Congratulations on an election campaign that has given the nation your sustained leadership at a time of such challenge, at home as well as in the world around us.
I am writing to request your priority attention to the potential of Indian handcrafts in addressing some of the most urgent issues that confront your new administration, as well as to the inadequate position of handcrafts within current systems of governance. I ask for your consideration that this enormous sector of our economy — as well as of our consciousness, culture and identity as Indians — demands organisation and leadership of a kind that is critically missing today.
The importance of crafts extends beyond the economic to our social, cultural, and environmental milieus. Crafts are deeply ingrained in the highest values of our Indian ethos. All of this is endangered today through inadequate attention and understanding of this ‘sector of sectors’. Handcrafts urgently need the guidance and oversight of a Ministry that can comprehend and reflect the contribution of crafts to sustainable development and social cohesion in India. This becomes particularly important at a time when domestic and overseas demand is at its most competitive, and so many at the margins of Indian society seek opportunities for their own empowerment.
When planning commenced in India some 60 years ago, handcrafts were brought under what was then the Ministry of Commerce & Industry. The perspective applied at that time was to meet the need of earning scarce foreign exchange through exportable Indian crafts. Later, as this Ministry transformed, the Offices of both the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts as well as the Development Commissioner of Handlooms came to be placed in the Ministry of Textiles. A major range of non-textile crafts are thus today under a Ministry unrelated to its materials or manufacturing processes. Handlooms, although textiles, are under the purview of a Ministry preoccupied with the needs of the mechanised sector. The Khadi & Village Industries Commission, which is responsible for a large number of hand activities, is supported by the Ministry of Industry. This fractured approach extends from the Centre to the States. The result is that at a time of unprecedented challenge — as well as of great opportunity — the sector lacks the coordinated, professional direction that is essential for its survival.
The risks of dissipating India’s craft advantages are enormous. In a recent speech, President Pratibha Patil reminded the nation that crafts is the second largest source of employment in India, after agriculture. This source of livelihood is also predominantly rural, providing non-farming earning opportunities where people are located and at seasons when non-farming activity is most needed. This is a major factor, one that also helps mitigate the enormous suffering and burden of migration. The handcraft industry makes low demands on energy. It is environmentally sustainable, and can take this ‘green’ advantage to benefit both the environment as well as earnings and the economy. Many handcrafts depend on the skills and involvement of women. They providing home-based opportunities that keep families united. Many craft markets are local, reducing distribution risks for the maker and stimulating other local livelihoods. Crafts have great potential in markets that are growing at home and abroad. This is true even at a time of recession, thanks to influences such as the green and fair-trade movements. Most artisans belong to tribal, minority and other disadvantaged communities who are at the centre of your concerns for growth and opportunity. Crafts are the source of Indian creativity, the most important resource for our nation’s industries in an era of stringent competition. Hereditary craft skills and knowledge of materials are today applied not just to traditional products but to many contemporary engineering challenges such as space industries. Artisans are therefore national treasures, representing capacities to create and innovate that go well beyond the products of their traditions.
These multiple dimensions of Indian handcraft are seldom recognised. They demand integration of a kind impossible in current circumstances. Although many millions are involved, we lack even the most basic data on employment and contribution. (The Crafts Council of India is currently attempting to address this lacuna with the guidance of the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation).
To take advantage of the huge potential which craft activity represents requires organisational and management skills that are missing. It is for this reason that I write to suggest the formation of a Ministry that can address this potential for sustainable development, cutting across several economic, environmental, social and cultural sectors. I therefore urge you to encourage attention to an activity as relevant in today’s circumstances of India’s emergence as it was when Gandhiji made it central to our nation’s struggle for freedom.
With kind regards
(former President, Crafts Council of India and former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design)