Textile Sector – Cotton, Jute, Wool, Silk, Handloom, etc.

Cotton textiles: India was/is/ and will be a leader in sustainable production


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Indian handloom, Impact of colonial policies and the future of energy efficient cotton production



  • When we look back at Indian handlooms, what is certain is that the craft world has changed, not in the slow-paced gradual way of changes in the past, but much faster than before. India can be a world leader in the sustainable production of cotton textiles.

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Background: Indian handlooms

  • Supplier from the ancient times: The weavers of India have supplied the markets of the world with cotton cloth since at least the first century of the Common Era.
  • Fine varieties of cotton were the source of wealth: In pre-industrial times, the many varieties of Indian cotton cloth bafta, mulmul, mashru, jamdani, moree, percale, nainsukh, chintz, etc were the source of India’s fabled wealth.
  • Spun by hand: Until colonial times, the yarn for handloom weaving in India had been spun by hand.
  • Invention of spinning machines: With the invention of spinning machinery in Britain and the import of machine-spun cotton yarn, this occupation vanished.


Impact of colonial policies on Indian handlooms

  • Economic policies dictated by British: Since India was a British colony, the British dictated its economic policies.
  • Raw material exported while machine made fabric imported: Machine-woven cotton fabrics began to be imported, while raw cotton was shipped out to supply British industry.
  • Variety of cotton from India was not suitable for machinery, so they forced uniformity: Though Indian varieties of cotton produced the finest fabrics the world has yet seen, the famous Dhaka muslins, they were unsuited to the newly invented textile machinery, while American cotton varieties that have a longer, stronger staple, were more suited to machine processing. The machines needed a uniform kind of cotton, so the hundreds of varieties of Indian cotton which had been bred over centuries now had to become uniform. Diversity, until then valued, became a handicap.
  • By 1947 uniform production established and variety lost: By 1947, mass production was well established, and India’s own spinning and weaving mills took over the role of Lancashire. American cotton varieties and their hybrids gradually replaced native ones, so now, native varieties grow only in a few pockets

What did this mean for Indian cotton farmers?

  • New practices changed the nature of production from sustainable to commercial: Cotton in India is grown largely by small farmers, and the new practices have changed the nature of farm practices from sustainable, family-based agriculture to intensive commercial farming with severe and tragic consequences.
  • Seeds from companies were expensive: Seeds come from large multinationals, rather than the farmer’s own stock, and are expensive.
  • Desi varieties of seeds were rainfed lost rapidly: While the desi varieties were rain-fed, the American varieties need irrigation, which increases humidity. Humidity encourages pests and fungi.
  • Cost of cultivation increased with use of fertilizers: A cocktail of chemicals fertiliser, pesticide and fungicide is used which adds to the cost of cultivation, but does not guarantee a good harvest.
  • Debt increased farmers misery: The farmer runs up huge debts hoping for a good crop, but India’s weather is variable, groundwater is fast depleting. If the crop fails, the risks are entirely the farmer’s. The distress of the cotton farmer has even led to suicides. The introduction of genetically-modified seeds has led to more severe problems.

Relationship between energy shift and the cotton production

  • Renewable energy in 21st century: Just as energy from fossil fuels ushered in the era of mass production in the 19th century, it will be clean, renewable energy that will take the small-scale environmental Indian industries to the top of the heap in the 21st century.
  • Emphasis for low energy manufacturing: As fossil fuels deplete, earlier notions of efficiency will change, and low-energy manufacturing processes will gain value.
  • Handwoven fabrics will gain importance again: At the same time, markets are becoming saturated with look-alike products from factory-style mass production, and there are more customers for the individualised products dispersed production can offer. Small-batch handwoven fabrics will become desirable in the changing markets.


Interesting: Malkha a sustainable fabric

  • Malkha is pure cotton cloth made directly from raw cotton in the village close to cotton fields and combines traditional Indian principles of cloth making with modern small-scale technology.
  • Malkha is energy efficient, avoids baling and unbaling of cotton by heavy machinery and unnecessary transport.
  • It provides an alternative to the mass production of cotton yarn.
  • Malkha has also added natural dyeing of yarn to make its fabrics even more sustainable.


  • The world is looking for green industries. Over the next 25 years, as independent India turns 100, handloom weaving located close to cotton fields can make it a world leader in sustainable production.

Mains question

Q. The weavers of India have supplied the markets of the world with cotton cloth since at least the first century of the Common Era. In this context Discuss the impact of British policies on Indian handloom.

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