FOR the lowest grades of weaving, that is, for textiles such as packing material, gunny cloth, etc., required for purely utilitarian purposes, it is probable that hand-labour will eventually be superseded entirely by purely mechanical processes, for the proper function of the mechanical power is to relieve mankind of the drudgery of labour. But India will not learn the proper functions of machinery by copying the methods of European commercialism as she is doing now. Mr. C. R. Ashbee, M.A., one of the leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement in England, says, in his introduction to Dr. Coomaraswamy’s Indian Craftsman that, owing to the abuse of machinery in Europe, it is possible that the destruction and waste it brings equal the gain it yields.
Trained as we are to measure everything by a mechanical standard, it is difficult for us to see things clearly, to get a correct focus. We are apt to forget that our view is biased, that we attach a disproportionate value to the productions of machinery, and that a vast number, perhaps sixty per cent, of these productions are not, as is generally supposed, labour-saving, health-giving and serviceable to our general life and culture, but the reverse. ‘It is questionable’ said John Stuart Mill half a century ago, ‘whether all the labour-saving machinery has yet lightened the day’s labour of a single human being; ‘and the years that have followed his death seem only to have further borne out his statement, but the people themselves who are being exploited by mechanical conditions are beginning to find it out.
Directly the smallest element of artistic beauty enters into textile manufacture, as it does in the weaving of the national dhoti or sari of even the poorest Indian man or woman, then the hand process has always an incontestable and inherent superiority over the mechanical process. The higher the artistic quality required, the greater becomes the superiority of the hand-process. The power-loom will never entirely supersede the hand-loom as long as the desire for beauty is inherent in human nature, and to put forward the doctrine that the hand-loom will be inevitably superseded by the power-loom merely proves how utterly incapable most official experts are of understanding India’s industrial problem.
Every hand-loom weaver who is driven into a power-loom factory is a lowering of India’s industrial efficiency, and a depreciation of her artistic, intellectual and moral standard. For, though I have said that in the lowest grades of weaving it is probable that hand-labour will eventually be superseded by automatic machinery, it by no means follows that weaving, even in these lowest grades, will wholly cease to be a domestic or cottage industry. In India the official theory is that all Indian industry, like the official administration, must be centralised which means that the millions of skilled hand-weavers (who are some of the most skilful artisans of the world) which India possesses, must all be concentrated in the great Anglo-Indian industrial cities, and delivered, body and soul, into the hands of Indian and European capitalists, the l captains of industry ‘who play the modern commercial game with their fellow-creatures for pawns.
In industrial as in artistic policy, the present Indian administration is many years behind the times. The centralisation of industry began in Europe about a century ago with the introduction of the steam-engine. In the early days of steam power, the concentration of labour or the factory system was necessary in all branches of mechanical manufacture, because no means were known of distributing the power over long distances or over great areas. Anglo-Indian industrial experts seem to be utterly ignorant of the changed conditions brought about in Europe by electric power, which can be easily distributed over long distances and over great areas. The one man power required for a weaver’s loom can now be distributed by electricity over an area of a square mile more easily than it can be distributed over a quarter of an acre by the steam-engine alone. Every year, improvements in electrical science make the distribution and subdivision of power easier and more economical, which means that every year the factory system becomes less indispensable than it was fifty years ago. Scientists now point to the utilisation of the heat of the sun as the future universal source of industrial power. Think what that means for Indian village industry!
In Europe the latest industrial development is not centralisation, but decentralisation. The mechanical power which fifty years ago could only be used economically in large factories, can now be used in the small workshop, and even brought to the workman’s own home. The artisan is being emancipated from the tyranny of the factory. In Germany, the most scientific country of Europe, power-loom weaving is being already started as a cottage industry. The ideal loom of the future will be one in which either hand power or electric power can be used on different parts of the same fabric, the weaver changing from one to the other at his discretion, according to the character of the weaving. Then the workman will again become the master of the machine, instead of its slave.
It should be obvious to anyone who studies carefully the facts I have given, that it is either stupendous folly or wickedness to waste the inherited skill of the Indian village weaver by forcing him into power-loom factories as a means of educating him in the science of modern industry. It is usual to draw a distinction between the ‘moral’ and ‘material’ progress of India, though the progress which is not moral is not real progress. The moral factor dominates even the machine. An interesting illustration of this is being shown in the streets of London at the present moment, one which is very pertinent to the question of Indian industrial development, especially to the revival of the great hand-loom industry. The hansom-cab and other horse-drawn vehicles are rapidly being superseded in the streets of London by motor vehicles. It might be supposed that here was a case in which the advantages of capitalism and of the centralisation of industry would become clearly evident. With a horse-drawn vehicle it is easy to understand that .the personal interest of the driver and his kindness towards his horses are most important economic factors which give the small proprietor an advantage over the joint-stock company. But when the automatic machine takes the place of the living animal it might be imagined that these factors would be almost entirely eliminated, and that all the advantages would be on the side of the owners of large capital and great centralised organisations controlling a large number of motor vehicles. But so far from this being the case, it is the small proprietor, the owner of one or two of these motor vehicles who is gaining the advantage.
An interesting article in The Morning Post explains the reason for this. The moral factor rules even the motor cab. The writer says:
The future of the taximeter cab proposition in the Metropolis, presents a very interesting problem. Doubtless the general impression is that only the very large cab companies will stand any chance of surviving. A first-hand investigation of the facts, however, leads one to precisely the opposite conclusion. The profitable running of a motor-cab can be achieved only by consciousness on the part of the driver and by a voluntary attention to a number of details such as cannot possibly be undertaken in any vast organisation where a cab is merely a cab and a driver is merely a man, without, as it were, individuality. For example, in a large cab company, if a man takes a holiday his vehicle is naturally not kept idle, but is taken out by another driver. Anybody who knows anything of machinery will realise at once that for a vehicle to be driven by two distinct drivers is ruination. Again, how is any big company to check the manner in which the drivers ‘slap the cabs about, ‘jamming on the brakes and doing all sorts of dashing performances that they would certainly never indulge in if the machines were their own property. In many cases the whole difference in running a motor-cab at a loss or a profit lies in whether you tear your tyres by the abuse of the brakes resulting from reckless driving.
The writer goes on to show how the big companies, far from getting a choice of the best drivers, only get those that the small proprietors do not desire to employ. The small proprietors earn more themselves, and thus can afford to pay their employees better wages than the big companies give. Their employees in their turn, knowing the establishment is worked on a small scale, handle the machine with care in place of abusing it, because they know that if it goes out of work they go out of work also. These cabmen of the small proprietors are thrifty, sober men whose object it is to save money until they have sufficient to become small proprietors themselves.
Manufacturers state that there are no clients they trust more willingly than cabmen. . . . This development of the small proprietor and the honest cab-driver with enterprise, is one of considerable interest. They are likely to form a class that will increase considerably. The financial future for the large cab-companies is not bright, for the capital sunk in them is enormous, and, in the main, every extra machine that is put on the road tends, not so much to bring in additional receipts as to reduce the takings of the other cabs of the company on the road. One allows that in regard to repair works, motorhouse facilities, and so forth, there are all the materials and there is all the special accommodation that can be desired. But these are not the only essentials for financial success, and the small man, in more or less of a make-shift stable, can for many reasons make far more profit per cab than the large companies.
The article further explains in detail how the big company system tends to make the motor cabmen not only careless and idle workers, but deliberately dishonest in their dealings with their employers. Like the power-loom factory system, this over-centralisation of work is economically unsound because it demoralises the workers. No progress is possible, either in art or in industry, when the moral factor is ignored. The Swadeshi movement will stand or fall, not by its success as a political manoauvre, nor by the increase it brings to the number of joint-stock trading companies and to the fatness of their dividends, but by its power to help in the moral uplifting of the Indian workman. So far as I have been able to observe, it has hitherto done more towards putting money into the pockets of middle-class shareholders, by the usual processes of western commercialism, than towards the promotion of economic and moral efficiency on the part of the Indian handicraftsman. It is true that the demand for Swadeshi manufactures has kept the village weavers busy for a time and sent many unemployed back to their looms. This is good, so far as it goes and as long as it lasts. But unless Swadeshi reformers work hard to teach the village weavers to organise themselves and to improve their mechanical methods, how long will the Indian handicraftsman be able to stand against the ‘Swadeshi’ power-loom and large hand-loom factories which are being multiplied day by day to help the middle class Indian capitalist to make larger profits? One hears much in the Indian Press about Swadeshi factories and joint-stock companies, but very little of Indian handicraft, which is a greater moral factor than all of these.
India will cease to be India, but will not in the long run gain a single rupee, by ignoring the moral factor in her industrial organisation. The modern industrial system in Europe is in a great measure a temporary expedient based on the transitional character, or imperfection, of modern scientific developments. If India is to be spared in future generations, the great social conflict which now threatens Europe, her industrial reformers must look to the future, and not to the present, of European progress. India should lead and not follow.