, Sirajganj and Kurigram informed Prothom Alo that only some of the weavers get loans that come in handy to them. Beyond this, the handloom board is failing to play a significant role.

Liton Sarker of Tamai village under Belkuchi upazila in Sirajganj owns a dozen of looms. He said to Prothom Alo, “The activities of the handloom board exist on papers only. They just sit idly at the office of the handloom board.”

He added, “The price a kg of half-silk ‘Monica’ yarn, which was Tk 250 just one and a half months ago, soared to Tk 800 right before the Ramadan. Who will monitor these issues? We don’t have any guardian, this is our greatest problem.”

Why weavers are decreasing in number

Talking to weavers of different districts it was learnt that the reduction in weavers’ income is the major reason behind the decrease of hand looms. Weavers suffer mostly for the price of the yarn.

Khorshed Alam, a weaver from Nowapara village under Tarabo municipality in Narayanganj’s Rupganj upazila informed Prothom Alo, more money can be earned by pulling a rickshaw compared to what a weaver makes by weaving.

Weavers said, they used to get the yarns produced at 86 factories of Bangladesh Textile Mills Corporation (BTMC) at a discounted price. BTMC doesn’t have any mills now. The yarns’ market depends on private sectors now. The price there fluctuates a lot.

Monowar Hossain, president of Bangladesh weavers’ association told Prothom Alo, yarn traders sell yarn at high prices, forming a syndicate. And this causes the production cost to go up. The handloom board should play a role in this regard. The price of the dyes weavers use is also on the rise. Although some dyes are being imported without tax, they can hardly meet the demand.

Concerned persons said, prime minister Sheikh Hasina gave directions to issue a notice regarding the facilities in importing polyester yarns under tax-free facility for looms, five years ago. But, the handloom board itself has kept that facility closed for the two years. Protesting that, national weavers’ association organised a press conference in Dhaka in last September.

There, Monowar Hossain, president of Bangladesh weavers’ association alleged that the handloom board has kept that facility shut, conspiring with a syndicate of businessmen. It was learnt that the tax-free facility has been restored a couple of months ago.

What the handloom board does

There are 36 basic centres of the handloom board across the country. The handloom board says their activities include organising and inspiring the members of the weavers’ association, providing loans, selecting weavers for training, providing weavers with necessary technical assistance, etc.

There is a basic center at Mirpur’s Bhashhantek area. There are three officers and employees working there. Weavers living in Bhashantek area said the basic centre has no connection with the local weavers in general.

The handloom board has five centres in Kushtia, Sirajganj, Cumilla, Narsingdi and Brahmanbaria, for printing and dying the fabrics, produced by the weavers as well as providing them with other technical assistance. Of them, the centres in Cumilla and Brahmanbaria have been left shut for more than 24 years. However, there are several officers and security guards employed there. And it is the board that pays their salaries and allowances.

Sharif Al Mahmud, assistant general manager (acting) of the fabric processing centre in Narsingdi’s Madhabdi said, about 280 to 300 thousand yards of fabric are processed at the centre every month.

Meanwhile, visiting Kushtia’s Kumarkhali recently it was seen that the new machineries, bought for the modernisation of the centre there, have been left abandoned under the open sky for the last four months. The new machinery could not be installed as the old ones were not cleared away yet.

The handloom board also provides loans to the weavers. But, the lending activities were shut as well, for there were no new projects being launched after 2006. This activity was restored in 2019. The handloom board said, they have disbursed loans of almost Tk 510 million (51 crore) among 4,226 people.

Enquiries were made at Gournadi upazila of Barishal to know about the loan disbursing situation. Officials of the handloom board’s basic centre in Gournadi said 15 weavers have been given loans of Tk 840 thousand. Of the money lent to 208 weavers earlier, Tk 110 thousand (11 lakh) was defaulted.

Sources say there is not much work in the basic centre, except loan disbursement. And, the number of manpower deployed there is three, including supervisor. There are 112 active weavers in Gournadi and Agailjhara upazilas.

Talking to weavers in Narsingdi it was found that many of them do not own looms or the looms they have are shut down. Still, they have put their names in the association’s list, hoping to receive loans at low interest rate. As per the information of handloom board’s basic centre in Narsingdi, weavers are given loans of Tk 30 to 50 thousand per loom, at an interest rate of 5 to 10 per cent, under two projects. Tk 57.5 million (5.75 crore) has been disbursed as loans in the district till now.

Zakia Sultana, liaison officer of Narsingdi basic centre while speaking to Prothom Alo said, there are almost 3,000 registered weavers in the district. However, many of their looms are left inactive now. Many weavers took loans 10 to 15 years ago and didn’t even return it.

The handloom board has at least seven educational and training centres. There is an aim of training 6,000 people from these centres in the current year.

Mehedi Hasan, assistant general manager of the handloom board in Kushtia’s Kumarkhali told Prothom Alo in last five years 90 weavers along with one member of their family were given training in three phases. But, during the corona pandemic period there were no training activities for two years.

Officers’ housing on weavers’ land

The government initiated a project named ‘Benarasi Palli, Mirpur’ in the year 1995 to rehabilitate the weavers of Dhaka’s Mirpur area. The housing project was supposed to be established on 40 acres of land in Bhashantek area.

It was decided that the weavers would get a total of 906 plots, each having the land area of 3 decimals. The project was announced complete in 2007, after spending more than Tk 290 million (29 crore). However, no weaver or looms got a place there.

The board is taking a project titled ‘handloom board complex’ now to construct head office of the handloom board and housing arrangements for the officials and employees of the board in that same area.

Md Rezaul Karim, chairman of the handloom board informed Prothom Alo that there are government directives to rehabilitate the weavers who were supposed to receive plots at Bhashantek, in the suburban areas near Dhaka. A project named handloom board complex project on the land in Bhashantek is awaiting approval, he added.

It was found that, out of the 40 acres of land in Bhashantek, 37 acres are under illegal occupation now. More than 25,000 families including 92 weaving families, which were evicted from Mirpur, reside there now. Rezaul Karim said, “There are one or two ongoing cases. Once the verdict is announced in favour of the board we’ll go for an eviction drive.”

However, questions have been raised about constructing the head office and housing project for officials on the land fixed for weavers’ rehabilitation. A weaver residing at Bhashantek area said to Prothom Alo, the officials of the handloom board are not so concerned about weavers’ housing as they are about their own.

‘The board needs to be pro-active’

Mostafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) believes country’s handloom industry cannot be saved only through trainings and loans.

He said, changes in consumers’ demands, fabric imported under tax-free facilities of the export sector flooding local markets, scarcity of handloom-related raw materials, low wages of workers, not getting good prices for the manufactured products are the multifaceted problems of the handloom sector.

The activities of the handloom board are limited in comparison to such multifaceted problems. The board has to expand its area of work, bring policy-based change to preserve weavers’ interests, and be pro-active, he added.

Mostafizur Rahman also mentioned that there should be a political decision on the part of the government to preserve the heritage of handloom.

*This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Nourin Ahmed Monisha