India is home to an estimated 6.8 million artisans. The production of handmade products could very well be the second largest source of employment in rural India after agriculture. Yet, for a country with beautiful handmade products, tremendous diversity and a rich craft tradition, India’s share of the global market for crafts is less than 2%. In our relentless drive towards urbanization and job creation requiring new skills, has the handmade sector—handicrafts and handlooms—been forgotten?
Between the second handloom census in 1995 and the third one in 2009-10, the number of handloom weavers and ancillary workers decreased by 2.2 million. This is a flight similar to what is visible in agriculture. Why should poor artisans and weavers bear the brunt of upholding our rich craft tradition if it cannot provide them with a life of dignity and comfort?
Historically, the handmade sector in India was characterized by local demand, inter-dependence of communities, the use of local raw materials and most importantly, patronage. Lest this gives the impression of being very romantic and equitable, let us not forget that this was rooted in our caste system as well, with its many accompanying transgressions. Over time, all of this has changed. Can this sector be resurrected?
We live in an era of mass-produced goods where economies of scale have led to lower prices. New materials have been developed that are not just cheaper, but more durable and easier to manage. This is a reality that we must contend with.
Handmade products are not cheap any more. Think about it. If you want a product that has been made by hand—how can or why should it be cheap? In fact, by virtue of the fact that it has been produced exclusively—where exact replicas are hard to find and most of the products are limited edition—shouldn’t we be willing to pay a higher price?
It is difficult to distinguish genuine handmade products from those made on power looms or the ones mass-produced by machines. Attempts at certification of genuine craft products and award of the Craftmark, the first such independent effort, have not taken off as consumer demand for certified produce has not grown and producers have limited incentives to adopt this practice.
Private enterprise accounts for a bulk of the market share for handmade products as well as export. Yet, voluntary organizations such as Dastkar, Dastkari Haat Samiti, Crafts Council of India, Sasha or government efforts such as Co-optex and the Cottage Industries Emporium have made a significant contribution in linking producers to markets, improving their skills, organizing them and providing visibility for their products. There is a need for a policy environment to support voluntary efforts in the craft sector since they can reach marginalized producers and link them to markets. But, more importantly, the government needs to disinvest from its own loss-making efforts and create an incentive structure and supportive environment for genuine handmade products.
The government needs to recognize the importance and problems of the sector and regularly collect and disseminate information on different facets of this sector. Producers also suffer from the paucity of information—particularly about market demand conditions and the response of consumers.
Handmade products are largely produced in homes, are conducive for small-scale manufacturing and require ancillary industries and activities to flourish. For a large number of people seeking to move out of agriculture, there are possibilities in the sector to strengthen the manufacturing base in the country and to move away from caste-based occupations. At an individual level, instead of merely lamenting the decline of our craft tradition or expecting cheap products, we need to recognize that crafts need our patronage.
V.K. Madhavan has worked in the not-for-profit sector for two decades and spent 15 years living and working in deserts and hills. He’s still on the fringe asking questions and looking for answers. He will write every fortnight.