India's handloom, handicraft sectors have resilience to combat COVID-19 crisis setbacks. But they need calculated support
The handloom and handicrafts sectors will be drawing on their rich-but-checkered past, which previously saw them through prejudices and shortsighted policies, to work their way through the crisis posed by the coronavirus outbreak and lockdown as well.
In these times of a pandemic, it is difficult to detail out the present and future of the breathing behemoth that is India’s handloom and handicraft sectors; it would seem the threads of its histories are too knotted.
The coronavirus outbreak and consequent lockdown have exposed the strengths and stresses associated with these industries. How will they take on the new challenge posed by this crisis?
The handloom and handicraft sector had already taken a hit with demonetisation, which irreparably disrupted the largely cash-based value chain of small producers that makes up these sectors. Another blow came in the form of the Goods and Services Tax, which was an attempt to subsume most indirect taxes and streamline the taxation system but instead caused chaos and catastrophe with its bureaucratic requirements that severely affected the bottom-lines of these producers. In effect, these moves choked and stifled a sector composed largely of small-scale producers.
Manisha Kairaly, who has been working for over a decade at the intersection between food, craft design and ecology, points to the present situation faced by the weavers of Maheshwar as an example of the effects of callous policy changes by the present government. Kairaly is founder trustee of Adavi Trust, formerly of Timbaktu Weaves and presently engaged with the Hyderabad-based Handloom Futures Trust. “Many of the weavers have been forced to find other means of employment because this way of earning a livelihood isn’t feasible for them anymore,” she says.
Kairaly notes that “after agriculture, handloom is the largest employer in rural India with more than four million weavers — not to count their supporting systems that enable movement from raw material to finished cloth”. She further highlights the inherent resilience of the sector: “In spite of efforts from colonial times to the lack of support from government policies, it has still managed to survive. It is an example of mass-scale production that’s still done in a democratic, decentralised fashion with minimal environmental impact.”
The handloom and handicrafts sectors will be drawing on their rich-but-checkered past, which previously saw them through prejudices and shortsighted policies, to work their way through this crisis as well.
“Survival and resilience are built into the systems of production and living among the handloom weavers,” says Annapurna Mamidipudi, a trustee of the Hyderabad-based Handloom Futures Trust and presently a postdoctoral researcher on the ERC project PENELOPE in Munich that explores ‘weaving as a technical mode of existence’. Mamidipudi observes that the very rules that are seen as negative for the present-day market because change is slow to happen, have been the strength of these communities. She points to how weaving communities in coastal areas have adapted to natural disasters and subsequent changes in market dynamics by scrabbling together and innovating.
“They’re able to link to something in the past to tackle the present,” Mamidipudi says, stressing that she doesn’t mean this “romantically, of course”: “They are resilient communities because they don’t forget easily. They’re able to recall old habits, call upon all of their common, collective knowledge to deal with a situation.”
Another of these inherent qualities that will help them continue mass-scale production of goods is that their home and work spheres are the same, she adds. “With regards to weavers, their social and economic units have always been in the same space, these two spaces are braided together. So their work can continue even with social distancing protocols. Systems like sending materials between units in the production line with minimum contact need to be figured out, as also uninterrupted access to raw materials, tax breaks and the enforcement of already-existing government policies that will help support the efforts of the weavers.”
For Uzramma of Dastkar Andhra and The Malkha Marketing Trust, handloom and the small-scale industries around it aren’t relics of the past but rather the sustainable way forward. According to the Ministry of Textiles weavers produce 22 percent of India’s cloth requirements without using fossil fuels and therefore, without adding to global warming. In this figure Dastkar Andhra and The Malkha Marketing Trust’s Uzramma sees a counter to the general perception that artisan-led industries are aberrations in an industrialising economy. Instead, she says, they must be viewed as “non-conformists to an imperative of productivity”.
“This sector just needs the government to implement its own policies, such as the Handloom Reservation Act of 1985 by which some products are the exclusive prerogative of the handloom industry. The consequence of ignoring this law has been that cheaper, machine-made/fake handloom cloth made on power looms undercuts the real thing in the market, so the hand weaving wages decline and young weavers look for alternatives,” Uzramma explains.
While these are long-term asks from the industry for a more secure future, there has also been investment in short-term schemes to overcome their immediate troubles.
“Artisans have been leveraging already existing government schemes to access rations through the Public Distribution System to survive in this time but they do need work to live,” says Karthik Vaidyanathan, social entrepreneur and founder of the Varnam Craft Collective, who primarily works with the toy-makers of Channapatna and block printers of Jaipur. “Since we began as a livelihood initiative, we’re determined to ensure regular income to our artisans. As soon as the [artisans’] units in Channapatna were allowed to open, we gave them work orders to keep them going.”
Vaidyanathan says the crisis is being viewed as an opportunity to create new and interesting designs. While they’ve been forced to offer discounts on old stock, this too is being seen as a step towards restocking and selling, thus creating more work for artisans. Buy now-get later schemes and entering the online marketplace are other measures to boost sales.
“But who is going to help them with navigating these new spaces and who is going to give them time to learn the new dynamics?” Vaidyanathan asks, then makes his point: “The government is supposed to. So while the government might announce schemes like Make in India or [finance minister] Nirmala Sitharaman might declare that MSMEs can get Rs 1 crore loans in 59 minutes, the reality is that it doesn’t work like that.”
As in the case of other institutional breakdowns, it seems the general public needs to step up on this occasion too. For this relationship to be sustainable and long-term, there needs to be a fundamental change in the mindset of consumers and the country as a whole.
“We need to shift from pro-industry to pro-crafts. We need to swap the sob stories and see the ways in which these small-scale craft industries are environmentally-friendly, sustainable practices that use resources from around their regions and invest in them,” Vaidyanathan says. Annapurna Mamidipudi adds that the support doesn’t need to come from a philanthropic motive, it should come from really thinking about what will help ‘me’ and what ‘I’ can do about it. “Take the time to figure out what kind of cloth you like, see how you feel in it, use it often, find out more about it, and see if you can maintain its production by buying it. Maybe buy less and be more comfortable… Make changes that make sense for you and by buying better quality cloth, know that you are providing maximum benefit to the whole system — and yourself, of course.”
And as Manisha Kairaly concludes, India’s handloom and handicrafts sector “doesn’t need charity. What it needs is calculated support.”
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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