Bring Crafts Back Into The National Agenda

Updated: Jul 28 2004, 06:06am hrs
Handicrafts and the handloom weaving industry used to occupy a central place in the discourse on national development policy about 20 years ago. After the economic reforms began, these sectors dropped out of the mainstream development agenda. Why have these sectors become marginal in policy discourse Is there a ground why we should bring the crafts back into the policy agenda If the answer is yes, what should policy do

The first question is easily answered. Economists today are generally misconceived about the economic potentials of these industries. Before the economic reforms, preserving the crafts represented an ideological priority, a kind of Gandhian corrective to the Nehruvian accent on heavy industry. Whatever the merits or demerits of that policy, crafts became identified with ideology and the subsidy raj. When economists left these ideologies behind, the crafts fell by the wayside. Ask most economists today what they think of craft preservation, and half of them would retort, But they are declining, arent they The more sympathetic half will say, if there is a reason for craft preservation, it is a cultural reason, not an economic one. Both implicitly believe that the crafts do not have large market potential and, therefore, are unworthy of policy support except on cultural grounds.

It is easy for economists to continue holding such beliefs. To convince an economist that an industry has market potential, you need to show statistics that at least hint at a picture of health. Craft statistics, unfortunately, are in a sorry mess. The numerous stakeholders in the craft business and craft preservation today non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government offices concerned, and the few researchers that this field still attracts long underestimated the power of statistics, and they are now paying a price.

The nearest approximation to a dataset, a mid-1990s survey of handicrafts done by the Delhi-based NCAER, is widely believed to be unreliable. The only craft sector that can be tracked as a separate sector in industrial statistics, at least until the recent ill-conceived changes in industrial classification system, is handloom weaving. And handloom statistics do show a steady decline in employment, production and income in recent years. If you cite this data, any economist would say, we told you this is a sunset industry, so why get excited by its prospects

And yet, that conclusion is misleading. Any overall handloom statistics are misleading because they are an aggregate over two dissimilar kinds of handlooms and market segments. One of these is utility-based that used to receive a lot of state aid in the pre-reform era and which is, indeed, ailing for want of such aid. The other one is a design-based segment that is, by all accounts, expanding. However, the former has a larger weight, pulling aggregate statistics down.

How do we know the second one is growing There are today a fair number of NGOs (like Dastkar) trying to market handloom dress material and furnishing, as well as private firms (like Fabindia) selling handloom goods for the urban market. Ask any one of them what their marketing experience is. With a few exceptions, you will receive a picture of phenomenal commercial success. Of course, these organisations make their own innovations on the product, but the skills that they make use of are traditional craft skills, the people who supply these are often traditional artisans. The same success stories can be heard in a number of co-operative societies of handloom weavers dealing with high-quality saris. Such examples are now so many that it would be a mistake to brush them off as exceptional.

If the handloom situation is, for arguments sake, ambiguous, the handicraft case is fortunately clearer. There is one piece of aggregate statistics that any craft lobby can use as a powerful weapon. Handicrafts have emerged as a major export of India since the mid-1990s. Far from being replaced by modern industry, under the rule of freer market, the crafts have gained significantly. The reason is simple. Globally, the demand for ethnic goods, and products that make a cultural statement, is expanding as a result of the growth of tourism, and as a reaction to the homogenisation of mass-produced goods. This is not an exceptional or marginal thing, it involves a global market segment worth well over a $100 billion and growing by leaps.

Is there a ground why we should bring the crafts back into the national policy agenda We are closer now to answering this question. The crafts deserve state aid to enhance their market potentials. Crafts are more than cultural markers. These are businesses performed by segments artisans, rural industry, women who can potentially write dramatic export success stories, and are yet underprivileged in many ways. In the present regime, economists seem to be concerned about reviving rural India, which had been seemingly bypassed by the economic reforms. Here is their chance to go beyond rhetoric and do something really useful.

At this stage, many economists are likely to say, but the ministry of textiles already has offices dealing with the handicrafts. The truth is, what the ministry does isnt enough. The real problem with Indias artisans is not that their markets are failing. The problem is not even that innovations are lacking. Innovations take care of themselves if there is potential demand for a product. In any case, there are many under-employed designers in this country. The real problem is physical access to markets. One hundred years ago, most crafts sold locally. Market access was not a problem. But today rural crafts are either sold in the cities or exported abroad. And accessing these markets are physically so difficult for rural artisans that a wedge has been erected between the producers and the market in the current scenario.

The principal constraint that forces millions of artisans to remain in the backwaters of the market economy is that the craft clusters of India are still outside the mainstream marketing infrastructure. Our perception of craft towns or bazaars is unduly shaped by the experience of the golden triangle of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. Try reaching an average craft cluster outside this zone and located in, say, central India, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, eastern UP, or the northeast. Chances are, you will travel for 10 hours on some of the worst roads in this country, to reach a place that has no decent hotel, no safe food or water, no school or hospital, and no assured supply of electricity. For a foreign buyer, accessing such a production centre is an adventure. People willing to operate in such environments are either dedicated activists with a mission to save the crafts, or middlemen who expect to earn 500 per cent profits by squeezing the artisan.

What can the government do to improve market potentials of the crafts The answer is simple. Build infrastructure. Make the artisans more capable in accessing markets. It has been amply demonstrated in the literature on rural non-farm industries that one good road that brings a remote production centre in touch with the urban market or a port can perform wonders for rural enterprise. Let us, then, build expressways connecting craft clusters with the metros, or with the nearest dry port or seaport. Build schools, hospitals, hotels near craft clusters. Turn these into places where foreign buyers can easily come and spend a few days, make these into places from where residents can easily access the city. Far more than anything else, crafts need access to public goods, which is beyond the capacity of the artisans, craft-well-wishers, and the dedicated handicraft offices to deliver.

The writer is professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune