In­ef­fi­ciency Spins Ma­hatma’s Khadi Dream into a Night­mare

KVIC’s at­tack on Fabindia is un­called for. The body has failed to ful­fil its man­date to pro­mote khadi and up­lift mar­ginal work­ers in vil­lages

The Economic Times - - Front Page - Vikram.Doc­tor@ times­group.com

Mum­bai: It is easy to see the le­gal no­tice sent by the Khadi and Vil­lage In­dus­tries Com­mis­sion (KVIC) to Fabindia to cease sell­ing its gar­ments as khadi prod­ucts as part of a fa­mil­iar nar­ra­tive. We all know of cases of large cor­po­ra­tions try­ing to take con­trol of iconic In­dian items — bas­mati rice, neem, turmeric and now, it seems, khadi, the fab­ric of the In­dian In­de­pen­dence move­ment.

The com­plaint of peo­ple cash­ing in on khadi is not new. On Oc­to­ber 7, 1938, Ma­hatma Gandhi is­sued a state­ment de­plor­ing how “cloth is sold un­der the name of khadi which has its warp made of mill-spun yarn. Pure khadi is that khadi which is hand-wo­ven out of hand- spun yarn… Un­for­tu­nately Con­gress­men, out of ig­no­rance or be­cause they do not be­lieve in khadi, buy cheap cloth for make-be­lieve at un­cer­ti­fied stores and thus thwart the Congress pol­icy about khadi...”

Al­most ex­actly 40 years later, in Novem­ber 1978, it was JB Kri­palani, by then one of Gandhi’s few as­so­ci­ates still alive, who blessed a drive against du­bi­ous sound­ing ‘polyester khadi’. This was khadi yarn mixed with polyester and the at­tempt was to have the hy­brid fab­ric still be sold as khadi. Prime Min­is­ter Mo­rarji De­sai had no prob­lems with this, but Gand­hi­ans like Kri­palani were ap­palled and launched a cam­paign to de­fend the name of ‘pure khadi’.

It took 35 years for the gov­ern­ment to for­malise brand con­trol of khadi. In 2013 it is­sued a no­ti­fi­ca­tion that any tex­tile sold as khadi had to have KVIC’s ‘Khadi Mark’ cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. The im­me­di­ate provo­ca­tion seems to have been re­ports of pow­er­loom cloth be­ing sold as khadi, but KVIC now seems in no hurry to grant this cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Fabindia has ap­par­ently been try­ing for a while to get its prod­ucts prop­erly cer­ti­fied, but KVIC has re­jected its re­quests.

This sug­gests that the usual nar­ra­tive of a pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tion tak­ing ad­van­tage of a de­fence­less In­dian prod­uct may not quite hold. In fact, KVIC is a statu­tory gov­ern­ment body set up by an Act of Par­lia­ment in 1956 to “plan, pro­mote, fa­cil­i­tate, or­gan­ise and as­sist” ru­ral and vil­lage in­dus­tries. Its roots go back even fur­ther, to 1924 when Gandhi, in his one term as pres­i­dent of In­dian Na­tional Congress, pushed for estab­lish­ment of a sep­a­rate body to pro­mote khadi.

This came about the fol­low­ing year when the All In­dia Spin­ners As­so­ci­a­tion was formed with the help of .₹ 25 lakh from Congress. Many in Congress would have seen this as a way to sub­vert Bri­tish in­dus­trial ex­ploita­tion of In­dia, but in fact Gandhi’s aims went much fur­ther. The In­dian mill own­ers who funded Congress were taken aback to find that khadi could not ben­e­fit them ei­ther — as Gandhi’s protest of the use of mill yarn in­di­cated.

Khadi for Gandhi came to stand for many things, quite apart from de­feat­ing Bri­tish in­dus­try. It stood for vil­lages be­com­ing self-suf­fi­cient, even for man­u­fac­tured goods, and hence re­sist­ing the lure of ur­ban­i­sa­tion. It meant in­come gen­er­a­tion and de­vel­op­ment of skills for the poor. It meant the dis­ci­pline of man­ual labour, a kind of pur­pose­ful med­i­ta­tion, even for those who didn’t need the money. It gave a vivid vis­ual sym­bol for the na­tional move­ment and per­haps even helped unite an in­cred­i­bly di­verse coun­try in its wrap of plain white cloth.

It is not sur­pris­ing that not ev­ery­one got this full mean­ing. In 1936, Gandhi had to de­fend Jawa­har­lal Nehru from charges that he was in­suf­fi­ciently sup­port­ive of khadi. Nehru con­sci­en­tiously wore khadi for the rest of his life, and worked at it in his prison stints, but as prime min­is­ter didn’t pre­vent the growth of pow­er­looms. It was, per­haps, to com­pen­sate for this that KVIC was formed, and even made part of the FiveYear Plan process.

Yet, prob­lems soon sur­faced. In 1961, the Times of In­dia (ToI) noted that all the sup­port go­ing to KVIC didn’t seem to be pro­duc­ing much re­turns: “The third Plan has al­lot­ted Rs92 crore for the de­vel­op­ment of khadi and vil­lage in­dus­tries as against Rs82 crore in the sec­ond Plan. And in spite of large un­sold stocks it has fixed the tar­get of khadi pro­duc­tion at 160 mil­lion yards as against the present out­put of 74 mil­lion yards.” Was all this money just be­ing spun down a black hole?

ToI noted that a re­cent eval­u­a­tion com­mit­tee on KVIC had found many prob­lems. Khadi en­joyed big re­bates, for ex­am­ple highly sub­sidised cot­ton, but its prod­ucts were still 60% more ex­pen­sive than mill cloth. The stan­dard re­sponse to this was that this in­cluded the cost of fair re­turns to man­ual spin­ners and weavers, but the re­port pointed out that KVIC sup­ported less than 3 lakh peo­ple and, “what is worse, the wages are so low that khadi spin­ners and weavers can hardly make both ends meet”.

KVIC shrugged off the crit­i­cisms. In 1964, chair­man UN Dhe­bar told a press con­fer­ence that khadi could not be com­pared to other in­dus­tries be­cause “it had no profit mo­tive”.

In May 1982, the scholar Am­rita Ran­gasami wrote in ToI that KVIC was “a happy-go-lucky body which can plan for ex­pan­sion with­out hav­ing to worry about mar­ket­ing… The com­mis­sion boasts of an im­pres­sive team of statis­ti­cians who can daz­zle and mys­tify the par­lia­ment”. She de­scribed a sys­tem where fig­ures were ab­sent or opaque and “the com­mis­sion has de­vised the id­iom of cam­ou­flage for its trans­ac­tions”.

As for the work­ers, the peo­ple the sys­tem was os­ten­si­bly meant to pro­tect, Ran­gasami noted that in nearly 10 years they had re­ceived a wage in­crease of just 35-50 paise — or 15 paise if they used an old model charkha. This meant an­nual wages of just Rs 66 in places such as Orissa. She wrote that KVIC would have done bet­ter to re­im­burse the work­ers in food­grain, but in fact it did some­thing even worse: some­times they were paid in the same, nearly worth­less cloth, they pro­duced. “When charged with mal­prac­tice, a vil­lage so­ci­ety sec­re­tary once blandly asked, ‘but who else will buy khadi?’”

Pe­ri­odic at­tempts were made to re­form KVIC. Mul­ti­ple re­ports were com­mis­sioned, in­cluded one from in­ter­na­tional con­sul­tants Arthur An­der­sen, which im­me­di­ately led to al­le­ga­tions of sell­ing out to for­eign in­flu­ence on the part of Va­sund­hara Raje, now the chief min­is­ter of Ra­jasthan, but then the min­is­ter of small-scale in­dus­tries. Per­haps be­ing part of BJP made Raje free of the lock the KVIC seems to have on the her­itage of Congress, be­cause she was open about the in­ef­fi­cien­cies, even to out­right frauds, be­ing per­pe­trated in the name of khadi. Not long af­ter, she was shifted to an­other min­istry.

KVIC has per­fected sev­eral strate­gies over the years. One is to evoke Gandhi’s legacy of khadi, an­other to raise ru­ral em­ploy­ment — even when the track record on this is piti­ful — and the third is a pe­ri­odic re­vamp of style. At least once ev­ery decade well-known de­sign­ers are roped in to do a col­lec­tion with KVICap­proved khadi, lead­ing to fash­ion jour­nal­ists writ­ing about khadi be­ing re­vived and made rel­e­vant again.

Oc­ca­sion­ally this would ex­tend overseas — in 2003 a col­lec­tion was launched in South Africa dubbed Afri Khadi. But as with all the de­sign ini­tia­tives and at- tempts to mar­ket through modern stores like Shop­pers Stop, KVIC’s ef­forts would slip back into the usual in­ef­fi­ciency and un­wanted pro­duc­tion. De­mand for its khadi re­mains as dead as ever — but now, through the power of Khadi Mark, KVIC can en­sure that no one else can bring it to life ei­ther.

PAINFUL CON­TRAST

That this is now be­ing wielded against Fabindia makes for a par­tic­u­larly painful con­trast be­cause, in many ways, this re­tailer has done ev­ery­thing that KVIC should have. It has cre­ated at­trac­tive clothes us­ing the ma­te­rial it can’t now call khadi, which have got a de­voted fol­low­ing and even what is iden­ti­fi­able as a ‘Fabindia look’. It has ex­tended these tex­tiles to home fur­nish­ings and car­pets, all made by small pro­duc­ers who have ben­e­fit­ted far more than KVIC’s pro­duc­ers have.

Fabindia has said that it’s sought an ap­point­ment with KVIC of­fi­cials to ex­plain its po­si­tion and re­solve the mat­ter. Pend­ing that, the com­pany is re­mov­ing the word ‘khadi’ from price tags of prod­ucts made of the fab­ric.

KVIC is more than just tex­tiles. Its stores sell other vil­lage-made prod­ucts like honey and cos­met­ics, but the qual­ity and ser­vice is so poor that it all just builds up to more un­sold stocks. In re­cent years, Fabindia has also ex­tended its brand to foods and cos­met­ics, all im­pec­ca­bly or­ganic in ori­gin and again with trace­able ben­e­fits to lo­cal pro­duc­ers. From its orig­i­nal store in New Delhi the re­tailer has ex­tended across In­dia, even to the smaller towns that many chains ig­nore. It has built a strong rep­u­ta­tion with the tourism in­dus­try and has even re­ha­bil­i­tated her­itage prop­er­ties for its stores. Fabindia is not the only com­pany that has done this. In­vest­ment in Indi- an hand­i­craft, but pro­duced to mar­ketlead­ing de­signs and stan­dards, has made good eco­nomic sense for many com­pa­nies — and for the small, of­ten vil­lage-based pro­duc­ers who sup­ply them. Even com­pa­nies that don’t di­rectly ben­e­fit small com­mu­ni­ties have used the sort of tra­di­tional ap­peal that KVIC can claim — Patan­jali be­ing a re­cent ex­am­ple. And all these com­pa­nies have achieved suc­cess with hardly any of the sub­si­dies and re­bates that KVIC claims as its right.

The com­mis­sion does seem to feel the need for change. Since its long-term pa­trons in Congress don’t seem likely to re­turn to power soon, it has sought to adapt by fea­tur­ing Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in its lat­est cal­en­dar. But he needs to con­sider how long this waste­ful en­ter­prise should con­tinue, es­pe­cially when, as in its use of the Khadi Mark, KVIC seems to be un­der­min­ing real khadi ini­tia­tives.

Un­shack­led by any her­itage links to khadi, the PM can per­haps look at ways to rein in KVIC, even if its reign isn’t brought to a full stop.

ANIRBAN BORA

ET ARCHIVES

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