India is trying to revive khadi, the yarn Gandhi used to weave the country’s independence

Mahatma Gandhi with the charkha—a symbol of independence.
Mahatma Gandhi with the charkha—a symbol of independence.
Image: AP Photo
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Legions of Indian government employees may soon have an old, handwoven byword for power dressing.

Khadi, a cloth woven out of handspun yarn, may be made compulsory for such officials on at least one day each week, the Times of India reported. If the move gets the go-ahead, it will be keeping with prime minister Narendra Modi’s avowed support for the fabric.

A symbol of self-reliance and rebellion during the country’s struggle for independence from the British in the first half of the 20th century, khadi is produced mostly by micro and small enterprises in the country. In the 2015 fiscal year, the industry employed around 1.12 million Indians—reason enough for the government to try and revive sales.

In the very first episode of his Mann Ki Baat (from the heart) radio series, Modi evinced interest in the cloth. In the speech aired on Oct. 3, 2014—a day after the 145th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi—the prime minister appealed for the increased use of khadi.

The symbolism was not missed. Along with satyagraha (truth force) and ahimsa (non-violence), khadi was Gandhi’s most enduring weapon while leading India’s freedom movement till the late 1940s.

“Like swaraj (self-rule), khadi is our birthright, and it is our lifelong duty to use that only. Anyone who does not fulfil that duty is totally ignorant of what swaraj is,” Gandhi had said (pdf) in 1922.

In fact, khadi became so important to him that Gandhi wanted the charkha—the spinning wheel used to manually spin the yarn—to be made part of the Indian national flag. While the suggestion was not accepted, it was mandated that the Tricolour used for official purposes must always be made of khadi.

Flagging sales

Over the years, the fabric came to be associated with the Indian political class. Besides wearing khadi clothes and caps—both typically white—leaders were often heard singing paeans to it. But that didn’t do much for the fabric’s commercial success, primarily due to lack of innovation, variety and cost. The fabric is expensive owing to the intensive labour involved.

Eventually, as unscrupulous politicians proliferated, khadi lost its pre-independence halo because of its wearer’s infamy.

Modi’s arrival on the national scene in May 2014, though, may have revived consumer interest in the fabric. The numbers may not yet verify the big claims about spiking sales, but the prime minister has ensured high visibility for the cloth with his signature pastel-shaded kurtas and jackets.

Prompted by his exhortation on the radio, the country’s national carrier Air India said in December that it will use khadi products in its business class amenity kits on international flights. The airline placed Rs1.21 crore ($179,089)-worth orders with the Khadi and Village Industries Commission.

On Jan. 30 this year, Modi again appealed for the widespread use of khadi. In his Mann ki Baat address on Martyrs’ Day (Jan. 30)—the death anniversary of Gandhi—Modi said, “Khadi has the power to provide employment to crores of people. It has now become a symbol and a centre of interest of the nation’s youth.”

The manufacturing of khadi requires manual labour, and hence is a mass employment generator. Clearly the focus is on the segment’s potential as a job provider in rural India.

However, production and sales have been stagnating. Khadi sales grew at about 6% in the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years. In 2001, a Planning Commission study (pdf) found that there were problems in the production and sales strategies. Raw material costs were high and employment generation in the sector was not encouraging.

Nevertheless, if sales can be improved by having clerks and senior bureaucrats sauntering around in khadi, it may be worth a try. Besides, this could also mean enlivening the hitherto dull and chaotic government offices with a dash of colour.