Restore glory of the Banarasi Sari

The grant of Geographical Indication status to the Banarasi sari has not changed the fortunes of the artisans.

The vibrancy and brand equity of the Banarasi sari needs no introduction. The presence of a Banarasi sari in the trousseau of a lady has been as much a fashion statement as an obeisance to tradition, to say the least.

Not restricted in its reach, this unique product also informs the couture of fashion aficionados of Europe and the West, as also the big-ticket celebrities closer home.

Most Banarasi saris are produced in areas of Varanasi, namely Lohta, Bazardiha, Sarai Mohana, Lallapura, Saraiya, Bagwanala and Badi Bazar. Apart from Banaras, this sari is also produced in other areas such as Azamgarh, Mirzapur, Bhadohi and other centres such as Chunar, Chakia and Chandoli.

The spread of skill to these centres is a result of natural historical commerce, and the legitimacy of production from this area is unquestionable.

The weaver community predominantly constitutes poor Muslims and Dalits and the structure of production is based on a hierarchy of kothdars (wholesale dealers), master weavers and other weavers.

The traditional Banarasi sari is the result of arduous and skilful work using silk and brocade produced on a handloom (pitloom or framelooms) with specific motifs. Unofficial estimates put the number of weavers at 5 lakh.

Destitution, DespondencyFor the past many years, the brand image of the Banarasi sari has been hit by cheap imitations, apart from other complex market dynamics.

Amidst much expectation, the legal protection for this famed product came in the form of geographical indication (GI) registration in 2009 under the TRIPS regime. It was hoped that this legal shield would aid the sales of the authentic Banarasi sari, provide protection to the entire industry, enhance national and international product positioning and restore this sari back to its old glory.

However, a few years later since the grant of such legal protection, recent field research presents a disquieting picture of the Banarasi sari industry. The research was done by TERI, based on a structured survey of multiple stakeholders, including Banarasi sari weavers, GI holders, administrative agencies, among others.

The Banarasi sari industry is impacted by a host of variables in terms of raw material and labour issues, the socio-economic aspects of the region, and, to some extent, the pitfalls of excessive liberalisation and legislation.

The changing economic and market situation has resulted in reduced income for weavers who cannot even meet their basic needs, causing malnutrition and widespread poverty throughout the traditional weaver community. Such destitution and despondency among the weavers has forced them to commit suicide or has precipitated employment shifts, as evidenced by MGNREGA benefits.

Cheap fakesThe promise of geographical indication protection has not curbed the menace of fakes. Machine-based cheap product imitations continue to be sold. Cheap raw material imports have led to the sale of what are known as Kela saris, in the name of Banarasi saris. These use banana tree resin to create threads which are then polished to give the look of a silver or gold thread.

Chinese imitation saris, pegged at much lower prices, are flooding the market. Moreover, there is a tenfold rise in the number of operating powerlooms in the district of Varanasi itself, although certain other studies put higher estimates.

Most powerloom owners have been producing cheap imitation products in large numbers to meet the growing demand, with computerised designs. Enforcement under the legal regime is frustrated further through absence of will on the part of GI holders to take action against the imitators. Despite the stakeholders being aware of the deleterious impact of sales of fake saris, complex market dynamics enforces silence among all concerned.

The research also brings to light governance-related shortsightedness, wherein a multitude of certification marks exists alongside paradoxes. There is the Silkmark, the Handloom mark, but mandatory usage of a Banarasi sari mark is absent.

Even so, merely having a mark is no panacea, especially in a disaggregated cottage industry. There are other issues involved, wherein enforcing mandatory display of Banarasi sari mark would, by itself, not be acceptable to the weaver community, on grounds of increased costs of such legislated branding.

For those who remain in the skill, low wages continue to be the norm, exposing exploitative realities in the industry. Meanwhile, MGNREGA has precipitated migration of skilled workers to unskilled jobs.

Traders, for their part, argue that lower sales make it difficult to enhance weaver wages. Perhaps the real problem lies in the economics of producing a Banarasi sari. As a result, in the absence of a long-term vision for the industry, ameliorative efforts are only ad hoc in nature.

Consumer AwarenessPolicymakers and industry associations need to aggressively pursue consumer awareness of the product, perhaps elevating their efforts to the levels of a mission.

The purpose of GI is not only curative but at some levels informative as well. Whilst consumer information has increased, curative and preventive benefits of legislation are yet to be reaped.

On the legal side, the GI Act needs to be applied with a heavy hand, attracting penal action. Within the Banarasi sari industry, passing off fake products as original requires a legal response.

The role of government is also very important; once GI status has been granted, that too without the support of the government, producers would not be able to effectively defend or promote their GI brand.

The weaving community needs to be sensitised through various workshops and consultations in order to have maximum participation in the GI registration process.

The financial benefits of GI registered products may not percolate to the weaver community.

The weaver community needs to put across its concerns to appropriate authorities at the State level and ensure that necessary arrangements are in place to prevent exploitation and non-transfer of benefits, although it may be extremely challenging.

Industry associations need to increase consumer awareness for GI-registered Banarasi saris. However, it is important to keep in mind that there will always be certain consumers who may not buy GI certified saris at a premium.

Finally, GI must be seen as part of a wider set of policy measures that seek to protect and reward India's indigenous knowledge.

Tags: geographical indications (GI), GI-registered Banarasi saris