An opportunity to rejuvenate the traditional crafts of India

Note: This article on steps to rejuvenate the traditional crafts of India first appeared in Times of India.

Immediately after independence, there were two competing ideologies for India’s development: the Gandhian and the Nehruvian. Gandhian ideology focussed on village development, small and micro industries and self-reliance. The Nehruvian ideology focussed on large projects and heavy industries to build a capital base and then turn India into an industrial nation. In fact, except Gandhians, all the others favoured manufacturing. At that time, Mahatma Gandhi had been deified but had no real power. Soon, he was assassinated. So there was practically no opposition to the Nehruvian strategy of economic growth. We tried a mixture of Capitalism and Communism which had the inadequacies of both and benefits of none. Thus in 1991, we had a sickly economy which had to be rescued from collapse by literally pledging the country’s gold.

The policies of Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation brought the service sector to the fore. It also brought in a financial revolution, but the industrialisation remained a distant dream. At last count in 2011, 22% of Indians were living in abject poverty. Around 50% are one family death, accident, illness or marriage away from poverty. Our infrastructure remains in shambles and the state is exploitative as ever. Plans after plans made by our brilliant economists and skilled planners failed to achieve the desired results.

In the race to be an industrial powerhouse, we left our traditional industries and handicrafts. The vacuum was filled by imports post-1991. This trend increased in the 2000s and now our markets have become dumping grounds of Chinese manufactured items. The items range from heavy machinery like power plants and whole factories, consumer durables including electronic items to festival essentials like Diwali lights and Holi pichkaris. The lack of demand has forced small farmers and traditional manufacturers from hinterlands to cities. They live in congested, unhygienic slums and work petty jobs. This migration also opens up regional faultlines. So we have sons of soil movements in many industrialised states, where locals resent the migrants.

The Gandhian standpoint was to make villages self-reliant entities again. The self-reliant village had been the backbone of India for thousands of years. The traditional crafts of India made us an economic powerhouse in previous centuries. However, colonisation, the lure of mega-industrial development and urban life destroyed the traditional craft workers in last 200 years. The people who migrated to cities continue to live in abject poverty. So can the village crafts be an alternative strategy to not only create new and well-paying jobs but also rejuvenate village economy?

Steps to rejuvenate the traditional crafts of India

It is not as if the government has done nothing in this regard. There is a Khadi and Village Industries department, Saras Melas, Craft Bazaars and Craft Clusters. But the efforts have not brought in enough returns. Multiple steps need to be taken for the strategy to yield dividends. One, ensure there is enough credit available for village industries under Mudra. Second, the masters of crafts should be videographed professionally and MOOCs should be released on YouTube, so that the new generation can learn from these. Third, most importantly the distribution channels should be established. People who want traditional crafts have no way to access them. There are no permanent craft markets in most cities and most of the crafts are not available online. Private entrepreneurs should be encouraged to engage in their distribution. Fourth, it is very important that the strategy for tourism and crafts be converged. Tourists generally like to take keepsakes and mementoes from a trip. Items from the destination, especially with Geographical Indicators, should be promoted at tourist places. Fifth, the designs should be suitable to modern tastes so craft items need some upgradation in terms of design. Design schools can be associated with prominent crafts in their area. Sixth, the items should not be inordinately expensive. This is one of the major complaints against traditional handicraft. The reason is mostly the profiteering in the supply chain, which should be discouraged. Increasing the variety will also work so that everyone can purchase according to their budget. Seventh and lastly, like hallmark and Agmark, there should be a mandatory certification for traditional handicrafts {like the already existant ‘Craftmark’} so that fake items are not sold.

The corona crisis has exposed our development model. The reverse migration of millions, many of whom swear not to go back, will pose new challenges for the government. Promotion of traditional crafts can be one of the strategies to tackle this crisis in the making. In fact, if the right steps are taken, we can turn this crisis into an opportunity.

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