The government has launched another 'hallmark' to protect authentic handlooms. The big challenge now is to make people notice it
It’s been a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared 7 August as the National Handloom Day and launched the India Handloom Brand (IHB). Complete with a green and orange circular logo, the IHB (see www.indiahandloom brand.gov.in) is meant to “brand handloom products" for distinction and protection in the sea of power-loom fabrics that hold the market in an iron grip. Much of it is so efficiently duplicated, and so cheaply priced, that it confuses even the trained eye.
“Duplication", “power-loom", “cheaply priced", “aware"—these otherwise simple terms become loaded in a context where each is jostling for space in the current giant debate on the sustenance of handlooms and the creation of new jobs.
Ask yourself these questions to begin with: Are you aware of the IHB hallmark? Or that the logo ensures, for instance, the quality and authenticity of a handloom product, apart from guaranteeing other things—100% natural, colour-fast fabric, the use of safe chemical dyes, and the fact that child labour has not been used? And that it is different from the Handloom Mark, launched under the Handloom Mark Scheme in 2006 by former prime minister Manmohan Singh “to brand handloom products and secure a premium position for them in the domestic and international market"?
What is the difference, you may ask, and is the IHB indicative of the fact that the Handloom Mark has been a failure? There is no clear answer to this.
No wonder then that Alok Kumar, the development commissioner of handlooms, whose office is part of the Union textiles ministry, admits that “the India Handloom Brand is challenging". In the last year, says Kumar, only 366 handloom producers and enterprises have been given IHB registration for 59 product categories. “When we started examining the fabrics and goods submitted for IHB clearance, there was a 60% rejection rate," he says, admitting that the future of handlooms is bleak unless people know what they are buying and paying for.
A large number of products submitted to the IHB were found to have polyester-compromised cotton yarn or cloth that was not colour-fast. “This only feeds stereotypical perceptions that Indian handlooms bleed colour and are of substandard quality," says Kumar.
At his office in Delhi’s Udyog Bhavan, a public relations (PR) executive sits recording this interview. The need to disseminate information about the IHB is so urgent that a government office has actually hired a PR company. Few people know, after all, that select government emporia, including the Central Cottage Industries Emporium, stock IHB-stamped products. Besides handloom creations like Jamdani, Pochampally Ikat, Maheshwar saris, Kullu shawls and others, there are the less popular Salem silk dhotis, the Karvati silk sari, the Chendamangalam dhoti or the Kasaragod cotton sari. Some of these products are also sold on online marketplaces like Flipkart, Amazon and Craftsvilla, a Web portal.
Unlike the Handloom Mark given to a producer or a trading company, the IHB is a mandatory stamp for “each product". Kumar’s emphasis that they are working with state governments (handloom is a state subject) in handloom-focused states initially to scale up the fundamental notion of quality consciousness at Weavers’ Service Centres (WSCs) seems logical. Ensuring the right raw material is available (pure silk from the Central Silk Board and mill-spun cotton yarn), giving credit facilities to weavers, improving the staffing at WSCs, equipping them with software and display rooms, creating outreach networks and technically powered centres—it all sounds like the ideal agenda.
But shouldn’t it have made headway by now?
When we asked fashion designers and some well-known handloom retailers about the IHB, only two out of 15 knew of its existence. Most knew about the Handloom Mark (even if they didn’t entirely trust its clearance processes)—at a time when the government seems to be indicating that the Handloom Mark is a failed exercise!
Cynical and premature judgement won’t help but many questions surround the IHB. These include the absence, so far, of impactful advertising campaigns that reach and engage not just the middle classes climbing up in purchasing power, as Kumar says, but also those who are completely convinced about handloom ideologies, though they need information to direct their purchasing loyalties. There is, however, very little information.
The IHB also needs to be promoted differently, away from the rebate-soaked positioning of handlooms that keeps beating it down as a marked-down mass product.
The IHB needs to create bridges with multiple stakeholders—from handloom traders and designers who matter to, most importantly, fashion and handloom colleges where convictions about authenticity in design are seeded and formed. For it’s a much needed quality certificate in urgent need of voice and noise.
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