VARANASI, Uttar Pradesh — Pallavi Srivastava scrunched up her face as she tried to remember the last time that she had made a sale.
Yesterday, the day before, the day before that, this reporter asked, as the saleswoman giggled and shook her head. Then, after a moment’s pause, she said, “It’s been over a week.”
Standing behind the counter in a colourful store filled with handicrafts, stoles and saris, the petite woman cut a lonely figure. On most days, she spends her nine-hour long shift watching videos on her mobile phone and dreaming of becoming a fashion designer.
The 23-year-old was speaking of how the day dragged on at an interminable pace, and how drowsy she felt in the afternoon, when two men entered the store. Customers? Well, no.
Srivastava recognised them as owners of the stores next door. She too had taken to wandering into other stores to kill time. “But I don’t go too far or for too long,” she said. “Boss expects me to be here.”
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Srivastava is not the only saleswoman twiddling her thumbs at the Trade Facilitation Centre and Crafts Museum — also called the Deen Dayal Hastkala Sankul — inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 22 September, 2017, in his parliamentary constituency of Varanasi.
Like ’Make in India,” the Namami Gange project to clean the Ganga, and other schemes announced by Modi during his tenure, his promise to usher in a new era for Varanasi’s weavers appears to have gone the way of Modi’s tenure — bold announcements, glitzy functions, but little actual progress.
On a visit last week, most of the 78 stores at the centre were closed. While some had merchandise inside, others were empty. None of the guest rooms, furnished with beds, sofas and television sets mounted on white walls, had been rented. The space meant for a restaurant lay in darkness.
A handful of shopkeepers at the trade facility looked at anyone walking past with a mixture of hope and despair. In the few months since setting up shop in the “state-of-the-art” complex, they have rarely had customers or made sales.
Prakash Singh, who sells handmade Banarasi saris, spoke of his neighbors shuttering shops within the first few weeks. He too is planning his exit in the next few months.
Then, as he stood hearing the sound of the hot summer wind roaring through the empty corridors and rattling the row of locked doors, he said, “This is not how I had imagined it would be. There are no customers. There are no sales. There is no income.”
The trade facilitation centre, announced by Modi in 2014, and completed in different phases from 2016 to 2017, was meant to help the weavers and craftsmen of Varanasi who work with their hands to make the world famous Banarasi saris.
“Every mother dreams to buy a Banarasi sari for her daughter’s marriage,” Modi said at a ceremony to lay its foundation stone on November 2014. “You can imagine the size of the market of your product. But I also want to link it with e-commerce for the global buyers.”
Four months after it was opened for business, the eight acre complex, which took the Modi government Rs. 300 crores to build, has no weavers.
On 9th May, a Thursday, the only activity in this massive complex, which takes two hours to explore on foot, was a training session on operating electoral voting machines in one passage of “Block B.”
Varanasi, which Modi won by a landslide in 2014, will vote on May 19.
Rajesh Srivastava, who is running the food court inside the trade facility centre, said that he is suffering “a total loss.”
His company, MGV food retailers, which won the contract to serve snacks and beverages inside the trade facility, he said, was pressurized by the Ministry of Textiles into opening a kiosk, even though the lack of visitors had become apparent.
Now, in addition to the monthly rent, MGV has to pay for the salaries of the three workers manning the kiosk as well groceries and beverages.
In a large hall, with an empty cluster of red tables and yellow chairs, Srivastava said that even the visitors from the crafts museum did not make their way to the food court.
“There are only a few local boys who keep coming in again and again,” he said, laughing.
There are no customers. There are no sales. There is no income.
‘Not as I had imagined’
Singh, who sells Banarasi saris, said that the last time he made “okay sales” was during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), a three-day long gathering of Non Resident Indians (NRIs) hosted by Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath at the trade facility in January. But even the NRIs did not buy his “best” handloom saris, which can cost upwards of Rs. 40,000.
As he explained how it can take weavers more than 10 days to make one such beautiful sari, Singh said that he no longer keeps his “best pieces” at the store in the trade facility. “The saris were only gathering dust and risked permanent damage,” he said.
After Modi’s grand opening of the trade facility, Singh was excited about renting a store at the massive complex. He had imagined tourists, Indians and foreigners, flocking to see the “most modern” building in Varanasi.
In the days and weeks that followed the NRI event, Singh realised that he had made a mistake.
“It’s out of the way. Hardly anyone knows about it. The government isn’t doing anything to promote it,” he said.
While laying its foundation stone in November, 2014, Modi had blamed the then Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party government in UP for allocating land in Bada Lalpur, around 15 kilometres from the main city, for the project.
The government isn’t doing anything to promote it.
Of the 78 stores at the trade facility, only 11 have been rented out through tenders to private persons and entities, while 16 have been allotted to government-backed outlets like Khadi, Trifed and Girijan Cooperative Corporation.
Of the nearly 10 stores given to Khadi only two appeared to be operational on the day this reporter visited.
Another 19 stores have been allotted to “awardees” — people invited by the Ministry of Textiles to showcase their work (handmade saris, carpets and handicrafts) at the trade facility.
While 19 have left the trade facility, 13 stores were never rented.
According to Pradeep Kumar Yadav, the officer in-charge of running the trade facility, the demand for this space was “so low” that the rent had to be revised.
When the space for the stores was first advertised in February-March of 2018, the rent was Rs. 25,000 per month. In August-September, the rent was reduced to Rs. 12,000 to 15,000 including maintenance.
The awardees, who were invited by the government to set up shop, have to pay rent worth Rs. 6,000 every month.
“It was a very low response,” Yadav said. “But any new operation can have a painful start. We are constantly tweaking our policies to make sure that our goals are met.”
The facility, Yadav said, was meant to “make a new branding for the crafts and handlooms of Benaras and its neighbouring districts so that everyone connected with it — weavers, exporters and entrepreneurs — would benefit.”
Yadav, however, did not say how the trade facility had advanced the interest of weavers in Varanasi. “We have provided the infrastructure,” he said. “You cannot always get customers immediately. There is a certain flow and rhythm.”
When asked if any workshops for weavers has been organised in the trade facility, Yadav said no.
It was a very low response.
Madhavi Kuckreja, a women’s rights activist, who runs a Weaves and Crafts store called Sanatkada in Lucknow, said the feedback that she had received suggested that the trade facility was of little use to farmers.
“There is no plan. You can’t just have fancy buildings and infrastructure. There needs to be a forward-looking plan,” she said.
The “networks” that exist for weavers in Gujarat have not been created for their counterparts in UP, said Kuckreja, adding that the Good and Service Tax (GST) had also taken a toll on weavers.
“I’m not saying it is a bad thing to have a single taxation system. We are educated, but it is still very difficult for us to understand,” she said. “Weavers have been harassed by GST. A workshop on GST would have been useful.”
You can’t just have fancy buildings and infrastructure.
BJP RSS Venue?
Haji Okash Ansari, who heads the Sariya Hatkargha Vikas Sansthan (Sariya Handloom Development Organization), a government organisation, and is also a Congress Party corporator, said that the building is used by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to organise it events.
“Crores were spent on that NRI event but how many NRIs placed orders with the weavers? Crores were spent like water but not a penny of it has benefited the weavers of Varanasi,” he said.
It is not clear how much money was spent on the 15th PBD held in Varanasi in January, but this government document suggests it is upwards of Rs. 10 crores. The registration fee varied from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 17,500 for an individual. Around 5,000 people attended.
Yadav said that the RSS had organized an event at the trade facility in February, 2018.
The one place in the trade facility, which has visitors, is the crafts museum that opened in 2016. Home to stunning samples of Banarasi saris, carpets from Badhoi, darees from Mirzapur, wall-hangings from Ghazipur, and black pottery from Nizamabad, the museum — according to its register — receives around 400 visitors every day. But shopkeepers say they rarely make it to the shopping centre.
Even the merchandise at the museum gift shop is gathering dust.
Vikas, an awardee, who runs a handicraft store at the trade facility, said that he is struggling to pay the Rs. 6,000 monthly rent at the trade facility.
As he spoke of the special wood that he had used to make the pen stands displayed on the counter, Vikas said that he was generating “no income.”
“Right now, we are not making any money, but I’m hoping that things will change,” he said. “The government really needs to promote this place.”
Shyam Lal Mohan, who is selling Banarasi saris at the trade facility, said that the last time he had customers was 24th April.
“Sometimes, I go and sit in the shop upstairs. Sometimes, I go and sit in the shop next door. There is not a lot to do in this place,” he said.
Right now, we are not making any money, but I’m hoping that things will change.
GST, Demonetisation Woes
Iqbal Ahmed, a weaver in Varanasi, looked blank when this reporter asked if he had visited the trade facility centre.
“Visited, where?” he said.
When told about the “ big building,” which the Modi government had constructed, Ahmed said, “Oh that. No, I have never gone there. It’s too far. What is happening there?”
Even if he were to spend Rs. 150 coming and going, Iqbal queried if the trading facility had any wholesalers to whom he could sell his saris.
“I don’t see the point,” he said.
The weavers of the Banarasi saris, the 26-year-old said, have for a while been plagued by China flooding the international market with silk and Bangladesh making low-cost imitations of Banarasi saris.
The legacy of the handmade Banarasi sari, Iqbal said, was dying.
Tana and Bana, the hand movements of running a handloom, Iqbal said had for centuries been a symbol of synergy between the Hindu traders and Muslim weavers.
“It can take over two weeks just to make one handmade sari. Did you know that? But there is no place for such luxuries today. This is the era of use and throw. This generation wants to use and throw,” he said.
This is the era of use and throw. This generation wants to use and throw.
If Ahmed, a father to three children, was gloomy before the BJP came to power, coping with demonetisation and the Good and Service Tax (GST) has made him miserable.
When demonetisation hit on 8th November, 2016, Iqbal was running his business the way his forefathers had — on udhari (loan) and goodwill.
Ahmed explained that he sells five to ten saris to a wholesaler, but it can take three to four months before he receives any payment.
“When demonetisation happened, we had to go deposit all our old notes in the bank. There was nothing left to buy any material — the threads and the decorations for the saris,” he said. “The most difficult part was going to the bank and accounting for the money. We are not well-educated. It wasn’t easy. Those were dark days.”
Just as he was recovering from demonetisation, Iqbal was hit by GST.
Now, even though he still has to wait for three to four months to get paid, Iqbal still has to pay five percent GST right off the bat. He also has to pay GST on purchasing the material he needs to make the saris.
“We don’t have that kind of margin that we can afford this,” he said.
Ahmed said it was difficult for him to come up with an exact figure for his losses over the past two or three years, but there were no words to describe the “tension” in the wake of demonetisation and GST.
“Tension, tension, too much tension,” he said.
Tension, tension, too much tension.
Iqbal said that he had a relative who was able to help with filling out the GST paperwork, but there were other weavers who had to employ bookkeepers.
“A major problem that our community is facing is the lack of education, but that is changing,” he said. “My father had no education, but I studied till class 10, and I will make sure that my children get a proper education.”
It was at this point that Ansari, the local leader of the weavers in the Sarai area, chimed in.
Rummaging on the desk for a newspaper cutting, he said, “My niece has scored 94%. She has scored 99 in English. Look, her photo is in the paper.”
As the two weavers pored over the cutting, Iqbal repeated, “Education is so important.”