New Internationalist

The wrong cloth

Issue 333

Khadi in crisis

Sarah Elton
Fewer students want to learn to make khadi in rural India. Sarah Elton

Sandhya Sharma’s hands move quickly over the cotton she is weaving on the floor-loom in a classroom at the Village Industries College in rural Rajasthan. She is making khadi, a rustic handmade cloth woven by villagers across India.

Sharma teaches weaving and spinning to the young people who choose to come to the college to learn the trade and live by Gandhian principles. But there are few students these days who want to learn to make khadi. This year, only 19 students showed up – down from more than 150, the normal enrolment number until a sudden drop about three years ago. Last year alone, khadi sales dropped by about $30 million. The government-run stores that sell khadi are dusty and old, often with few customers in sight. Last spring, the Indian Government hired Arthur Andersen – the transnational business consultants – to investigate what has gone wrong with the cloth.

‘People don’t want to do community work any more,’ says Sharma. ‘They would prefer a private-sector job because there they can get more money.’

The decline of khadi means more to India than the end of a fabric line. Gandhi popularized it during India’s independence struggle. In protest against the colonial practice of milling Indian-grown cotton in Britain before selling it back to India, Gandhi took to his hand loom to weave his own clothes and urged others to do the same. Soon villagers across the country were making their own cloth as a political statement. This ‘cottage’ industry became a staple of the country’s rural economy. The khadi people made in home workshops and small-scale factories supplemented the meagre incomes they earned toiling in the fields. And colleges, like the one where Sharma teaches, opened to educate younger generations and propagate Gandhi’s philosophies.

But Sharma is not surprised that khadi’s appeal is wearing thin. She points to a general shift in Indian society, away from the values Gandhi espoused and towards a Western lifestyle.

‘Gandhi said food, clothes and a house are all you need in life,’ she says. ‘But nowadays a person thinks, I need a car, I need a good place to stay.’

In 1991, the Indian Government began to liberalize the country’s economy, opening its doors to foreign companies. This created a previously non-existent private sector and a growing middle class with disposable incomes to spend on consumer goods. However, most of the country remains untouched by the economic prosperity. More than 35 per cent of the country’s billion people live below the poverty line.

‘Nobody wants slow progress,’ says Sharma. ‘But if you want progress, Gandhi’s way is the best because everyone can profit from it.’

Sarah Elton

Seven Social Sins

  1. Politics without principle.
  2. Pleasure without conscience.
  3. Wealth without work.
  4. Knowledge without character.
  5. Commerce without morality.
  6. Science without humanity.
  7. Worship without sacrifice.
Mohandas (Mahatma) K Gandhi

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