Reading recently about the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, vigorously wooing the automobile industry to establish a manufacturing hub in his state, I remembered a remark made by economist Arvind Panagariya when he was the vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog. He wondered why so much effort was made by governments to woo industries, which were no longer labour-intensive. He was well aware that industrial manufacturing generates jobs well beyond the factory floor and its spin-offs benefit local economies and spread wider than them. Nevertheless the fact is that there are economic activities which would pay far richer dividends in creating sustainable employment if governments paid as much attention to encouraging them as they do to the businessman they invite to their investment jamborees.
I think in particular of what are often known as craft practices. They are the second-largest employer after agriculture, some estimate that they employ as many as 200 million people. But for far too many of those people their crafts do not provide an income which sustains them adequately or guarantees security.
India’s craftspeople are unique in the world for their variety, their skills and the beauty of their products. That beauty was on display at a recent exhibition of textiles in Delhi’s Crafts Museum. Gorgeous would be an inadequate adjective to describe the textiles, which were part of the collection of the late Martand Singh, the leading authority on Indian textiles and the techniques of weavers. Between 1981 and 1991, Mapu, as he was called, initiated a series of textile collections, which led to the revival of weaving communities and a new interest in textile art. The exhibitions were called Vishwakarma, the god who is the patron of artisans. Speaking at the exhibition of Vishwakarma textiles Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad and former president of the Crafts Council of India, said: “Vishwakarma is now in crisis”.
The crafts industry is being buffeted by competition from manufacturing, declining demand, lack of marketing skills and resource crunches. Inevitably the blame for all these deficiencies is often put on the government. Chatterjee did complain that the government habitually ignored the crafts industry. As an example, he pointed out that the government had not consulted the crafts community over GST. But he also believed: “We, the crafts community, have to make a strong argument for crafts. We have to create demand and livelihood”.
Talking to weavers in a village just outside Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, I was convinced that there was much the government could do to create demand and livelihood for crafts workers. The weavers complained that none of the government institutions established to promote handloom textiles helped with marketing, so demand for their cloth was declining. In fact, the government was doing the opposite, apparently by providing subsidies to purchase powerlooms. Barabanki weavers were in the hands of middle-men who would pay as little as Rs 20-25 for a gamcha. The weaver families used to buy cotton from local farmers and spin it for themselves but the farmers have switched to cash crops and the weavers have to buy expensive mill spun cotton.
For all their disadvantages handloom weavers still produce millions of metres of cloth each year. The crafts industry as a whole has enormous potential to expand. The crafts’ community needs to create awareness of the scope and richness of Indian products to create demand. Governments have to promote crafts as vigorously as they promote manufacturing industries.
If they fail, there will be no weavers to be inspired by Mapu’s collection and India’s second largest job provider will wither and die.