Varanasi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary constituency, Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, is becoming a microcosm of what Covid-19 could do to the economy, with the famous Banarasi silk and textile industry in the city staring at an uncertain future.
Textile traders say first it was the demonetisation, and then goods and services tax (GST) that hit the industry hard. Then when the industry was slowly recovering, China stopped the export of silk yarn last December due to the coronavirus outbreak and when it resumed in March, India imposed the lockdown.
The biggest fear of the traders now is how Covid-19 would change the way people celebrate festivals and weddings.
Varanasi’s textile industry relies heavily on the wedding season but many potential clients have either postponed the weddings or made them a modest affair, affecting the sales.
Traders say that even if the lockdown is lifted after 17 May, it will take them at least three months to a year to resume normal functioning.
What has also hit them the most is the fact that several hotspots that have been completely sealed in Varanasi are those areas that have a sizeable number of weavers.
“A lot of cases related to the Tablighi Jamaat that were reported in Varanasi were converted into hotspots, including areas such as Lota, Madanpura, Bajaradiha. This was in the first phase and most of the weavers used to live there,” said a trader, who did not want to be named.
Need to popularise Banarasi silk once again
The traders have last month sought a six-month moratorium on monthly installment apart from waiver of bank interest and bank charges for six months. They have also asked for fixed charges on electricity bills to be relaxed by the Uttar Pradesh government.
“The industry has a turnover of Rs 6,000 crore every year and this year, one quarter is almost over and we have not achieved anything,” said Vaibhav Kapoor, vice-president of the Varanasi’s Silk Trade Association.
“Even as other sectors will slowly start becoming functional, for us things will not change much as marriage season is already over. At the same time, after Covid-19, the way people will celebrate marriages and other social functions will change drastically, so the demand for saris is unlikely to pick up soon. Unless people start celebrating in a big way, the industry will find it hard to function,” he added.
Kapoor further said there’s a need to popularise Banarasi silk once again.
“The government needs to help us with this. We don’t want funds from the government, but we want help in this,” Kapoor said.
‘Govt needs to take drastic steps to save us’
The textile industry has last month sought help from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
In a letter to Modi on 13 April, the Uttar Pradesh Vyapari Kalyan Board wrote: “Textile industry being the second highest job-creator after agriculture, being majorly labour-intensive and a substantial contributor to the national GDP. Textile industry is a secondary essential industry and the livelihood of over 11 crore people are directly and indirectly dependent on the textile sector.
“Major stakeholders of the Varanasi Textile industry are small, micro and medium enterprises, which are bracing for the fallout from this unprecedented event lockdown due to Covid-19,” wrote Harshpal Kapoor, a board member, in the letter.
Trader Hari Prasad Agrawal said he has been paying salaries to his employees for months now, despite being in a “bad condition” for the past few months.
Detailing the problems faced by the textile industry, Agrawal said: “The problem started in December (last year) when China stopped the silk yarn export and when China resumed it in March, lockdown was imposed in India.
“It has been a double whammy for us,” he added.
The dupion silk, brought to India from China’s Sichuan province, is the raw yarn that weavers in Varanasi use to make the silk sari.
Agrawal further said the export of silk was affected to a great extent and the local weavers suffered due to the GST. “First it was demonetisation, then GST and when things were slowly recovering, we were hit by Covid-19. The government needs to take drastic steps to save this industry,” he added.