Employment in the Craft Sector

Economics, Employment/ Livelihood

Employment in the Craft Sector

Jaitly, Jaya

A section of India believes that we are on the move and that opportunity for employment and enterprise in all spheres are growing. However another vast section in rural areas, particularly in certain regions and states and among certain communities, has been left frozen and immobile with no vision or hope of any change. These include artisan communities with low skills but no alternative options. Literacy figures are rising rapidly in some areas such as the north-east, and very slowly, particularly among women, in the traditionally backward states. Growth in employment has practically stopped in the public sector and but has grown in the services sector. Figures are quantifiable in formal industries and hardly available with any sense of accuracy in the unorganised sector. Uncertainties in assessing migrant labour, land ownership patterns, part time farming activity, artisan work closely related to farming or fishing, seasonal and full time employment in traditional cultural activity , result in only notional figures relating to employment being available for what is broadly called the craft sector.

For many years governments have attempted to assess accurately the numbers employed in handicraft and handloom activity. Difficulties in arriving at exact figures stem not only from faulty census methodology but from insecure conditions faced by traditionally skilled and semi-skilled workers in this sector. For example, a handloom weaver’s family could consist of the head of the household who earns from his labours, a wife who assists him almost full time in pre and post loom work, but is not a wage earner, and children and elders who may also assist from time to time for no wage. If the wage-earner should die, often the woman takes over the work of weaving. She is a skilled worker but would most likely not be counted separately in any artisan census. A semi-skilled weaver may find he is unemployed if his master weaver cannot obtain orders for the season. He may be forced to go into manual labour or practice some other low-level skill, despite being a traditional handloom weaver. Unless he is actively on the loom he may not be counted in the census. Many weavers have migrated in larger numbers to larger towns and cities to find alternative work. Some may absorbed by textile manufacturing units on a temporary or permanent basis while others may get lost in the ocean of impoverished daily wage earners attached to construction or other such activity. In Varanasi we have the strange situation of 40% of the handlooms closed for lack of orders and work, while for much of the remaining looms business is brisk. A national handloom census carried out just 6 years ago gives the number of weavers employed in handlooms at around 75 lakh persons, yet officials informally admit that the figures could be almost double. It also means that five times this number depend on weaving for sustenance. Census gatherers do not identify part time or unemployed weavers who have moved from their traditional areas of work. In the unorganised sector, much of the work has that ‘now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t’ quality because it gets activated only on a seasonal or need basis. Actual workers can be counted but significantly, persons with knowledge of craft skills which are underutilized or redundant fall between the gaps. A documenter of crafts for many years would know that among other things, the most fascinating aspect of the crafts sector is the ability of certain crafts people to appear to be flourishing one day and almost disappear from sight the next, only to reappear in another form the day after. A small intervention by technicians, designers, NGOs, local governments or just a sporadic market demand can resuscitate an old skill or create new occupations almost overnight. They may disappear just as easily if demand disappears. It is against such misty and ephemeral factors that one must consider the potential for employment in the crafts sector. Exports may give employment a thrust but keep individual wages low and lead to sudden collapse if products lose their appeal or cannot be competitive.

The history of crafts in the past 100 years would show a decline in those crafts which were part of earlier courtly lifestyles or were crushed for offering competition to British goods. Wherever industrial goods competed with local ones the latter died out and crafts people turned to other occupations. Also, wherever the world’s urban trends dictated changed life style, and old cultural practices gave way to new more ‘modern’ attitudes, the craftsman was often left by the wayside. However, the traditional potter, the blacksmith, the grass mat and basket weaver continued to make items for simple rural needs and survived because of this. The caste system also held traditional occupations in place.

When India became a free country despite the many vicissitudes that crafts people had to face, they could still be found in large numbers, and a strong spirit of nationalism encouraged serious efforts by the government to resuscitate and revive their crafts. One flaw in its pattern of development was the categorisation of crafts themselves. The word handicrafts was meant to describe the more ornamental, decorative objects that may also be utilitarian but actually served the upper echelons of Indian society, whereas common potters, weavers and others who made non artistic crafts were categorised as mere village industry, serving villagers. Naturally, with the same hierarchies being reflected in the bureaucracy and upper middle class society, the latter were practically neglected in terms of development, financial support or marketing. It was left to the village markets to absorb and deal with these, while the elaborate and finer skills were noticed and admired by cosmopolitan society. For these reasons, the common categories were never quantified while the upper section received government attention. Despite this imbalance, India’s official policies and the schemes formulated to channel funds for the development of the craft sector are probably the most widespread and supportive in their intentions than in any other country. It is also arguable that India has the greatest number of skills in the craft and handmade textile sector in the world and therefore it is only natural this should be reflected in government policy.

Government policies cover marketing through crafts bazaars and exhibitions, product design and technical training workshops, export development programmes, promotion through publications such as posters and catalogues, cluster development and buyer-seller meets, support to state organisation, apex co-operative bodies or NGOs to set up retail showrooms, and for state governments to set up haats (marketplaces) in urban areas to provide infrastructure to crafts persons for short periods of time. On paper they are well laid out and cover almost every development requirement. However, in reality, processes to implement them are mired in corruption and red tape and at times too inflexible to serve a sector full of disparate needs and tenuous results. Most often, what is really needed is commitment and passion, flexible modes of operation, complete integrity and considerable ‘hand-holding’ before a group of crafts men or women can confidently steer their own destinies in the commercial world of quality and competition.

The most crucial component to ensure employment, i.e., sustainable livelihoods in craft occupations, is the market. Without this there can be no security. If the crafts person is sure of selling his/her goods, the motivation and confidence needed to access raw material, give time to ensure a fine quality finish, seek funds through loans to fulfil orders and finally, to pass on skills to the next generation , comes automatically. For far too long, the focus was on inputs, rather than opportunities to sell the output. It may be a chicken-and-egg situation but in the long run experience has shown us that if a market is available, or even indicated in the horizon, the artisan will make efforts to obtain the inputs needed to find a respectable space in the marketplace.

In recent years globalization has been a big issue facing development activists who work at grass root levels. In some cases traditional occupations have been hit hard. Some years ago small fisher folk in Kerala were impoverished when big trawlers began to encroach on their spaces in the seas and the women who made packing material for the fish and sleeping mats out of screw pine leaves to supplement meagre family incomes found that they were the sole bread earners of the family. Financial burdens imposed by local loan sharks and unfair marketing practices which gave low returns resulted in desperate women committing suicide. It took many years of struggle, in which I was personally involved, major organisational efforts by dedicated trade unionists and some determined weaver women to stabilize their lives and their incomes. In another part of Kerala, traditional potters lost their markets for earthen cooking vessels because of competition from industrial substitutes. Women in these families turned to prostitution until another major intervention by the Dastkari Haat Samiti along with a designer and funds from government sources brought them back to making more contemporary and relevant products and out of prostitution. It was the loss of markets that caused their miseries, and even while they have excellent marketable products now such as terracotta murals and large garden pots and urns, it is largely private initiatives and not the government that sustains them. Life may have improved but the future is still precarious unless the connecting links between village production and sophisticated urban demands is kept firm by those involved in sustaining the livelihoods of such people.

Positive stories in the craft sector abound in the current environment of enterprise, literacy, internet technology and cheaper travel. There is a quantum leap in the world’s interest in India’s special qualities. Crafts and handmade textiles are India’s greatest cultural resources that can be converted into economic wealth. Unlike ten years ago, crafts people who have had exposure to urban marketing events and state invitations abroad to demonstrate their skills at trade fairs and other ‘India shows’ have now printed business cards. Some have e-mail addresses and communicate via the internet through literate friends or even type Hindi words in English themselves. Their sons and daughters are now encouraged to be part of their enterprises since earnings and dignity in pursuing such professions has improved. Fifteen years ago most crafts people spoke with a sense of apathy and despondency, but today they know they can contact buyers through the internet or tourists will visit their village and buy their wares at their doorstep. Places like Dilli Haat have opened up major marketing opportunities where they learn confidence in selling to urban customers. In Uttaranchal small NGOs work with women’s groups in villages to convert local grasses and bamboo into basketry and rope or multiple utilitarian and artistic uses. These products are shown at crafts bazaars at places like Dilli Haat. Small entrepreneurs have developed into exporters confident of getting orders for contemporary, well-designed and well-presented handicrafts.

In the district of Bhadohi a project initiated by the Dastkari Haat Samiti with help from Sandhi Craft Foundation, (an initiative of the ICICI Bank), enabled hundreds of women to have a vision of steady earnings from their traditional skill of basket making, which had never been produced for the market. Since they made them only for personal use, they had escaped the attention of institutional bodies. The women were either not earning from basketry or were earning a pittance in carpet weaving. After being motivated to convert their skill into earnings, getting guidance in colours and new product types, they realized that good orders could bring them a four figure income every month if they were industrious. In this instance, employment potential has been created among women in Bhadohi where none existed, within a year of focussed work carried out by the organisers. This example demonstrates the huge scope that exists for creating employment in the crafts sector. The basic requirements are, a) the ability to search for and recognise craft skills and their potential for development, b) provide necessary improvements to make them marketable, c) target and provide access to specific markets, d) provide temporary support to enable crafts people to form organisational bodies and access micro credit and other loans, e) assist them at a later stage in setting up a business enterprise with a proper business plan. The private sector and the government can work with established NGOs, design institutions, exporters and sundry marketing bodies to create the groundwork and bring crafts persons and their products out to the vast marketplace. Corporate social responsibilities can be fulfilled by ensuring that corporate gifts and some kinds of office equipment is accessed only from this sector. It benefits everyone to create purchasing power in rural areas, since industrial products would then be in demand, and encourage livelihood generation in a sector that is employment friendly, eco-friendly and, as a bonus, demonstrates the excellence of India’s traditional skills and multi-cultural traditions.

11th September ‘07
First Published Oct 2007, One India One People
Reprinted March 2008, The Other Side


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