History of Textile industry in India – India’s textile industry
History of Textile industry in India – India’s textile industry
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India’s cotton textile industry ranks second only to agriculture in importance to the national economy. The
two are inextricably related: of the country’s 174 million hectares under cultivation, 7.81 million hectares are
planted to cotton, the principal raw material of the looms. These looms consumed all but a small fraction
of the domestic crop 6.8 million 170-kg bales last year. With the inclusion of synthetic fibres and blends,
they wove 8,367 million running metres of cloth, to a total value estimated at more than Rs 55,000 million.
The benefits to India and its people are considerable.
Unlike nearly all the world’s 80 major cotton producing countries, India is practically self-sufficient. It grows its
own cotton and substantially clothes itself. More than that, it is a major exporter of textiles and goods manu-
factured from textiles, to some 115 countries. The value of Indian textile exports reached Rs 5,683 million last
year a figure, seemingly disproportionate, that is explained by the fact that a considerable share of it
comes from the shipment to international markets of such high-return fabricated goods as towelling and
garments. In taxes and tariffs, the industry poured more than Rs 4,000 million into the national and state treasuries
last year, of which Rs 2,000 million came from cotton textiles alone. Bombay Dyeing is a major figure on the
export scene, alone accounting for 9% to 13% of total value of cloth exports. It is the largest single exporter in
The size of the national textile operation is equally impressive: 347 spinning mills (producing yarn only),
290 composite mills (yarn and cloth), together operating 19.7 million spindles and 207,000 looms and directly
employing one million. If everyone dependent on the textile industry for his livelihood is included, e.g., cotton
farmers, stockiest, selling agents and the like, it can be said that the industry is indirectly responsible for pro-
viding 9 million more jobs. ( History of Textile industry in India )
Most of the factory textile operation is centered in three areas: Bombay, with 30%-33% of the whole; Coimbatore
in Tamil Nadu State (27%) and Ahmedabad (about 20%); the rest is widely scattered throughout the country,
In direct wages and salaries, India’s cotton textualists pay an annual wage bill of Rs 5,000 million exclusive of
bonuses to workers, which add Rs 420 million more. Fringe benefits, such as company Provident Funds,
sickness insurance, paid holidays and subsidized housing and meals, raise the figure by another Rs 1,600 million.
If all textiles are included, the industry is India’s largest, representing some 17% to 20% of total industrial pro-
duction. The country ranks first in the world in the number of installed spindles (19.84 million, as against
18 million for China, 17.88 million for the US and 1656 million for the USSR) and looms (558,000 including
power looms), first in the production of cotton cloth, and fourth (after China, the USSR and the US) in cotton
consumption. ( History of Textile industry in India )
This high position is all the more impressive when one considers the several major obstacles
which India surmounts to achieve it. The quality of Indian-grown cotton is poor. Its yield per acre is the
lowest in the world: 142 pounds (the accepted inter- national measurement), against a world average of 362
pounds; it stands well behind China (441 pounds per acre), the USA (453 pounds) and the USSR (794).*
More significantly, Indian cotton is processed largely on outdated and antiquated equipment. The cotton
textile industry has the world’s lowest proportion of automatic looms: 18.5% of total loomage as against a
world average of 73.4%.
It is ironic that the pace of progress in textile manufacture, and the steady mechanization of cotton spinning and
weaving, toppled India from its supremacy on the international scene. This was hastened by Hargrave’s
invention of the spinning jenny in 1767 in England and, 18 years later, by the introduction in the same country
of the first power loom, the Cartwright. These machines and their successors presented India with an unattractive
choice: either go on spinning and weaving in the old ways, constantly losing more ground to progress, or else
make a concerted effort to catch up with progress.
India’s choice was a compromise: it would do both. “India had practically a monopoly in the manufacture
of cotton goods between the years 1500 BC and 1500 AD,” states Arno S. Pearse in The Cotton Industry of
India, published in 1930 in Manchester, the center of England’s textile industry. “The world undoubtedly
owes a debt of gratitude to India for the pioneer work in the cultivation and manufacture of cotton. It was,
as far as we can trace, the birthplace of that mighty industry which extends today to every civilized country.”
During the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages, Indian textiles flowed steadily to Europe, where they were prized
as luxuries, better than anything available at home.
Even in the 18th century, Indian spinning was considered so superior to Lancashire’s that weavers of Blackburn
and Bolton, two textile centers, imported Indian yarn in large quantities to feed their looms.
Evidence exists that by the early 17th century, India had begun to feel the wind of the industrial revolution that
was blowing from the West. A handful of karkhanas textile factories had sprung up and were turning
out cloth, no doubt on the most primitive equipment. The value of textiles shipped to England steadily rose:
£150,000 in 1677, £1,053,725 in 1702, £5,626,618 in 1858. By then, however, England’s textile complex,
highly mechanized for that time, had outdistanced India’s. What England now wanted from India was not
cloth but cotton; by the mid-19th century England was buying more than £4,300,000 worth of Indian kapas
Three wars were to play a significant part in shaping the fortunes of Indian cotton growers and manufacturers.
The first of them was the US Civil War, which, by effectively drying up supplies of American cotton, forced
the Lancashire mills in England to depend on cotton from India. The price of cotton delivered at Liverpool
rose more th… ( History of Textile industry in India )
staff and skilled labour was European. Steps were taken to police and organize the developing
mill sector, chief among them being the formation in 1875 of the Bombay Millowners Association. Some of
the steps were sensible, e.g. the first Factory Act of 1881, which forbade the employment of children under
7 and restricted the working hours of children under 12. The measure was as essential as it was short of true
humaneness, which would have eliminated child labour entirely. The less scrupulous millowners hired children
simply because their labour came cheap: Rs 5 a month for a boy or girl as against Rs 8 for an adult woman and
Rs. 16 for an adult male. It should be observed that the Act of 1881 did not affect Bombay Dyeing, then in its
third year: the founder, Nowrosjee Wadia, was vigorously opposed to both child and sweated labour, and paid his
hands somewhat more than the prevailing rate.
The first world war had a profound effect on the industry. In the period following the American Civil War, England
produced more than 80% of the textiles consumed by India. By 1900 it had dropped to 65%, but the country’s
dependence on Lancashire cloth was still strong. As war broke out, the United Kingdom alone was exporting
2,700 million meter of cloth to India, nearly three times the domestic production. Once hostilities began, this
supply of imported textiles was lost to India, which was then faced with the urgent necessity of increasing its
Although the war’s boom effect on India has been overstated, it can be said that, having no choice but to
increase domestic cloth manufacture, India’s mills rose to the challenge, despite stern competition from Japan,
which flooded the country with cheap textiles. In one year, 1918-1919, Indian looms doubled their production,
to 349 million pounds (as cloth was measured in that time): by 1922, production had risen again to 403 million
pounds. Since there was no appreciable increase in the number of mills and looms, the additional production
came from running the mills at full capacity.
The period between the two wars was marked by the Buy Swadeshi (home-made) movement, inspired by
Mahatma Gandhi’s boycott of foreign cloth in the 1930s and the interdiction of merchants dealing in it.
Ghandi’s urgent appeal for a return to the hand-looming of khadi, symbol of India’s simpler past, met with
widespread appeal and assured that the country’s charkhas, or spinning wheels, and hand looms would
continue to produce the homespun that established India’s reputation as a weaver of fine cloths. Gandhi
himself sat before his charkha nearly every day; it was as much his signature as the white cap. The habit has
been adopted by successive Indian prime ministers.
Production of yarn spun on charkhas is of course low, amounting to some 21 kgs per spindle per year. But the
importance of the hand-loom industry should not be under-estimated. It supplies both work and added
income to nearly one million villagers. In 1977, the latest year for which figures are available, the khadi industry
earned these home craftsmen Rs. 837 million, of which the major share, Rs. 569.9 million, came from the pro-
duction of cotton yarn and cloth. As Arno Pearse writes in The Cotton Industry of India, “Hand-loom weaving
is the sole support of a certain class of weavers in practically every province (India was then still under the
British Raj).” The statement, made in 1930, applies today.
The world depression of the 1930s took its toll of India’s textile industry, sending many a weak mill under.
Measures, some of them marked by desperation, were proposed and in some cases adopted to weather the long
slump. Duties on imported cloth were steeply raised in 1931, going to 25% on British textiles and 31.25% on
all other foreign imports. In 1932 they rose again to 50%, and again in 1938, to 75%. Under the leadership
of Sir Ness Wadia, efforts were made to increase efficiency, such as doubling the number of spindles per
spinner and increasing the number of looms under a weaver’s charge. For all this, the industry stagnated
until the advent of the second world war. ( History of Textile industry in India )
This conflict dramatically and permanently transformed India from cotton exporter to cloth exporter a change
of direction in which Sir Ness Wadia led the way. Before the war, unpartitioned India exported two million bales
of cotton annually. Thereafter, nearly all its cotton was consumed by the country’s textile industry, not just to
clothe Indians but also for shipment to countries suffering from the shortage of foreign textiles due to the war.
Millowners were persuaded by the government to pay war bonuses and subsidies to workers as incentives to
increase production; strikes and lockouts were banned.
Exports boomed: from 184 million sq yds in 1937 to nearly 1,000 million in 1973. Profits showed the same
steep incline: from Rs 70 million, industry-wide, in 1940 to more than Rs one billion in 1943.
The effect of independence and partition in 1947 is more difficult to gauge. The transition went smoothly
at the mills as the country was liberated from 300 years of British control. What is now Pakistan and Bangladesh
supplied 1 million to 1.2 million bales of cotton a year to India, and this of course was lost. Today, on 4.7
million acres, Pakistan produces 3.1 million bales of cotton, for an average yield of 242 pounds per acre –
slightly better than India’s. This harvest supplies Pakistan’s own textile industry, which in 1977 manu-
factured 310.25 million kgs of yarn and 453.9 million linear metres of cloth. (Bangladesh’s cotton textile
industry is negligible: the country imports some 90% of the cloth it consumes.)
Somewhat laggardly, India’ textile industry has followed the world’s lead in expanding the use of man-made
fibers and blended yarns. In 1975, the share of blended and mixed fabrics, in both the mill and decentralized
sectors, was only 4.3%; by 1977, the latest year for which figures are available, it had risen to 17.5%. This trend
has been encouraged by the Central Government, which in 1977 opened its own DMT plant in the complex of
Indian Petros Chemicals Ltd., at Baroda and today.
manufactures 25,000 tones a year of this basic source material for polyester filament and fiber. The Central
Government has also encouraged the domestic manufacture of textile machinery, including automatic looms.
India today has the capacity to manufacture Rs 1,250 million worth of textile machinery a year.
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