2005: State of Gandhi's Khadi

May 24, 2005

Khadi. It's a hand-spun cotton cloth made famous by Gandhi's promotion. Fifty years ago, it had a greater market share in India than any other material and today, willing converts are left searching for reasons to wear it.

Many Gandhians like khadi because Gandhi liked it. Most government officials propound it because first, it's their job and second, it generates some employment for "poor". It's questionable if consumers like it, considering that Khadi is less than 1% of the national textile usage, but some are known to wear it because the material is porous.

Today, I ran into the one of the heads of India's Khadi Commission. After a rather confusing series of arguments, I decided to look deeper into the topic. Beyond the emotional, short-term and material reasons, my goal was to understand the rational.

I sit down with a very interesting personality -- a super smart athiest, who is also the grand-daughter of Mahadevbhai Desai, whom Gandhi called his sixth son. Umaben Desai's logic is neither emotional, nor spiritual, nor Gandhian; it's just facts.

Here's the inside scoop on khadi ...

Gandhi promoted Khadi for self sustainability. He wasn't trying to generate employment for the country and neither was he out to create a market about "help the poor" charity. His whole premise was that everyone, rich or poor or in between, should have access to food, shelter and clothing in a self-reliant way. That is, they shouldn't create dependencies on cities, government or economies, lest they get corrupt.

That was Gandhi's idealogy. Decentralized units of self-sustaining ecologies. Simple, long lasting, and corruption free.

With cloth, the idea was to use hand-spun Khadi. The process would be all organic:

  1. Farming: pick your own cotton.
  2. Ginning: remove the seeds and roll up a sliver of cotton.
  3. Spinning: use the sliver and a manual "charkha", to create yarn.
  4. Weaving: weave the yarn into cloth.
  5. Stiching: tailor clothes from the yarn.

Each person needs no more than 25 meters of cloth per year, which can make 3 pairs of clothes, a towel and a sheet. If a person spins for 8 hours a day for 3 days, you will have enough yarn to make your annual quota of 25 meters of Khadi. Then, a community weaver, will weave the yarn into cloth and a local tailor can stich the clothes. (For the ambitious, weaving and stitching can be learned in a matter of couple months.) Since no part of this process requires fancy gadgetry or non-local materials, each of the 700,000 villages of India can be self dependent for their clothing.

That is, of course, the theory.

Khadi, over the 50 years, has taken interesting -- and I should say irrational -- twists and turns.

First myth about Khadi: it helps the poor. According to Gandhi, the poor don't really need your help. But for argument sake, let's say that the city folks want to wear khadi; they don't have the time or the inclination to spin it, but they want to buy it. So, government steps in and says, "Ah, we can do employment generation with khadi." Annually, 600 crores (6 billion) rupees of Khadi is purchased by consumers, so perhaps that money can employ the 40% unemployed villagers of India.

If we stopped there, it could be pitched as a reasonable argument. Of course, we didn't. In our unsatiable quest for efficiency, the question we asked next was: how can we increase the production of Khadi? Unfortunately, people asking the question weren't thinking about self-sustenance, but rather of competing with the textile mills that held 99% of the market share.

Since you can't motorize hand-spinning, experts in the field decided to innovate the "charka" (the spinning wheels) that are used to create khadi. Ambar-charka is the name of the latest spinning wheel that is still hand-powered but 8x more efficient because of its 4 spindles.

Because the Ambar-charka wasn't coupled with an 8x increase in khadi demand, it simply killed 8x of the villager jobs. And in fact, it not only killed the jobs, but also the villagers themselves. In cities like Nagpur and states like Andhra Pradesh, hundreds of weavers and spinners committed suicides in the late 70s.

Technoloy, innovation, efficiency is not to be discarded. But if these advances are created in profit-making silos, it anhilates the cultural fabric of an ecosystem and eventually, runs the risk of destroying the entire ecosystem itself.

When most people think of cotton, they think white. No one in this generation will even remember that cotton naturally grows in many other colors like brown and yellow. Because of the heavy textile demand for white cotton, all farmers started producing white cotton. Moreover, the heavy cotton consumption by the mills created an imbalance in the natural ecology; as a result, 80% of all pesticides used in Indian farms are used on cotton farms! Eighty percent.

To "efficiently" transport cotton to centralized mills, it is compressed. Then, at the farms, lots of energy is spent in carding the cotton to make it fluffy again.

Most khadi producers now use "new and improved" Ambar-charka in India. You can't blame the producers in a land where more than 350 million people live on less than dollar a day; they are just trying to survive. But the confusion of the government policies, technologists and pundits are creating these weird hybrid solutions that are simply not khadi. Not only are Ambar-charka machine parts hard to maintain, it also requires long-staple cotton sliver that is used by textile mills. The same long-staple cotton that has increased the use of pesticides, destroyed cotton bio diversity, and created many subtle forms of inefficiencies. So this kind of a khadi movement is far cry from Gandhi's vision of self reliance.

Government provides rebates to subsidize the cost of hand-spun khadi; but greedy institutions have now created a hybrid khadi-polyster that also qualifies for the rebates. Consumers, as a result, don't have a clue as to why buy Khadi. Khadi propaganda says that Khadi generates employment for the poor and that it's a material that "breathes". Surely, Khadi is thick to provide insulation in the winter and porous to provide ventilation in the summers; and it feels good to wear. But when I spoke to various youth groups around the state of Gujarat, they told me the most practical reason for not buying khadi: it's expensive.

At present, Khadi is a bit more expensive today and that can change with the right policies and better marketing; still, just as an orginal painting will never be as cheap as a print, hand-spun khadi and block printing won't ever be able to compete with a 80 rupee t-shirt made from synthetic material. But if production of the chemical dyes used to color our t-shirts will ruin the rivers, if the mass cotton production will ruin the land, and the lack of jobs will ruin the lives of the common man, the questions really is: is it worth it? No. No one in their right minds will think so.

Root of the problem, though, is that "khadi" itself is in a state of mess. Gandhians have become idealists whose message is largely disregarded by the consumeristic mainstream. Village producers are just trying to make their daily livelihood. Consumers are getting mixed signals from the government policies, propaganda and competition attempts against the textile industry; to top it off, no one has paid any attention to fashion in khadi. Government is trying to increase jobs and provide rebates but the head of Khadi commission himself admitted to me, "Our biggest problem is that we don't know how to get the help to the right person." That is to say, there is no infrastructure to implement policies.

Khadi stood for decentralized sustenance. But with the Ambar-charka, and lack of accompanying increase in wages or jobs or khadi demand (all of which can potentially be blamed on the government policy), khadi was left neither here nor there. Khadi pundits came out and declared, "Khadi will soon take over the textile market." Instead of remembering the principles of Khadi, they started creating extravagant shows, setting up huge infrastructures, and entering a centralized marketing system that they were ill-equiped to fight, that Khadi never stood for. Not only are they losing the fight, but they are in the wrong war.

Gandhi once said, "Live simply, so others can simply live." His interest wasn't in selling khadi and marketing consumerism. He wanted the common man to be self reliant, to be free from market forces to think for himself, to be alive in ways that are natural to them. Perhaps Gandhi's message is too revolutionary for our times.

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