The Dying Lives of Varanasi Weavers
Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Like the rest of the world I had seen the colorful images in books and online but never had the opportunity to visit. I had imagined it as a place where art and craft thrived, having admired the exquisite Banarasi saree, hand made for centuries in Varanasi. I finally did make the trip to Varanasi last year but under tragic circumstances. I stumbled upon a report about a woman who lost her husband and two children within a year. These were not ordinary occurrences. They had literally starved to death a mere ten kilometers from Varanasi, a thriving tourist destination in the largest democracy in the world.
This led me to touch base with the authors of the report, People’s Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), a not-for-profit organization based in Varanasi that has been working with the poorest and most marginalized weavers. I learnt that Varanasi has lost 80 percent of its silk weavers, many of whom have had to leave the city and give up weaving to take up other low paying jobs such as pulling rickshaws or working as daily wagers. The reasons are complex but mainly to do with rising cost of production, falling demand and a system that has led the weavers and their families being reduced to indentured labor.
Health care is inadequate and unaffordable. Malnutrition affects 50 percent of the weavers’ children and Varanasi has the highest infant mortality rate in India at 78. This fact was brutally driven home to me as I learnt that two of the children I photographed during my visits died soon after.
Due to the efforts of organizations like PVCHR, the Government machinery is slowly coming into action but it appears to be a case of too little too late. A lot needs to be done urgently on a war footing, so that the children at least get a chance to live.
Photographs: Rohan Juierie | Text: Reshma Pritam Singh