Smriti Irani’s new learning curve
Here, a task list for the new chief of India’s “unglamorous” ministry
If any of us in our closeted imaginations even assumed there was a logical link between the textile ministry and “glamour”, today’s media reports—which echo the government’s outlook—have extinguished that flicker. Smriti Irani’s shuffle from the “prestigious” human resource development (HRD) ministry to the “distinctly unglamorous textile ministry” (Hindustan Times) has been viewed as a “demotion”—the word most thrown around like a hurting pebble by news channels last evening. Not only that, publications and news domains across the country have run editorials calling her shift the “price” she has had to pay and a “punishment” for being too aggressive and at times controversial. “Wings clipped” is another term doing the rounds—as is “relegation”. Ouch.
These terms may sting Irani, but what about the textile sector—which includes some of the most brilliant minds in India’s heritage industry? Worse: how does this make the minister of state for textiles Santosh Kumar Gangwar—a mild mannered man known for his good intentions and attempts towards the right action—feel about what he and his team stand for? A bit of a mix-up, isn’t it, right after the union government’s announcement of a special package of Rs. 6000 crore for the textiles and apparel sector?
Irani’s “aggression” and “controversies”—alter egos incidentally of glamour—could have been of good use to the textile ministry. But given the cabinet’s mood of the moment, she may instead need a firm issue-based agenda.
Here is a 12-point prescription to bring verve and sinew to the textile ministry and recast its image. A dynamic ministry can bring many long-awaited changes to Indian fashion, luxury, textile production, promotion, policy and potential. It is inherently glamorous—this job.
1. Reposition handlooms to create a layered, multi-market demand for the handmade.
2. Create modern campaigns for textiles and handlooms inside a larger framework of India’s heritage industries—instead of keeping them limited to simplistic weavers and loom visuals. Find modern marketing professionals to bring in new linkage vocabulary for smart industries and first-time consumer segments.
3. There was a demand for hand-woven fabrics during the Freedom Movement because of an evolving, nationalist narrative. Now what? Can the government take it beyond the current emphasis on “product”? What’s the big story?
4. Address development challenges in the sector—both in power looms and handlooms beyond the hullabaloo of Banaras. Initiate a broad collaborative and commercially viable dialogue on Hand versus Machine. India needs and has both—their being at loggerheads with each other is counterproductive to the existing market.
5. Enable a National handloom and design week instead of insipid rebate-led handloom weeks. Rebates shouldn’t be a cause célèbre.
6. Restart the NIFT (National Institute of Fashion Technology) Shop so that the country’s premier educational hub devoted to fashion can gainfully sell students’ creations. While on NIFT, widen/re-author the NIFT Act of 2006 to bring in domain experts or education wizards to head the institute instead of bureaucrats on short-term carousels of terms and transfers.
7. Launch a curious and serious inquiry into Weavers Service Centres across India. Where do they stand today in physical condition and potential? Does the existing model of education, support, training, yarn authentication, mentoring on pricing and patterning need a rework? Or should the original mandate (as per the second five year plan) be revived?
8. The Geographical Indication (GI) protection is in place, yes, but does it work or do Indian textiles still face copyright infringement and need a sterner policy approach?
9. Besides finding ways to reintegrate young weavers and loom workers into existing industries, find a way to identify and rope in young handloom and textile practitioners, academics and authors, for a holistic new “face” of one of the world’s oldest heritage industries. Where are these people and who are they?
10. Come down hard on existing systems of data management and statistical documentation of the numbers employed by the power loom sector and employment generation inside the handloom industry. There are allegations that this data is fudged and handloom employment figures are underreported.
11. Handloom Mark, Silk Mark, Craft Mark— these quality check schemes exist on paper, but they don’t come as a blanket or mandatory presence on actual products. What should consumers look for?
12. Madam minister, might you consider setting up a National Design Council to set benchmarks for quality and ethical practice that are applicable to every industry?