The Indian Craft

Advocacy, Op-Ed, Policy

The Indian Craft: Sunrise or Sunset in a Global Market

Chatterjee, Ashoke


In July 2006, national newspapers carried an official half-page advertisement declaring “A Sunrise Sector: Indian Handicraft – A promise to (sic) sustainable self-employment”. Record exports during 2005-06 of almost Rs17,280 crores, 73 Common Facility Centres for access to new technologies, 21 crafts surveyed and documented for registration under Intellectual Property Right challenges, a flagship ‘cluster development’ scheme for 618 clusters and ‘business plans’ for 37 clusters, and building the brand image of Indian handicrafts through promotion in national and overseas fairs were among a long list of achievements celebrated in the announcement. Other events in July speak of a different reality. Activists have been meeting to address the plight of weavers in Varanasi, where imports of imitation ‘Benarasi brocade’ from China is leading to job loss, starvation and suicide. The Bodoland Association of Handloom Units announced that at least 60,000 Bodo households would lose family incomes due to a flush of mill-made cheap imitation Bodo cloth, including garments traditionally woven at home and marketed locally. In Rajasthan, artisans have appealed for help in a 20-year struggle with local tax authorities. Two award-winning craftspersons just returned empty-handed from a major sales event in New Mexico – their consignments could not reach the venue due to sanction delays in New Delhi. Organizers of a forthcoming international convention on natural dyes, which will showcase India’s traditional technology and a range of naturally-dyed products for markets at home and overseas, continued to run from pillar to post to raise resources for the event – despite UNESCO partnership and despite the huge potential for business promotion. And in Kolkata, land allocated ten years ago for development as an artisans’ centre has been forcibly seized. In July 2006, sunrise seemed a very long night away from the gloom of India’s craft reality.

It is not as if effort is lacking. For almost 60 years, the Indian Government has been unique in its commitment to the craft sector, a legacy of the swadeshi movement and the ethos of a national identity fostered during the freedom movement. Unlike most developing countries, in India crafts have been given a place in national planning. Pioneering spirits like Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Pupul Jayakar have left behind a host of craft-related institutions which are the envy of many nations in which hand activity remains an exotic fringe, most often relegated to museums. Why then is the craft glass half empty, when handskills represent the second largest employment potential in India after agriculture? The answer may be in the phrase ‘business plan’ tucked away in that half-page advertisement. For 60 years, that’s what Indian crafts have never had: a national business plan for a gigantic industry. Worse, there is nothing approaching one on the horizon.

A business plan assumes some comprehension of demand and supply. Today, whether at home or overseas, a sector over-dependent on Government initiatives responds to, rather than creates, demand. It is unlikely that even 1% of exports is generated is through state channels. The private sector delivers the foreign exchange, and the overwhelming bulk of domestic turnover. Yet it lacks cohesion, and has never articulated an alternative approach to that of Government in facing a market deluged with competition and handmade trash. Private and/or public, real craft turnover is a mystery. The mystery will remain so long as definitions of ‘craft’ exclude millions. (Official definitions were believed in 2003 to represent a turnover of Rs. 60,000 crores). If we do not know the real turnover, we also do not know how many Indians depend on handskills for their survival. All we know is that crafts employ the largest number of hands after agriculture. But just how many? The official estimates (governed again by official definitions) of 6 million artisans is a huge underestimate. It certainly does not include those Bodo women now being thrown out of employment, or the millions of women and men throughout the Northeast who constitute one of the world’s most remarkable pools of handskills. It does not include the millions of village artisans who make bullockcarts and ploughs, nor blacksmiths, nor the millions who re-cycle waste materials by hand to transform them into articles of our everyday use. Nor even the humble potters, our universal symbol of craft integrity. Another official estimate is 20 million, a private one 200 million. The confusion demonstrates why the sector makes such little impact on national politics and planning. Its millions are dispersed, unorganized and unable to unite in order to be heard. Artisans are often in the grip of exploitive procurement and payment systems that resist change. The Government sector is divided into ministries, departments and commissions no longer logical in the marketing challenge at home or overseas. The sector has no data base worth the name. The last serious attempt at analysis was by SRUTI in 1995, using data from the 1980s. Civil society often lacks the savvy or the resources to consolidate its demonstrations and take them to scale. The greatest lacuna of all is a marketing attitude — a business plan — that can identify opportunities and fulfill them profitably, and do this through motivation and participation of artisans. The reality is a “This is what we make. Please buy it” charity syndrome, not the confidence of “This is what we know you need. Buy it!” Little wonder then that the sector does not seize the imagination of economists and planners, or of business magnates. Leading IIMs have no clue about it. The Government has no truly professional marketing organization – ‘marketing’ accepted not as merely selling but as identifying needs and satisfying identified needs at a profit. Its investments in market research are pitiful, and there is no system that informs artisans about trends and opportunities – or impending threats like those that created havoc at Varanasi. Lists of official schemes make little impact. They are dismissed even by master craftspersons as difficult to access, impractical and even humiliating. If these schemes could add up to a strategy, weavers of Varanasi brocade – that Taj Mahal of Indian craft – would not be contemplating suicide.

Amidst this sunset gloom are important successes, many of them in the private sector. Entrepreneurs like Shyam Ahuja, the late John Bissell’s Fabindia and Faith Singh’s Anokhi chains have made path-breaking contributions. So too decades ago did Central Cottage Industries, Gurjari and the Shona stores operated overseas by HHEC. Other pioneering craft marketers have included Contemporary Arts & Crafts, Sasha and now Industree. The Aditi and Meenakari exhibits (created by Rajeev Sethi and Martand Singh respectively) have set standards of craft innovation and accomplishment that are unsurpassed. Quality crafts find high-end expression in every metro, while Dilli Haat has been an outstanding success by demonstrating urban buying power through intelligent positioning. NGO leaders including Dastkar, Dastkar Andhra, Dastakari Haat Samiti and the national network of Craft Councils have demonstrated the development process that begins with documentation and analysis and moves on through product development into sustainable markets. Design institutions including NID and NIFT have contributed at all these levels, through trained talent that understands the sector and has influenced it profoundly. The Craft Revival Trust is emerging as a significant think-tank on needs and opportunities. Few of these resources are acknowledged in official hoopla, yet it is they who hold the clues to the future.

The lesson perhaps is that sunrises depend more on analyzing current challenges and doing the homework for change, and less on extolling official activity. If elsewhere government is realizing the futility of trying to run enterprises better left to private initiative, the craft sector awaits this transition. Yet it will not be enough for Government merely to withdraw. It has to help build the capacity of those who must take over: artisans, traders, managers and civil society. The private sector too needs urgent reform, contributing as little as it does to sector analysis and doing far too little to develop artisans’ capacities. A sector that keeps makers unempowered as market players cannot influence the growing complexities and competition of trade. NGOs need management skills that go well beyond well-intentioned melas and exhibitions if they are to be engines for a fair trade movement on behalf of Indian artisans. In short, the sector needs the quality of partnerships and trust that Gandhiji demonstrated through a swadeshi movement related to the challenges of his time. His principles — of customer first and accountability to makers — remain the benchmark of craft professionalism.

None of this is rocket science. A 1989 working group for the 8th Five-Year Plan gave recommendations still relevant all these years later. 2004 heard from a Consultative Group on the sector. Yet another task force has set about drafting craft strategies for the 11th Plan. Hopefully, it will draw on a new opportunity: the Jodhpur Consensus on Cultural Industries, achieved last year by participants from 28 countries brought together under the joint auspices of UNESCO, UNIDO, WIPO, ADB and the World Bank. The Consensus links craft with human development, calling for allocations to be redefined as development investment, not mere expenditure. Demanding attention to the economic contribution of crafts, so long overlooked, the Consensus recognizes that cultural industries also offer multiple benefits that extend into individual, community and social development. These industries can help maintain and strengthen diversity and identity, providing a force to empower and build the capacity of individuals and communities still on the margins of development. All this requires policies and action plans based on evidence. Therefore the need for data collection and analysis, genuinely participatory frameworks that unite all stakeholders (most particularly artisans with those who control commerce) into more equitable networks that can be linked to regional and global value chains. All this requires careful attention to the opportunities and challenges inherent in the new terms that govern trade at home and overseas. The Consensus makes specific reference to intellectual property rights, and the need for a new balance between IPR and the public domain. These tough management issues call for a break from the top-down approaches that dominate India’s craft administration, replacing these with planning that begins where artisans are, in their homes and workplaces, and serves them with managers on par with any other major industry. On par, and yet different enough to recognize what the Consensus acknowledges as the USP of craft: “What cultural industries have in common is that they create content, use creativity, skill and in some cases intellectual property, to produce goods and services with social and cultural meaning….” The need seems to be for a fresh definition of swadeshi that recognizes the threat of their “economic and social potential …being rapidly lost” and can place them urgently “within the core of development visions and strategies”.

Doing all this demands going beyond publicity and rhetorical hints into a real transformation of the sector that must put artisans and initiative at the centre of decision-making. This is the business plan that can ensure that craft communities are prepared for marketplace challenges, that they help negotiate the terms of trade, and can unite with other stakeholders in a business attitude. It is that strength that can respond to threat (from competition or insolent power structures) and ensure India’s participation in global market opportunities in a manner that speaks of quality and professionalism (rather than opportunities lost because ‘we are like that only’). A business plan for the dawn, as we await the sunrise.




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