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January 25, 2002 | 2000 IST
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Priya Ganapati in Mumbai

Most Indians who fly the Tricolour with patriotic fervour on the Independence Day or the Republic Day would hardly have given a moment's thought to where the icon of national pride is produced. But there's a lot to how the saffron, green and white flag is manufactured.

Forty-year old Dhanesh Navinchandra Bhatt is the only licensed maker of the Indian flag. His tiny unit in Borivili in suburban Mumbai, is the only place in India where the Bureau of Indian Standards-marked, government-approved Tricolour is produced.

Everything else you see is a cheap - and unlawful - imitation, declares Bhatt.

"There is a Flag Code in India, but sadly no one pays attention to it. Flags are made of paper, cloth or anything else. But no one bothers to honour the spirit of the flag itself," he laments.

Made of pure khadi or handspun cloth, Bhatt's flags are the real thing. They follow the specifications laid down in 1951 down to the last thread and dye. From the 150 threads per square centimetre of khadi cloth to the colour used during the dyeing process so that the Ashoka Chakra is the right shade of navy blue, Bhatt has worked for the last 3 years just to get it right.

In 1951, Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India suggested that only khadi be used in the production of the Indian flag. Dr Prasad felt that this would be a practical application of Mahatma Gandhi's idea of the charkha (spinning wheel) as a means of livelihood for the poor. So a mandate requiring the Indian flag to be made only from khadi was passed.

Today, however, the flag is made from paper, metal, silk and any other material that imagination and ingenuity would permit. Apart from the obvious disrespect to the flag, it also affects an entire ecosystem that depends on the flag for its existence, says Bhatt.

"There are many people who use cotton cloth from the mills, which is a lot cheaper than khadi. What will then happen to the poor who make khadi for a living? Where will they go?" asks a visibly agitated Bhatt.

His table in the middle of a dingy 3,000 sq feet shed, where he makes these flags, is cluttered with the Tricolour in various sizes.

Watch it for a moment too long and he will reel out statistics and the different uses they are put to. "The small one, 2 feet by 3 feet in size (width to length ratio), on the far right is used by small organisations and semi-government offices," he says.

"This is the most popular one. I sell 5,000 pieces of this every year. About 2,500 of these during August 15 (Independence day) and January 26 (Republic Day)," says Bhatt proudly.

And then he points to a bigger one draped across the cupboard at the end of the room. "It is 6 feet by 9 feet and is used to drape the martyr's body. The 6 feet has been specified keeping in mind the average height of a person. I sell about 500 pieces of this every year," he says sadly.

He then dusts away a packet retrieved from the recesses of his cupboard. A 14 feet by 21 feet Tricolour. It is the largest Indian flag that can be flown and is displayed only at the Mantralaya and the Vidhan Sabha in Maharashtra.

Dhanesh Bhatt at his unit in Borivili, Mumbai"Even in the Parliament House or the Red Fort, they fly the 8 feet by 12 feet flag. The biggest flag flutters only in Maharashtra. Each piece sells for Rs 2,500 and we sell very few flags of this size every year," he says.

There is no mistaking the passion and the care with which Bhatt handles the flag. But as little as five years ago, he was just another businessman trying to run his chemical factory and work out how he could expand it further.

The sudden death of his father-in-law, Labh Shankar Joshi, changed his life. When Bhatt was sorting out Joshi's financial papers, he was faced with dealing with the future of his father-in-law's tiny factory.

The seven-man unit had for the last forty years been printing the Ashoka Chakra on white khadi cloth. It was not a particularly profitable business, but then it was his father-in-law's passion.

Bhatt had two choices. One was to shut down the unit and leave its old workers to fend for themselves or to run it himself.

"I wondered what would happen to the poor old workers if I shut the unit?" Bhatt recalls.

Finally in 1996 with help from his brother-in-law, Vishal Joshi, Bhatt took charge of 'Khadi Dyers and Printers'.

The 35-year-old Bhatt considered moving into production of the Indian Tricolour as a natural step towards diversification. It was then that he discovered the chaos that prevailed in the manufacture of the national flag.

Despite the fact that the specifications for the national flag of India had been promulgated in 1951 and a rigid code regulated its production, Bhatt found that there was no one who adhered to it fully.

Even the Bombay Khadi and Village Industries Association, the government authorised agency which was producing the Indian flags, did not fully follow the standards laid out.

So much so, that the Bureau of Indian Standards cancelled its license for producing flags in 1991 for not conforming to specifications.

Bhatt then decided to take it upon himself to standardise the process of manufacturing of the Indian flag, a task that had never been done in the history of the country.

"It is the national flag. I thought the production should be standardised with strict quality control. But that was not happening. No one was monitoring the production of the flags and there was no agency too interested in doing it either," he recalls.

While the handbook for the flag specified everything from the type of the cloth to the colour of the dye to be used, from the number of weaves of the thread per square centimetre to the hemp cordage. But all this existed only in the book. No one before Bhatt had ever volunteered to implement it.

It was to be one of the most arduous tasks ever. Workers stitching the Tricolour at Bhatt's unit

Bhatt visited numerous handloom units, spoke to the weavers and made them aware of the weft and the weave that the cloth for the flag should have.

The Tricolour uses two kinds of khadi: the khadi bunting, which forms the body of the flag, and the khadi duck, which is a beige-colored cloth that holds the flag on the pole. Both are specially woven at handloom units of the Kshetriya Khadi Gramodyog Garg Sanstha at Dharwad in the Hubli district of Karnataka.

The khadi duck is a particularly rare piece of weaving that meshes three threads into a weave as opposed to the two used in conventional weaving. Woven by less than a dozen weavers across the country, it is not even found at khadi institutions in the country.

"The weavers were totally unaware of the specifications. We had to explain to them the required number of weaves per square centimetre of the cloth. We had to teach them how to test the quality," recalls Bhatt.

Once a measure of standardisation was brought to the weaving process, Bhatt turned his attention to the dyeing of the cloth. The Ashoka Chakra, in particular, proved to be quite tricky.

According to the BIS Handbook, the colour of the Ashoka Chakra was to be navy blue. But Bhatt found that for some strange reason once the Chakra was printed on the white khadi cloth it turned into a shade of blue that did not conform to specifications.

After two years of experimenting with various colours, chemicals and dyes he realised the problem. The chemical reaction between the alkali that was left over after bleaching the khadi cloth white and the blue dye of the Ashoka Chakra produced a new colour.

"We immediately decided to wash the residual alkali off the white cloth so that we would get the true blue colour we wanted. It is a seemingly simple solution, but it took us a long time to find it," says Bhatt.

It is while narrating little details like these that Bhatt's eyes light up and the passion for his craft becomes palpable.

"There is no awareness among the people. They do not realise the value of the flag. So they are content to buy cheaper flags that violate the spirit of it," he laments.

Making flags the Bhatt way is a laborious process. Once the khadi cloth is spun it is shipped to Bhatt's unit in Borivili, from where a small piece is cut out and sent to a textile laboratory in Worli, Mumbai. There it undergoes a series of tests to check the weave, spin, weight and strength.

The cloth is then sent to Poddar Mills in Mumbai for bleaching, after which the grey-coloured cloth becomes white. Once the consignment returns it is broken into three parts. Two are sent back to the mill again to be dyed green and saffron. Meanwhile, in his own factory, Bhatt's workers stencil and stamp the Ashoka Chakra onto the white cloth.

Once the green and saffron cloth is back, Bhatt's stitching unit cuts out the required sizes and puts together the Indian flag. The process takes six weeks.

Yet, the unit lies idle for eight months of the year. While he can produce 15,000 metres of flag every month, he produces just 5,000 metres a year, less than 5 per cent of his capacity.

"Hardly 10 per cent of the total flag requirement of the country is being fulfilled by us. It is only for the last two-three years that the Khadi Village and Industries Commission has been telling people to use BIS-certified flags. People too are unaware and there is no one educating them either," says Bhatt sadly.

Business, however, has picked a little. Two years ago, Bhatt used to make 3,000-4,000 flags a year. Now production touches the 10,000 mark.

The insistence on handspun cloth, the strict adherence to quality standards and production below capacity tend to make Bhatt's flags more expensive than the unauthorised ones. But he feels it is a small price to pay for the icon of Indian nationalism.

"When you purchase a flag once or twice a year you should not look at the cost of the flag. After all it is money that goes to a lot of poor people who are working on it. When you fly the flag you have to uphold the principles that go into its making too," he says.

Today, Bhatt makes an overall profit of about 12 per cent on his business every year. Clearly, it is not just the money that keeps him going. A proud and humble Bhatt poses with the workers at his flag unit

As you watch him examine each flag checking on the weave, the colour and ensuring that even as it is packed, the folds fall in the right place there is a strange sense of awe. The awe reserved for a man, who in his emphasis on detail, has got the bigger picture right. Even the strip of cloth he uses to pack the flags is khadi.

Ask him about politics and he begs you off. "I don't get involved in thinking about these political issues. These politicians talk too much and do little. I try to do my bit for the country by making these flags. And I try not to make any mistakes in my work because I feel I am serving my country," he says.

Bhatt hopes that the recent Supreme Court ruling permitting ordinary citizens to fly the Indian flag all the year round will help boost business. He has specially made 2,000 tabletop flags, anticipating a surge in demand.

Thanks to the rigid governmental rules, Bhatt cannot export his flags, and is forced to retail through the government's khadi promotion arm, the KVIC.

This, however, does not bother Bhatt. He plans to expand business in a different manner. He is now working on getting the process for the manufacture of silk and woollen khadi flags right. It is a task that has never been attempted before.

"I have to teach the weavers about the kind of weave that should go into the silk and the wool khadi cloth, procure the right thread and go through the dyeing process again. As soon as I get it right, we will apply for a license," he smiles broadly.

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