Abdul Kalam, a carpet weaver from UP’s Bhadohi district, ordered more than packets of oil, sugar and maida at the local kirana store. Two days before the holy month of Ramzan begins, Kalam says he wants to distribute the packets to his workforce, who have no means to buy groceries for iftari this year, owing to the lockdown. Not only this, Kalam says he has also sought Rs 5 lakh as advance payment from one of his clients, so that he can pay half the salary to his 400 karigars for the months of March-April.
The Mirzapur-Bhadohi region is the largest handmade carpet weaving cluster, engaging around 32 lakh people in the industry. Bhadohi employs 22 lakh rural artisans. Carpet weaving in the region dates back to the 16th century during the reign of Akbar. But Kalam says lockdown has caused them huge distress. “The advance payment will see my workforce through for the next 15 days, but beyond that, they have no means,” he says.
Says a karigar working at Kalam Kilms, who doesn’t want to be named, “we will have no option but to beg or commit suicide. Mere Rs 500 in some of our women’s Jan Dhan accounts means nothing. It doesn’t even ensure steady supply of medicines or food.”
“Handloom and handicraft is the biggest employer in the country after the agricultural sector,” says Delhi-based craft revivalist Laila Tyabji of Dastkar, who has 350 craft groups from across India associated with her. Tyabji adds, “Just like migrant workers, artisans are also daily workers, and since all markets are shut, they can neither buy raw material, nor sell finished goods. They don’t even have a safety net like provident fund.”
Although there has been so census, estimates say that art and crafts involves more than 130 lakh people in rural and semi-rural locations. Usually, December to March is their peak season — with increased tourism activity, and fairs and exhibitions like the annual Surajkund Crafts Mela. But with Covid-19 cutting their season short, many of them are staring at financial distress and loss of livelihood.
Taking cognisance of their predicament, Jaya Jaitly, founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, who was instrumental in setting up Dilli Haat in the Capital as a permanent space for artisans, has written a letter to the Secretary, Ministry of Textiles, seeking the government’s attention on the matter. “Craftspeople from the textile, craft and traditional arts sector are facing distressing prospects… The very nature of the craft sector which is largely home based, in lakhs of small pockets spread across crowded as well as remote areas, with problems and needs of a multiple nature are not being noted at all. All news in the papers about major fund allocations for the medium and tiny businesses do not specifically mention the artisan, crafts, hand-made sector,” she says in the letter.
Talking about their needs, Jaitly says, “Their needs are very different from others. They need raw material for production, advances for purchases of these and access to marketplaces and banks. Their orders have been cancelled, e-commerce never helped that much and is not a priority now, and most never have savings to tide over even for a period of two months. Even the better off karigars with workers under them can only sustain them for a month or so.”
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Lockdown-related distress is being felt across all crafts — be it weavers, potters or painters. Remant Mishra from Jitwarpur village Bihar’s Madhubani district, the home of Madhubani paintings which has 1,500 artists, says, “Most of us employed in the Madhubani art are poor; it’s been more than a week since we stepped out. Some of us who have raw material are silently doing some work, but we know things won’t open up before June.” Mishra would travel to Delhi every year to set up a stall at Dilli Haat, and also worked on orders to paint sarees and dupattas, but all of that has stopped as of now. He says they are not getting any assistance beyond the PDS schemes applicable to everyone.
Things are no different for Akhila Jan, a chatai-maker from West Bengal’s Midnapore district. Jan says, “We used to work on orders from places as far as Delhi, Chennai and Bengaluru through self-help groups and NGOs. But all of that has stopped. We are just staying home and languishing, waiting for normal life to resume. There is no help from the state government for chatai-makers, who comprise a major chunk of the population in our village.” Jan adds that if things continue like this, many of them are thinking of leaving the craft and working on farms. “At least, we will get some food,” he says.
Jaitly says that the government should come out with an “Artisan Card” for registered practitioners of arts and crafts, so that there is a way to identify them and help them in distressing times like this. She adds,“Even after the lockdown opens, the elite shopping for handicrafts will stop for a while. So, the kind of products these people make and the marketing strategy will need to change in the post-Covid world.”