“If the individual is to be liberated from economic slavery either to the machine or to the capitalist, there appears no other course open to us than to adopt decentralisation of production. While there is no doubt that material goods can be increased by standardisation and centralisation, unfettered industrialisation has profoundly negative consequences on the material, moral, and cultural well-being of individuals in a society.” – J C Kumarappa, Economist & close associate of Mahatma Gandhi
The word Khadi comes from khaddar, which is handspun and hand-woven fabric or clothing. But the first image that comes to our mind when we hear the word Khadi is that of Gandhi, the Mahatma, and the struggle for our independence. It is very much worth our while to think, talk and understand this great phenomenon called Khadi, for it is a dwindling art today. Khadi is our heritage, an ancient way of making cloth by the communities and households locally.
Farmers grow cotton, and after harvest, cotton is de-seeded, combed, carded and turned into thin long continuous tapes (the thickness of our last finger). It is then converted to sliver or roving which becomes the input for the Ambar Charkha (a modern version of the spinning wheel) where it is spun into fine yarn.
The tapes can also be spun directly to yarn from the desi or original charkhas or the smaller box charkhas. These yarns become the input for the handlooms as warp and weft, where they are hand woven into soft and fine fabrics, sarees, lungis, towels or dupattas with a rugged texture and comfortable feel.
Traditionally, the farmers grew cotton which was given to the women to hand spin yarn. It was passed on to the local weavers who hand-wove them into fabric often with great skill and creativity.
Khadi was all about rural Indian households, community activity, and the local economy that brought about decentralisation of the production cycle and equitable distribution of benefits.
The last two values were of the highest importance to Gandhiji and Kumarappa - the way a number of hands got together to create a product vis-a-vis a machine-made industrial item where hundreds of copies are made in a short time by the touch of a button.
Behind each Khadi garment or fabric, there were many hands that sustained many livelihoods economically and with ecological sensitivity. The mass production vs the production by masses is what enticed Gandhiji. With production by the masses, the economy would be in the hands of the communities and the locals as against the mindless aggregation by middlemen.
The added attraction of Khadi was that the economy predominantly stayed in the hands of the women as close to 75 percent of the work was done by them. This meant the money came back home promptly and was spent on educating the kids or for health.
With the onset of industrialisation and Western influence, mechanisation turned rural India into just the raw material providers. The raw materials were taken by big mills of the west and brought back as finished garments and sold to us. This took away a huge chunk of the jobs as well as the economy.
When huge spinning mills come up, they eat away the job of thousands of women who hand spin yarn. Each mill effectively swishes away thousands and lakhs of women from their livelihood. The same goes with power looms where thousands of handloom weavers are swept away from their livelihoods.
In a country where handloom has been a major employment provider (the handloom industry provided jobs for around 4.3 million people as per the government data and is the second largest employer after agriculture in rural India), it is important to revive and strengthen it.
Khadi is the real product of Atmanirbharta! It is the real Swadeshi product upholding self-sufficiency. Khadi is not just a fabric or clothing but a lot more. It is eco-friendly, strengthens the local economy, encourages rural employment, emphasises a non-violent economy, and is highly sustainable and regenerative. That is why Khadi was an integral part of our Independence struggle and was the symbol of national pride.
What is the status of Khadi today?
The word itself has been usurped (misappropriated) to the extent that this cannot be a noun or verb in our common verbiage. Unless one is subscribed to the Khadi Board one cannot use this even if it is handmade and purer and truer than the present days Khadi. By this I mean that even non-GM cotton (non-genetically modified and indigenous) which is handspun and hand woven with natural fibres is not deemed Khadi unless one is associated with the Khadi Board.
This is unfair. And why should it be essential to subscribe to a flailing and failing institution, which also has an archaic cost chart that is not ensuring fair remuneration to the artisans?
The Khadi Board is not even standing up to the GM cotton invasion which erased all our desi/indigenous seeds as well as buried the seed sovereignty and diversity. It does not encourage natural fibres like cotton, silk, wool, hemp etc. but even has something as paradoxical as “Polyvastra” made from synthetic polyester. A lot needs to be done to reestablish Khadi as the holy, respected, textile of yore.
Oh, the Indian Flag!
There were many items that were to be produced only using Khadi in post-independent India to ensure the longevity of the concept as well as support a large section of our population by assuring market. These included sarees, dhotis, and the Indian Flag.
With time, the policies were diluted and many items, which were on the ‘must-be-made-only-in-Khadi’ list were removed under industry pressure. The proverbial last nail has been the tweak in the Indian Flag code.
As per the Flag Code of India, June 22, 1947, the National Flag of India shall be made of handspun and hand-woven wool/cotton/silk Khadi bunting. This meant it could be made only in natural fibres and Khadi and not be mill made or synthetic or imported. It is indeed a matter of pride that the production of these national flags involves thousands of Khadi workers.
However, in 2022, the Government of India allowed the manufacturing and import of machine-made polyester national flags by amending the 2002 Flag Code of India.
With this, the ‘atmanirbharta’, local and handmade and Made-in-India features are lost. We can only wish that the government had announced this for a limited time and will restore the erstwhile Flag Code. We also hope that the government goes one step further to ensure that the national flag is made only from desi or indigenous cotton and not genetically modified Bt cotton.
What can you do?
We all need to understand and respect the importance of Khadi, its non-violent nature and its role in the economy. Khadi nurtures the economy and we must patronize it.
We urge you all to buy (if and when you have to) and gift handmade Khadi products. Whenever possible, please involve and support Khadi artisans and handmade clothing! Please be actively involved in cleansing Khadi by using desi cotton and avoiding genetically-modified seeds and cotton, polyester and chemical dyes. Always go for true, ethical and eco-friendly Khadi.
(Ananthoo is the Founder of India HandMade Collective and Tula Organic Clothing. He can be reached at email@example.com)