Textile industry in Manipur

Oinam Nabakishore Singh *

 Handloom Product being sold at the Temporary Market at BT Road, Imphal :: 13th May 2017
Handloom Product being sold at at BT Road, Imphal in May 2017 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Handloom weaving provides employment toa large section of population, especially, women in the state. It is only second to agriculture in employment generation. It is estimated that about two lakh handlooms are in use in the state according to Handloom Census, 2009-10. Handloom weaving is still prevalent in both hills and valley of Manipur.

Manipur women are adept at weaving. Most of the households have either loin loom or fly shuttle looms. Every girl learns weaving and associated skills from her mother or sisters. Therefore, weaving skills are naturally acquired by almost all girls.

About fifty years back, some cotton was produced in Manipur. Our grandmothers and mothers knew the entire process of ginning cotton manually, spinning of yarns and weaving cloth. They also did rearing of silk worms, drawing of raw silk and spinning to produce fine yarn of both eri silk and mulberry silk. In the hills, making of silk from Tasar was also known. The clothes used by Khamba and Thoibi of Moirang dating back to about 500 years back is still preserved and available at Ningthoukhong and Ngangkhalawai.

Mulberry silk of Manipur is well known for its soft texture. Tasar silk has great lustre. Department of Sericulture, Government of Manipur has been promoting silk production and weaving by providing a number of incentives for inputs, supply of seeds, training the silk farmers and procurement of cocoons. Ministry of Textiles of Government of India through Central Silk Board has been extending financial assistance for various sericulture schemes.

Every tribe in Manipur has unique designs, patterns, colour combinations and many other attractive features in their woven fabrics/cloth. Use of fly shuttle looms among the tribal is still limited. Most of the patterns and designs for phaneks(Sarong) and shawls are produced by using traditional extra weaves, unique for each tribe. We can identify a tribe from the colour,design and patterns of weaves on a phanek or shawl. Use of loin looms are still popular and common among the tribals for various reasons.

The skill of weaving beautiful cloth is handed down from generation to generation, and hence it is easily learnt. Many designs and patterns are more conveniently woven on loin loom-may be due to small width and easy reach. The cloth woven on loin loom is thicker and looks heavy. Most of the weavers in the hills of Manipur weave cloth to meet their own requirements. However, there are some instances of weaving for market requirements.

We also see value additions to tribal weaves by making decorative garments like waist coats and accessories for men and women. Presentation of tribal shawls to VIPs and visitors is a common practice-honouring the guest in the traditional way. The Red Indians in America too have similar tradition of weaving.

When I visited a Museum of Red Indians in New York City, I saw a label on a woven cloth-love is woven into the cloth. The value of woven cloth is more than its material value. It carries several messages of tradition and culture, love and patience, and enduring sense of identity.

In case of valley areas of Manipur, it is well-documented that Meitei women are born weavers. Their skill of weaving is known not only in Manipur, but also to people living in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Assam and Tripura, where Meiteis migrated during frequent wars in Manipur. Every girl is required to learn weaving. In older days, having skill of weaving was considered as an essential attribute for a would-be bride. Either fly shuttle loom or loin loom was invariably included in the dowry during marriage.

Why do Meitei women weave? They weave cloth for use by family members. They too weave as an economic activity to earn an extra income to support the family. There are real and interesting stories of sisters and mothers, who weave day and night, to pay for the education of sons or daughters in the family.

Like in the hills, use of loin looms for weaving of PhanekMayeknaibi(traditional striped sarong) is still in practice in some villages. Eventhough slow and tedious, loin looms still enjoy its special pace in weaving.

In spite of changes in lady’s fashion and adoption of western wears by unmarried girls, wearing of Meitei traditional dresses of PhanekMayeknaibi and MoirangPhee/Rani Phee/WangkheiPhee for local ceremonies like marriage, Chakouba, etc. continues. To meet the new taste and fashion within traditional dress code, fine designs are woven in silk Phee, which led to production of high value cloth, especially RaneePhee.

A silk saree, normally for ladies of other states, woven in extra weave of silk can cost upto thirty thousand rupees. Silk weaving, which requires nimble fingers and extra patience and hard work fetches better earning to the weavers. In promotion of silk weaving, the role of Rani of Wangkhei, a master weaver is appreciated by one and all. It is interesting to note that a good supply chain of handloom products including RaneePhee, WangkheiPhee and other handloom products exist in Manipur. A number of women entrepreneurs have also opened modern showroom for handloom products in several localities.

I was on duty as Observer of Parliamentary Election of 2009 in Vellore district of Tamil Nadu. During inspection of polling stations, I visited a home in a village, which was engaged in power loom weaving in its premises. It looks similar to our handloom weaving in many respects. Difference lies in speed due to mechanization and almost nil drudgery found in manual weaving. In early 2010, I started working as Principal Secretary of Commerce and Industry Department of Manipur Government.

Handloom weaving and its promotion was one of main tasks of that department as there are very few industrial units in the state. During interaction with officers in charge of handloom, the idea of power loom weaving in Manipur was opposed by most of them. At that time, power supply in the state was erratic and unreliable. Nevertheless, I persisted with my interest in powerloom weaving and got a proposal for setting up a Powerloom Service Centre for the state by the Ministry of Textiles approved.

The purpose of the Centre is to train weavers in powerloom and support in any relevant areas. It came up quite well in the TakyelIndustrial Estate. Visits by weavers of the state to Maharashtra, where powerloom weaving is taken up on large scale were arranged. Such visits motivated the handloom weavers to switch over to powerloom weaving. Now, the State Government is setting up a Powerloom Estate for about 40 units. As of now, more than 300 powerlooms are in operation in the state.

Local powerloom manufacturers have started making looms at a fraction of the cost of well-established looms. As time goes, I am sure the local power looms will keep on improving. Proponents of handloom weavers are against powerlooms for fear of rendering handloom weaving non-competitive. This fear is true to a great extent. However, there are areas like weaving of RaneePhee, Silk Saree with extra weave, which cannot be woven on power loom. Manipuri manual extra weave is unique and it cannot be replaced by jacquard weaving.

When I compare the cost of weaving plain or even checked cloths, it is seen that power loom can produce fabric at Rs.7 per metre, whereas handloom costs Rs.14 per metre. It is learnt that traditional handloom weaving places like Nabadwip in West Bengal have switched over to power loom weaving.

The next phase in textile industry is garmenting. With my personal persuasion and in order to introduce industrial garmenting in the state, an apparel training centre was started in Imphal in 2012 by Apparel Design and Training Centre(ATDC), an organization under Apparel Export Promotion Council(AEPC) with financial assistance from Ministry of Textiles.Advanced sewing machines of Juki of Japan along with special machines for garmenting were provided. It was the first such training Centre in theentire North-East India.

Space was provided by the Department of Commerce and Industry, Manipur. Those who are trained in operation of sewing machines at the Imphal Centre got employment at Export Houses in Gurgaon, Bangalore and Noida. The Ministry of Textiles also set up three units of Apparel and Garment Making Centre at Lamboikhongnangkhong, Imphal in the year 2016.

Even though most of the necessary machineries for apparel making are provided along with infrastructure, it is found that the units have miserably failed for lack of necessary skills, industrial work culture, higher cost oflabour and raw materials and fierce competition from units outside the state.

In case we would like to make textile industry viable in the state, several interventions are required. Gradual switchover to powerloom weaving to produce fabrics for garmenting units, upgradation of skills of labour, preferential purchase of garments, especially, school uniforms, hospital uniforms, police and security forces uniform from the garmenting units in Manipur will help in making viable. This requires intervention from government.

Considering the economic role of textiles in employment generation and exports to developed countries as being done in Bangladesh, it is necessary to study every aspect of weakness in the value chain, and the government will have to frame and implement policies. The present standards of weaving, garmenting and finishing have to be upgraded to be competitive. We have to have comparative advantage to be successful in textile industry.

[ Views expressed here are personal ]

* Oinam Nabakishore Singh wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a former Chief Secretary of Manipur. He can be contacted at oinamsingh(AT)gmail(DOT)com for any queries/comments
This article was posted on 25 June, 2018 .

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