Brand India handicrafts: Sustainable livelihoods & materials for a sustainable planet

Jaya Jaitly, Founder and President of Dastakari Haat Samiti, opines that India cannot imitate the ‘container load’ approach of the Chinese who mechanised everything, pay low wages and did not bother much about quality. Therefore India’s approach should be accessing multiple markets across the world for customers of all levels and keeping batches of production manageable rather than in factory-line mode. High quality, well designed utilitarian products right up to high fashion can all be different levels of markets.

Jaya Jaitly

IBT: What were some of the key challenges that existed in the Indian handicrafts industry before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? How did the pandemic aggravate these? Or what new troubles did it create for the industry?

Jaya Jaitly: The crafts sector faced quite a few challenges before the onset of the pandemic in the country such as access to raw materials at reasonable rates, having suitable designs, targeting different kinds of markets and accessing them. While policies for many schemes are formulated, they need to be more flexible for a sector like this, which needs multiple options to fit varying demands depending on number of people, their regions, cultural practices and marketing methods.

The problem of procuring raw materials reached its climax during the pandemic, which halted access to raw materials for about 2 months. Further, exporters/export houses and domestic retailers of Indian handicrafts were stuck with piled up stocks that they could not sell. The crunch of capital consequently made it difficult for the industry to maintain their assisting workers.

Normally, craftspeople are resilient and rise to challenges. They are now dependent on NGOs to help them with systems of online-marketing and learning to reach out to people through social media. Since crafts depend on human interface, it is a strain to sell textured products online or to engage in pleasant ways with customers.

Many folk artists and women’s groups are making masks or creating COVID-themed paintings, which are appreciated by many customers to keep up with the changing trends.

IBT: Media reports suggest that COVID-19 dealt a blow to the handicrafts sector’s production capacity owing to the lack of availability of raw materials. However, now that the economy is being unlocked, does this problem still persist? How is the industry tackling it?

Jaya Jaitly: Raw material supply is better now. However, the handloom industry needs money and investment from markets in order to carry on production. Also, supplier factories were shut so there is some shortage there too.

In crafts that needed many individuals to be part of the process, distancing is a problem where close proximity is required. Mainly they have to be assured that there will be a market shortly which will want their products at this time, when finances are tight with everyone.

IBT: With the announcement of lockdown triggering reverse migration in the country, how can the country’s rural centers be tapped to facilitate greater engagement of returnees with Indian handicrafts?

Jaya Jaitly: Demand has to be created for skills to make products that first of all will be useful in rural communities. They should replace machine made and imported materials. Local materials must be identified to reduce importation of materials from far off places. A concerted effort will have to be made by technology students and professionals, product designers and others to create viable and affordable products. Migrants would have latent as well as existing skills that need to be identified and upgraded.

IBT: It is expected that with changes in disposable income and purchasing power of the market and curbs on travel, demand patterns will change. Could you please shed some light on the kinds of changes in consumption patterns that can be anticipated and how the industry will plan for them?

Jaya Jaitly: Planning will have to be done at multiple levels for multiple sectors and markets. There will be changes from decorative items to utilitarian ones. The adjustment will be slow depending on what sectors open up and how their needs have changed, as in tourism and ordinary travel. Exports can open up when transportation eases. Many cancelled orders from prior to the lockdown may get revived.

This kind of planning and strategizing is an evolving mechanism as changes happen every day and lockdowns in certain areas are still continuing. So, it is hard to do any kind of permanent planning at this stage.

IBT: Given that the country’s exhibition sector is in dire straits, what new marketing strategies should be/are being adopted to boost domestic and international business for the handicrafts industry?

Jaya Jaitly: Since international business depends on shipping and air cargo facilities, online platforms are the only current answer. Crafts products can be offered on virtual exhibitions with short time special sales with the right targeted audience and effective online publicity.

IBT: How can the digitisation of Indian handicrafts industry be facilitated? How can it be used to enable the sector’s integration into the global value chains in a post-pandemic scenario?

Jaya Jaitly: I firmly believe that before integrating with global value chains we have to firm up our rural production with better  quality, good raw materials, some appropriate tools to relieve time-taking drudgery processes, improve packaging and transportation systems, especially in the north east and other far-flung areas. The whole idea is to pitch for improvement of ‘local’ in order to go ‘global’.

IBT: How can this opportunity be leveraged to promote Brand India in both national (as in ‘Buy Local, Buy Indian’) and international markets?

Jaya Jaitly: The very basic fact we must remember about the handicraft industry is that we cannot imitate the ‘container load’ approach of the Chinese who mechanised everything, pay low wages and did not bother much about quality.

India’s approach should be accessing multiple markets across the world for customers of all levels and keeping batches of production manageable rather than in factory-line mode. High quality, well designed utilitarian products right up to high fashion can all be different levels of markets. Again, the pitch should be with the mantra “Sustaining livelihoods with sustainable materials to sustain the planet”.

Jaya Jaitly studied in Japan, Burma, Belgium, the UK and graduated from Smith College, USA. She has an intimate knowledge of the craft traditions of the country, having worked in the field for over 40 years. She is considered a leader and expert in this field. She founded an association of crafts people called the Dastkari Haat Samiti, which enables traditional workers to gain confidence in the marketplace through many innovative strategies. She regularly guides crafts people in design, organization and marketing all over India and organizes major exhibitions promoting India’s arts, crafts and culture in India and abroad in which craftspeople are an intrinsic part.

She is the creator of the concept of Dilli Haat and saw to its establishment in Delhi. It enables thousands of artisans with sustainable livelihoods to preserve their cultural heritage and is one of the best-known and popular spots for visitors and Indians alike. It now serves as a model for other such establishments. Her work through bringing together crafts people of India and Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and African countries has been taken up by the government as an instrument in diplomacy to share skills and assist in capacity building.

She was in mainstream politics for 25 years and headed the Samata Party as its national president in 2001. She now restricts her public work to the craft sector and writing, although she is still active on many political issues, including women’s empowerment., Tibet. Burma , and human rights. She is a prolific writer and has published books on the Crafts of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, the Craft Traditions of India, Viswakarma’s Children, a socio-economic study of crafts people, and Crafting Nature. She has created a vast documentation of the arts, crafts and textiles of India through 24 highly artistic and unique maps of all the states of India, called Crafts Atlas of India. She has written stories on crafts children that were first published by Penguin and now widely distributed in many regional languages through the well known NGO Pratham. She has assisted in creating a syllabus for schools of India’s craft heritage for NCERT. Her publication Crafting Indian Scripts, is based on a major project called Akshara combining literacy, craft and calligraphy. She has been deeply involved in heritage and livelihood issues at all levels and has received awards for her work in culture and the arts and as a role model for women leaders.

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