“This is the first time somebody has reached out to ask about us and our community of aari and sozni embroidery women artisans. It gives me great hope that you are thinking about small artisans,” said Zahida Amin, a craft entrepreneur from Sopore, Kashmir. Her organization Nai Kiran, based in Sopore, works with a community of 50 women; in season and when the demand is good, Nai Kiran also engages young women in neighbouring districts such as Budgam.
Artisans like Zahida make up the bulk of India’s rich and diverse craft and textile sector. Both self-employed artisans and highly skilled daily wagers (who they employ), have been completely left out of any conversations on relief and rehabilitation during the Covid crisis and the subsequent lockdown. The last two months has seen millions of workers dependent on daily wages, struggling to make ends meet.
There are very few media platforms that even cover the sector. According to a story by the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) which covers rural issues, handlooms and handicrafts are perhaps the second largest employer after agriculture - employing 3.5 million in handloom and over 70 lakh in crafts. According to the Fourth All-India Handloom Census,two-thirds (66 per cent) of weaver households earn less than Rs. 5,000 a month. The numbers highlight the gravity and scale of the crisis.
Craft sector workers ignored
While civil society organisations, individuals and the government have stepped in to provide relief to urban poor and migrants, craft sector workers have been largely ignored. Especially the job workers aligned to artisans who, like migrant workers in construction, live hand-to-mouth. Because they do not fall in the essential services category, they have had to stop production.
The multiplier effect of this is manifold: 40 - 50 per cent of the working population in each of the craft villages are in some way financially dependent on artisan families. But
production cycles as well as order cycles - both crucial to economic sustainability of the entire village - have completely snapped, putting entire village economies at risk.
The Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) spring fair 2020 (the biggest platform for artisans to get overseas orders) has been cancelled. EPCH estimates a Rs 8,000-10,000 crore loss to the sector and closure of 60-80 per cent units this year. While bigger artisans use other retailers and exports to reach their markets, cancellation of regular, calendarised exhibitions by the government, Crafts Council of India, Dastkar, Dastkari Haat and private players has taken away the primary sales channel of numerous small artisan units.
Piling up of summer stock
In the month of March, weavers and printers were ready with their summer lines to catch the season’s demand. The sudden lockdown has resulted in the piling up of this summer stock with no immediate avenues to reach buyers. Adding to their woes, B2B orders have either been cancelled or deferred and payments have not been released. All of this has led to cash inflows down to zero, and funds blocked in stock.
Further adding to their hardship is the crunch in working capital which will affect long term sales. The months from April to June are high production months for dyeing, printing and weaving, building stock and fulfilling past orders. With near zero sales now for over a month (since March), artisans currently have no savings to restart production, and also face other production challenges like unavailability of raw materials or access to water. This would result in their not being able to service orders and customers even when the lockdown is lifted and demand slowly starts to pick up.
Despite the bleak scenario, our artisan partners from Ajrakhpur and Nirona near Bhuj, Chandauli and Kutwan near Banaras, Pedana in AP, Sopore in Kashmir, Akola near Udaipur and others are generously supporting their communities. They have been sharing their limited resources - be it through distribution of rations or through payment of wages to their job workers. But they will soon run out of resources and what then?
Need state sponsored help
How will the millions of daily wagers aligned to the craft sector survive without state sponsored help? Craftspeople like Zahida need help to restart production and sales, and each day they delay will have a long term impact on their incomes, the incomes of their artisan communities and the village economy.
In the long run it could lead to entire craft clusters getting wiped out and third and fourth generation artisans moving to other occupations to sustain themselves financially, leaving generations of knowledge of family craft traditions to fall by the wayside. A very real fear is that eventually, our craft heritage of thousands of years will be lost to us forever.
To address these challenges, it is imperative to ensure the cycle of production, demand and generation of new orders continues. The immediate and dire need is disbursement of relief taken forward at the cluster level for survival of daily wagers in craft. Simultaneously artisans should have easy access to a minimum of two months of working capital - either given as a grant or a zero interest loan to be repaid when their cash flows stabilise.
The longer intervention must be focused on nudging demand in a slow and recovering economy by using innovative ideas and avenues, keeping in mind that Indian craft clusters are scattered across the length and breadth of the country and no one solution can adequately address their unique needs. We should be looking at covering more ground and quickly - with awareness campaigns, online opportunities, localised events, haats, fairs which travel swiftly across locations - bringing in newer audiences.
The purpose of these interventions must be to take our artisans one step closer towards sustainability through direct sales and new order cycles, while simultaneously building resilience in the face of this crisis.
We are over a month into the lockdown, and are still awaiting an acknowledgment of the crisis in this sector. The plight of the craft communities needs much more attention and urgent intervention.
Sharika Bhan is a post graduate from Delhi School of Economics with 30 years in marketing, product design and craft. She also headed FabIndia’s Home and Lifestyle Business. Meenu Venkateswaran is a graduate of IIM Bangalore with 30 years of experience in the development sector. She has co-founded Pravah and ComMunity the Youth Collective. They are the founders of Indicult, a social enterprise working in the area of textiles and slow fashion, by bringing communities together through craft and design.