Despite a good market demand, the traditional khadi industry of Cumilla is passing through a tough time for lack of patronisation and crisis of expert weavers.
Only two decades ago, the number of weavers in Cumilla was over 200. Decreasing over the years, the number has come down to 20 at present.
Including dyeing and other workers, the khadi industry in Cumilla is now the livelihood of around 90 persons only.
Khadi weavers and traders said the crisis deepened due to the negligence of authorities concerned. Industries ministry is yet to take any initiative to save the dying tradition.
The present condition
Only a few years ago, khadi clothes were produced at Berlashahar under Chandina upazila, Barkamta under Debidwar upazila, Ramchandrapur under Muradnagar upazila and Kamalpur under the Sadar upazila. But now, khadi is produced at Barkamta and Belashahar only.
Although khadi is produced at Kamalpur on a limited scale, production of the traditional cloth has totally stopped at Ramchandrapur.
According to weavers and traders, around 120 yards of khadi is produced on average every day in the district. Thick khadi is sold at Tk40 per yard while slim khadi is sold at Tk120 per yard.
Retailers from Cumilla town buy the khadi clothes from the weavers and sew the clothes themselves.
At present, there are around 400 khadi cloth stores in Cumilla town from where about 3,000 people earn their livelihoods.
Sources concerned alleged that out of the 400 shops, only 4-5 shops sell original khadi clothes, and the rest sell machine-produced clothes in the name of khadi.
It is learnt that every day each shop used to sell khadi clothes worth Tk30,000 before the beginning of the pandemic. After the withdrawal of lockdown, the sales decreased.
However, sales have increased with the onset of winter. Khadi traders in the district said that clothes worth an average of Tk40,000 are being sold in each shop during the winter. But sales would drop by half once the winter is over.
There are several issues involved in the production of khadi. Khadi is made by the combined labour of weavers, spinners, block cutters and dyers.
Why Khadi lost its splendour
Once, khadi of Cumilla would be exported to a dozen of countries including the USA, India, Japan and several European countries. Besides, tourists from different countries and expatriates of Cumilla preferred khadi clothes. After the 90s, khadi export began to decline. Investors began to lean towards more lucrative ready-made garments instead of khadi.
Weavers involved in the khadi industry for generations lost patronage and began to shift their profession for higher incomes. At the same time, the crisis deepened more due to the growing demand for thinner fabrics instead of thick fabrics like khadi.
Weavers and retailers
Khitish Chandra Debnath, a weaver from Chandina upazila, has been producing khadi in Belashahar for 40 years.
He said, "My father and grandfather were involved in this profession. But I could not keep my child in this profession. They thought that this profession would not be able to meet their demand. After me, no one from my family will be in this profession."
He said, "Before the national election, the industries ministry officials took a photocopy of the national identity card from us, assuring that an initiative would be taken to save the weavers. But after that, they have not communicated in the last two years."
Sitaharan Debnath, another weaver from Barkamata in Devidwar, said, "I have been producing khadi clothes for 50 years. I saw how the number of weavers and dyeing labourers gradually decreased year after year. But no initiative has been taken by the government to keep them in the profession."
Arup Sarkar, manager of Khadi Kutir in Cumilla and also a retailer and wholesaler, said, "Sales are not good because of the state of the domestic economy and the pandemic. Production of khadi clothes has also declined. Our family has been involved in khadi production since 1931. It will be very difficult to supply real khadi in the future due to declining production."
Chandan Dev Roy, owner of Khadibhushan in Cunilla town, said, "I was a student of Chittagong University. I am still continuing the ancestral business for profit. But the traditional art of Cumilla is now under threat due to growing demand for readymade garments."
"We have arranged loans for khadi weavers. If needed, we will assist them in marketing also"
Atiqullah Khokon, general secretary of the Comilla Shop Owners' Association, said, "Khadi is the bearer of our heritage. We will chalk out a detailed plan over what to do to end the crisis."
"But if someone refuses to continue the profession even after our initiative, we cannot force him," he added.