The Charkha, being worked on by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in his self-woven khadi loincloth, was certainly a potent symbol of our freedom movement. In English, more in the cultural context, than in direct translation, that spinning wheel represents nothing but time. So, the adoption of the Charkha by a shrewd Gandhi was, no doubt, deliberate — in protest at the machined cloth from Manchester flooding the Indian markets then, and important symbolically.
In political terms, it was as important as the khadi handkerchief the Mahatma wove and sent to Princess Elizabeth, then in her 20s, for her wedding to Prince Philip of Greece, none other than Lord Mountbatten’s handsome nephew. Queen Elizabeth, now in her 90s, showed that very rumal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited her at Buckingham Palace recently, after all these years.
Charming as the association with the Independence movement is, the Indian love affair with vastra goes back into the misty sands of time. There are frequent references to resplendent Indian cloth and apparel, vastra — shot through with gold and silver, in the Upanishads, Vedas, the great epics and elsewhere. Sumptuous clothing is often showcased as a metaphor in our languages, literature, plays, movies, and culture.
Today, we have turned that simple hand-woven khadi, the “Fabric of Freedom”, into its blended and machined designer avatar, and India now boasts of the largest installed textile weaving capacity in the world. We are also the world’s largest producers of natural fibres, cotton, jute. We are a substantial producer of silk. India is now the second-largest producer of man-made fibres too.
As a focus area for the government in 2017, textiles makes good sense because we have everything necessary for growing this activity available in-country, except perhaps the latest developments in textile machinery. With the echoes of Gandhian — and the freedom struggle — traditions in the background, it was appropriate that the first ever China/Japan/Europe/US-style mega business-to-business (B2B) event, Textiles India 2017, should have been held at the massive exhibition centre at Mahatma Mandir, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
It may be new to us, but the world has come to routinely expect such one-stop solutions if things are to get substantially ahead. The convergence, this time, of international and domestic buyers, textile machinery suppliers/manufacturers, high-end designers and the harnessed Government of India machine, aims to double the Indian textile business from its present $108 billion to $223 billion by 2021.
In terms of the prime minister’s over-arching vision of Make-in-India, the textile sector is a good prospect, particularly for its connect between farm, industry, domestic and overseas markets. It currently employs 51 million people directly, and another 68 million indirectly. This is second only to agriculture as it stands, and the implication is that it could draw upon the surplus manpower in rural India, via appropriate skill development, for its growth.
Textiles, particularly in cotton, silk, and jute, blends, and man-made fibres contribute 4% to India’s GDP, some 15% of its export earning, and represents 14% of India’s industrial production. Exports as a whole, the bulk of it coming from a now weakening information technology, only accounts for between 12-15% of GDP and needs to be reworked. India has, therefore, approved 100% foreign direct investment in the textile sector.
This affords a great collaborative opportunity to experiment, blend, design, innovate; all backed by intelligent and affordable manpower. The potential activity can lead to integration from sourcing and production on to marketing the end-product, both to the massive domestic market, and for export. And yes, as many as 65 MoUs were indeed signed at the 3-day event, as per Minister of State for Textiles Ajay Tamta.
The prime minister, with his penchant for visual alliteration, spoke in terms of a value-chain: Farm-Fibre-Fabric-Fashion-Foreign-his “Five F formula”.
The well-attended exhibition, with 1,000 exhibitors, 15,000 domestic buyers, and 2,500 foreign ones from 106 countries, including some from the ASEAN region, was held for 3 days from 30 June to 2 July. The event coordinated and showcased the efforts of artisans, weavers, mass-manufacturers, the signature presentations of several participating States and traditional skills, including those from the prime minister’s own Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi.
There were leading captains of business and industry, fashionistas, fabrics, apparel, carpets, soft-furnishing fabrics, India’s top designers and fashion models present. There was a substantial fashion show to cap all the presentations and conferences, many helmed by as many as 9 prominent Union ministers speaking on different aspects of the textile opportunity.
Textile India 2017 not only demonstrated size and scale, potential agility, speed to market, innovation, digitisation, as Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant put it, but a new approach that is becoming a Modi hallmark. It is the harnessed efforts of multiple ministries, including, notably, the Ministry of Skill Development and that of Tourism to show people how things are made, particularly in the handloom/handicraft sectors. And all this was backed up, in turn, by myriad government departments and export promotion bodies, cutting across states and ministries, in a manner that is a notable departure from earlier efforts.
Before NDA II, it was never more than the showcasing of the single Ministry of Textiles and, while this too did much to promote the skills and creativity of professionals and artisans involved, India steadfastly took on nothing from the way the international community presented such things. This, of course, isolated us, despite our merit, because the global scenario in this business runs like a well-oiled machine, with little or no tolerance for outliers and exotic behaviour, except in a niche and boutique capacity. And therefore, India’s textile exports, remain a small part of a small overall total in the world of exports as yet.
Modi, on his part, now seeks to mass merchandise India’s potential in the area, and this calls for new efforts and processes. The young Union Minister for Textiles, Smriti Irani, was at pains to point out that the days of individual manufacturers and vendors touting their wares door-to-door at European, Chinese, Japanese, and American buying houses — working at a net disadvantage, without back-up, were now truly over.
The major departure in policy terms is the Narendra Modi-led bid to organise collaborations, joint ventures, and manufacturing projects, sited in various parts of India, on favourable, incentivised terms, as the desired outcome. This, while not ruling out larger volumes of straight sales of ready-made fabric, carpets, and garments, pretty much as before. This implies that, though this event was the first of its kind, it certainly won’t be the last. But will India become a preferred sourcing hub and investment destination for textiles, as desired by Union Commerce & Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman?
It depends, of course, not just on such well-organised and orchestrated mega-events, but India’s continued success at becoming an “easy place to do business”. The coincidental operationalising of the General Sales Tax (GST) era, is indeed a demonstrator of things to come. With its single tax to replace more than a dozen, it was launched during the mega event on an All-India basis, save, as yet, the State of Jammu & Kashmir.
However, as several forthcoming and bold stage II structural economic reforms, on labour and land, amongst lesser items, are predicated, on electoral success, political will, and legislative ability — Time, like the Charkha, will have to tell.