In a world of rapid digitalisation, where machine learning and Artificial Intelligence is taking over manufacturing, handmade products are still valued in India. In 2019, with the influx of tech startups to empower local artisans, the Indian handicraft industry exported products worth over ₹128 billion. 'Made in India' became a ubiquitous term to be thrown around in common parlance.
But since January 2020, COVID-19 gripped every country in the world one after the other. While India is in phase 4 of the nationwide lockdown, millions have been locked out of their livelihoods. The novel coronavirus has affected different sections of society differently. One such sector that is taken by storm is our handicraft industry.
As per an initial estimate by the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) the handicraft sector could suffer a loss of ₹8000‐₹10,000 crores in the wake of the pandemic. Not to forget that there are over 31.44 lakh households engaged in weaving and allied activities (according to the 2019-20 National Census of Handloom Weavers). These local artisans are not visible like migrant workers. They are being neglected and their livelihood is in danger.
This necessitates a critical examination of how the coronavirus pandemic impacts the local artisans, how fractured supply chains and crippled markets dwindle their earnings, how are they evolving to meet new challenges, and how e-commerce platforms can be leveraged to boost sales of handicraft items.
Most artisans hail from rural India and work in an informal and precarious setup. Honouring their culture and traditions, they create masterpieces that are exported worldwide. Yet, their wages come nowhere close to the income that can provide them with social security.
Survival amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing less than a barren hellscape for the artisans who are left on the breadline with dwindling resources and a bleak future.
"We cannot generate business for craftsmen at this point and the revival of the industry depends on the government's policies. The last two months have shown us huge losses," said a source from EPCH to Sabrang India.
To understand the current issues, I spoke to Jaya Jaitly, Founder and President of Dastkari Haat Samiti (an organisation that has been working with artisans at grassroots level since 1986) on the impact of the lockdown on the handicraft market and the implication of the crisis for the artisans. Expressing grave concerns over the current scenario, she said, "In tourism-oriented states like the northeast, hilly areas, Kashmir and many other places, both for leisure, experience, religion and cultural events all travel has stopped. These are places that attract the most potential for crafts sales. The winter months in some places can improve if the Virus pandemic comes under control, but for Kashmir and other summer tourism places, it is quite shattering. They will need financial support systems or government purchases and marketing avenues to survive."
Broken Supply Chain
Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, work from home is becoming the new normal for professionals around the world. But for artisans, it has always been work from home as most of them are based in their native villages creating sarees, shawls, bed sheets, jewellery and other handloom and handicraft pieces. But they are struggling to navigate the damaged distribution chains.
Sridhar Rao, an Ikkat weaving and dying artist from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh explains how the artisans in his community are hit by a double whammy of a shortage of raw materials and overproduce. He says, "We never expected a countrywide lockdown. Fortunately, we had a stock of dyes and so we were able to work even during the lockdown. In fact, we were able to produce more because we were restricted in our houses. But now we are facing a shortage of raw materials. Production cycles of these raw materials are also very long. The second challenge is that we have overproduced and we do not know if we will get buyers for our stock."
No Tourism, No Exhibitions
The travel and tourism sector in the city has taken a crippling blow due to the onset of COVID-19 disease. It is reeling under mass cancellation of tickets and tours, forcing the operators to resort to drastic measures to minimise loss.
Govind Rathore, founder of Sambhali Trust, an NGO based in Jodhpur, which has been working to empower rural women explains how they are hamstrung in the pandemic with the shutting down of the tourism industry. He says, "Tourism plays a very big role for Sambhali, especially with our boutique in the Old Town of Jodhpur. Without tourists coming to the city, we can't sell anything. Therefore, we had to shut down our boutique. Our major orders have been cancelled, and we don't know till when will this last."
Another artisan from Kashmir, Hakim Danish who is engaged in papier-mache said, "Kashmir has been hit by a double lockdown. Our 60%-70% income is dependent on tourism. We go to different states to sell our products like shawls, suits and saris. We are constantly looking for new markets. We get most of our earnings through trade fairs or through exhibitions conducted in different states. But because of the lockdown and inter-state travel ban, we are unable to sell and our business is at a halt."
The Way Forward
While reflecting on the current predicament of the artisans' community, Nilesh Priyadarshi, a social entrepreneur and founder of Kaarigar Clinic, Gujarat explains that artisans are a very resilient and a strong community with a positive attitude.
Sneh Gangal a miniature Artist from Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh says, "Though the times are bleak and shrouded in uncertainty, where even paying rentals are difficult but I have never stopped painting even for a single day."
Here a couple of few things that can be done to iron out the impact of the pandemic for artisans:
Access to E-commerce - In order to liquidate the existing inventories and generate cash flows, an equitable value chains need to be created through digital platforms which, one - re-wires the agile supply chains by providing access to raw materials and finance and two, connects the artisans with the market so that they can sell their products and generate revenues.
Promoting "Shop Local" - "The onus lies on us to support artisans and crafts so that they can survive during these unprecedented times. It is a time to decentralise, to go local. If we continue to buy masks or clothes from big brands how will our rural communities sustain those who have been making handmade goods relentlessly" says Nitin Pamnani, the founder of iTokri.com (Madhya Pradesh).
Emphasising on the need of buying local, Fashion Designer Megha Das who is also a founder of Amounee, a digital platform that connects artisans directly to the urban market says, "Every citizen is a stakeholder of our economy. It is now completely our collective will and power to reshape our economic system. 'Atma Nirbhar' or 'make in India' is no longer our pride but the need of the hour. We need to support our artisan by being mindful of our consumption.'
Products for Covid-19 world - This global health crisis has led to a slump in the overall purchasing power and hence calls for an immediate need to assess and develop products as per the current market sentiments. Handicrafts are not essential commodities and therefore there is a need for more functional products, items that are used in everyday life, like masks, etc among other high-end pieces. Rajibenm, a weaver, working with Kaarigar Clinic has started making trays, boxes and pen stand from discarded plastic strips. This unique form of art is called upcycle plastic weaving.
A Chitrakathi artist Chetan Gangavane from Pinguli Maharashtra has used his art form to depict the current scenario with our COVID-19 Warriors fighting the virus.
Government Measures - "Atmanirbharta that does not seriously include lifting the handcraft, hand skills sector will be a crime against our centuries of cultural heritage and its potential to create a better future," says Jaya Jaitley.
"We are looking for work and not donations," says Parveen Tanwar, an Embroidery Artist from Bikaner, Rajasthan.
To navigate the crises, the sector does require support and subsidies. Praveen also says that obtaining credit from banks is not an easy task. In fact, if the government can assure to buy a certain percentage of their goods or create a demand in the market for their goods that will work as a greater relief.
Embarking on her struggles Papiben, an artist from Gujarat says "We face challenges every day, as rural artisans we have struggled a lot. While we were in Kutch we faced a lot of problems during the 2001 earthquake. We lost everything within four minutes and there was no hope to recover the losses until the next 20 years but we stood together without losing hopes, and we won. Currently, we are battling with Covid-19 and for us, the whole economic cycle has been disturbed. We are not able to get raw materials, we are unable to sell our goods, many artisans have lost their incomes. In current times, survival is a big challenge. We are worried if there will be demand for our goods in the coming years. But I am still hopeful to recover from the pandemic as we did after the earthquake."
Artisans is one of the most resilient communities, they work very hard to sustain their livelihoods and at the same time, they guard their legacy. This is when the government, industry, entrepreneurs, designers and civil society should strongly support this age-old industry and revive it in this moment of crisis. With strong focus, the handlooms and handicraft industry can contribute to creating lakhs of rural jobs and sustainable livelihoods.