01/12/2009, 00.00
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Uttar Pradesh, depression and suicide among silk weavers because of economic crisis

Unemployment, malnutrition, and extensive debt have driven 47 workers to take their lives between 2003 and 2007. Human rights activists warn: the nationalist faction and the Hindu fundamentalist wing could exploit the unrest in view of the elections, to "foment ethnic conflict."

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - The crisis in the textile sector in the sacred city of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh - a state in northern India - is at the origin of numerous cases of suicide among workers, and could heighten the tension between the Muslim community (about 40%) and the Hindu majority. The alarm has been raised by Lenin Raghuvanshi, director of the People's Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR) in Varanasi, who denounces the general situation of growing poverty and malnutrition among the workers.

In view of the election for the renewal of the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber of the Indian parliament, scheduled to take place between May and June 2009, Raghuvanshi calls upon the political world to take into serious consideration the crisis in the textile sector, the second leading source of jobs after agriculture. He recalls how for 15 years, the local textile industry has gone through a "general decline." The decision to revive the industry on an "ethnic basis" has contributed to fostering the crisis, unleashing problems of an interconfessional character. A spiral of violence began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists in 1992, which unleashed one of the worst waves of violence between religious communities that India has ever seen.

Lenin Raghuvanshi, a well-known activist and winner of the prestigious Gwangju prize for human rights, stresses that the time has come to "construct an entrepreneurial production model, based on the Western model," to replace the "division of labor on ethnic lines" used until now. He specifies that it is the duty of the PVCHR to protect the minorities in view of the upcoming elections, and to prevent the nationalist fringes - headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party - and the fundamentalist faction, represented by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, from "marginalizing these disadvantaged components of Indian society even more."

The history of the silk industry in India is traditionally linked to the Muslim community, which for almost 800 years was in charge of production. Until 1960, the weavers were mainly Muslim, while trade was in the hands of the Hindu Marwaris. Beginning in the 1960's, some of the textile workers began selling products themselves, taking over a larger and larger segment of the market. Competition between Muslims and Hindus in selling textile products led to tension between the two communities, joining other problems of an economic, social, and religious nature. There is also the fierce competition from China. Because of the crisis, many have lost their jobs, trying to find low skill jobs as rickshaw drivers, domestic workers, fruit washers or vendors.

"In recent years," the activist continues, "cases of suicide have become a sad reality among weavers. The lack of raw materials, competition from low-cost Chinese products, the lack of new orders, the economic crisis connected to the decline of industry in the sector have unleashed a decline that is at the basis of depression and suicide." According to a recent study, there were 47 cases between 2003 and 2007, because of hunger and malnutrition. Another 30% are connected to poverty and the economic crisis. Finally, there are cases of illness, and the impossibility of paying off debts contracted in the past.

Lenin Raghuvanshi warns of the risks connected to the collapse of the silk industry, which could lead to unemployment on a vast scale. The fundamentalists could exploit the unrest to create an electoral basis among the poor and lower classes, in order to heighten social tension and ethnic-religious conflict. "The international community must be sensitized," the activist concludes, "in view of the elections, and the problem of domestic terrorism must be resolved, which sets down roots in poverty and is the cause of social revolt." (NC)

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