Why are craftspeople absent in the country’s trade policy space?
I was asked this question while working on a report that analyses in some detail the effects of trade and globalisation on ‘human development’ in South East Asian countries.
The report discusses at length how the lives of food growers, fisher folk, textile and garment producers – even workers in tourism and BPOs (business process outsourcing) – are being affected by the increased opening up of the South and South East Asian countries in the last decade. It has policy pointers on how developing countries can harness trade to improve the lot of these workers, and raise their human development quotient.
The ‘human development lens’ of the report views the effects of trade on the productivity and empowerment of workers, how sustainable the process has been, and whether income disparities have increased as a result. These are the very issues with which workers in the crafts have to contend.
No Space in the Policy Space
Craftspeople had no ‘voice’ in the report. And little – if any – representation in the trade negotiations that our government officials are involved with at the World Trade Orgainsation (WTO – the body that determines the rules for almost 90% of world trade). This is surprising when we consider the numbers involved. Almost 10 million people work in the area of crafts, most of them are poor, and many of them are women – all of which make them ideal candidates for government programmes that typically target the ‘deprived’ sections.
If the government needs other reasons for its intervention, one only has to look at the wide-ranging effects of opening up of trade on Indian craftspeople’s hold on the domestic market. The influx of cheap mass-produced ‘traditional’ weaves from China (Kanchipuram saris, Kuchhi embroidery and now Benares brocades) have had disastrous consequences for our weavers – some of whom have committed suicide from financial distress. This diwali the flood of Chinese-made murtis (idols) must have had serious consequences for the artisans and small-scale enterprises who have traditionally met this market demand.
Needing the face and ‘hand’ of the government
Crafts had no space in the original framework of the WTO, because the agenda was largely determined by industrialized countries and included areas they considered important -agriculture, fisheries, and so on. As developing countries have woken up to the dire consequences of some of the original WTO decisions, they have taken a more pro-active role in negotiations. They are now promoting new areas and protecting policy space that are more in keeping with their own countries’ needs, such as greater access to jobs in developed countries by their workers; and a reduction in agricultural subsidies in the West.
Crafts however are still not on the new trade agenda of our negotiators. At a recent stakeholders’ consultation in the capital different groups and communities had been invited to make presentations to commerce ministry officials. The expectation was that these concerns would be incorporated into India’s position at the WTO Ministerial in Hong Kong in mid-December. There were representations from diverse farmers groups, environmentalists, even the trained nurses association, but only one person from the crafts world (NEED, a Lucknow-based organization working to promote grass-roots entrepreneurship, which raised valid concerns on handicrafts in the trade arena).
As I see it, in the face of ever-increasing globalisation our domestic craftspeople need help on two fronts: managing their domestic markets and promoting craft exports. Both of these will need a pro-active government.
This summer, the US placed an embargo on Chinese garments that had been flooding their markets. While I am not advocating such an extreme, short-term step, we need to promote a pride in our traditional crafts, and create awareness of the threats to traditional knowledge. Maybe it’s time to revive the old khadi generation slogan, Be Indian buy Indian, for a new generation of consumers, schoolchildren, and even retailers. The beauty of the uneven textures of a handmade object or the giveaway irregularities in our traditional silk saris have to be celebrated over the bland aesthetics of the mass-produced imitation.
On export markets, the good news is that contrary to popular perception, Indian crafts exports have increased fairly dramatically since the early 1990s: the proportion of craft output (excluding handlooms and jewellery) being exported has gone from 22% to almost 70% today. This wave has been fuelled by an increase in global tourism, and the growing trend in niche markets in reaction to the “Walmartization” of the marketplace.
Indian craft exports, however, today are only the tip of the iceberg of the country’s potential. There are vast markets waiting for our craft producers if only we could tackle the constraints in the sector – raw material scarcity, dealing with remote markets, access to credit, infrastructure bottlenecks, bureaucratic red tape, to name a few, these have been well-documented in the studies on this area. One of the most important constraints is proper marketing of our crafts abroad.
Thus both forms of support to the crafts call for active market campaigning by the government. Whether marketing ‘Handmade with Pride in India’ abroad or within our own markets, the scale of the task and diversity of crafts and their markets need the face – and ‘hand’ of the government.
Trade can improve poor people’s livelihoods; the Chinese experience has clearly demonstrated this. And rather than wring our hands over the death of our crafts from globalisation, we should be able to manage trade negotiations and marketing policy to open up market opportunities for Indian craftspeople that will truly improve their livelihoods. Who knows, for the Chinese Lantern Festival next year, our paper makers could be flooding Chinese markets with paper lanterns made in India.