My former neighbor, from when I lived in West Ken, Barrister Gandhi has written as follows-
WILL THEY DO IT?
Since I have taken up the walking pilgrimage, hundreds of villagers have been following the pilgrims. Some even talk about their woes. Thus, whilst I was reaching Sakhigopal, a representative weaver himself told me that the weavers were in great distress as there was no demand for their cloth.
I told him I had prophesied fifteen years ago that it would not be possible for them to co-exist with mills, so long as they used mill yarn, and that the natural supplier and sustainer of the handloom was the spinning-wheel. In his reply I heard, to the best of my recollection, for the first time, ‘Give us hand-spun and we shall weave it.’
‘I will, if you will do as I tell you’, said I.
‘We will’, the old man replied. The weaver was an old man with a bent back.
I was overjoyed at his replies and said, ‘That is very good. Then I would teach you, your wife and your children how to gin, card and spin. You will then have enough yarn for your loom. You will spin good, strong, even yarn, you will avoid waste. I shall expect you from your first out-turn to take your khaddar for your own use and then I shall buy all the surplus khaddar you weave. I shall try to become a member of your family and give you the benefit of my experience.
Thus, I shall ask you to give up drink and intoxicating drugs if you are addicted to them. I shall go through your family budget and wean you from incurring debts.’
The old man’s face lightened up and he said, ‘We shall surely follow your advice. At present, starvation stares us in the face.’ I asked him to bring some of his friends to see me at 3 o’clock at the
Gopabandhu Ashram in Saikhigopal.
He came with his friends, I repeated much of the morning conversation and said, ‘I know you can’t spin at once enough yarn to start your looms. I shall, therefore, supply you with enough yarn to start with for the most promising families. By the time you have woven it, you will have spun enough to feed your looms. The first khaddar you weave from this supplied yarn will be taken over from
you. For the second lot, if you have not yet enough yarn of your own, I will again supply you with some. After that you should become self-supporting and you should make all your own family
requirements of cloth and then only sell the surplus.
I regard this as an experiment of the highest importance and potency. There are probably ten million weavers in India. No one has the correct number, to the thousand even. But ten million is a safe guess. If these added all the previous processes to the art of weaving, they would not only ensure their own existence, but cheapen khaddar to the lowest possible limit and turn out much more durable and beautiful khaddar than has yet been produced.
The readers of Harijan know that there are in the Central Provinces several Harijan weaver families which do their own carding and spinning. I would add to this ginning. The future of khaddar can be assured if the weavers realize the necessity, for their own sakes, of themselves doing all the processes antecedent to weaving.'
Was Gandhi right in the advise he gave the elderly weaver? Could hand spinning yarn yield the weavers enough income to stave off starvation?
Gandhi's acolyte, Vinobha Bhave made the experiment-
On September 1, 1935 I started a new practice, though in fact it was not really new, it merely became more noticeable. The whole spinning exercise was designed to demonstrate that a man could earn his living by spinning, provided he received the wages I had calculated, and the market prices remained steady. On this basis I reckoned that one should be able to live on six rupees a month; the diet included fifty tolas of milk, thirty tolas of vegetables, fifteen to twenty of wheat, four of oil, and some honey, raw sugar or fruit.
This principle, that a spinner should be able to earn his living by his work, had always been accepted from the first years at Wardha, 1922-23. The new practice we began at Nalwadi in 1935 was that at four o’clock each afternoon we reckoned up how much work had been done. If it was found that by six o’clock (after eight hours of work) the spinners would have earned full wages, then the evening meal was cooked. Otherwise, the workers had to decide whether to forego the evening meal, or to work extra time and earn the full wages. Sometimes the ration was reduced when the earnings fell short. My students were quite young lads, but they worked along with me enthusiastically to the best of their power.
The Charkha Sangh (All India Spinners Association) had fixed wages which amounted to only five rupees a month for four hanks daily, that is, for nine hours’ work a day. In my opinion a spinner should receive not less than four annas (a quarter-rupee) for his daily quota; Bapu would have liked it to be eight annas. But that would have put up the price of khadi, and the gentry would not be prepared to pay a higher rate. What could be done? The only way was for someone like me to experiment in living on the spinner’s wage.
Bapu soon heard of my experiment. He was living at Sevagram, but he was alert to everything that was going on. When we next met he asked me for details. ‘How much do you earn in a day,’ he enquired, ‘calculated at the Charkha Sangh rate?’ ‘Two annas, or two and a quarter,’ I said. ‘And what do you reckon you need?’ ‘Eight annas,’ I replied. ‘So that means,’ he commented, ‘that even a good worker, doing a full day’s work, can’t earn a living wage !’ His distress was evident in his words. At last, thanks to his efforts, the Charkha Sangh accepted the principle of a living wage, though in practice we are still a long way from achieving it.
This debate about wages went on for two or three years. The Maharashtra Charkha Sangh made the first move, and as no adverse consequences followed, they were emboldened to take a second step, bringing the wage to double what it had been. An ordinary spinner could earn four annas by eight hours’ work, while a good spinner could earn six annas. Some specially skilful and hard-working individuals might occasionally earn as much as eight annas—the amount Gandhiji had proposed as the standard. But though the Maharashtra Charkha Sangh adopted the principle, it still seemed impracticable to people in the other provinces.
After I had succeeded in spinning four hanks of yarn in nine hours on the wheel, I planned a similar experiment with the takli (i.e. using a spindle). But my speed was so slow that I felt it was beyond me to achieve satisfactory results. I wanted some more capable person to take it up, because it was only by such experiments that the idea of khadi could really gain ground. I myself experimented for a full year with takli spinning by the left hand, and found that there was a difference of twelve yards in the production of the right and left hands. The purpose of the exercise was to find out whether a full day’s wage could be earned on the takli, spinning for eight hours with both the hands. My fellow-worker Satyavratan was able in this way to produce three hanks of yarn in eight hours.
In those days, about 1934, we used to come together every day at noon for takli spinning. I looked upon this as a form of meditation, and I told my fellow-workers that while I had no wish to impose my ideas on others, I did hope that there would be a better attendance at this takli meditation even than at meals. If this does not happen, one reason is that we do not pay attention to the principles upon which it is based. Meditation stands as it were midway between practical affairs and knowledge—knowledge of the Self—and acts as a bridge. Its task is to enable us, who are preoccupied with practical activities, to reach the Supreme Truth. Meditation appeals first to practical benefits, and by concentration on these benefits leads us to the further shore, to peace, contentment and knowledge of the Self. Let a person begin with the thought that if every inhabitant of India were to take to the takli or the charkha, many of the country’s ills would be remedied. If he starts spinning for that reason it will bring peace of mind. Whatever we undertake in this spirit of reflection or meditation brings both outward and inward benefit, and experience of the takli is of this kind.
So there we have it. Spinning might have some value akin to meditation but it didn't yield an income sufficient to stave off starvation. No doubt, the Gandhian fad meant that hand-spun cloth could be sold at a premium, but even so spinners couldn't feed themselves adequately on the basis of their earnings. By contrast, good weavers using machine yarn were doing quite well for themselves because they were producing a luxury product with a high market price.