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Pandemic and after: Looking at systemic flaws and road to recovery for Indian craft economy

For the crafts sector to continue on its journey of recovery and redemption in the pandemic, wider appreciation and incentivisation needs to take place in the fashion and textile industry

handloom, crafts sectorA traditional hand-weaving loom being used to make cloth at home. (Photo: British Council)

It has been exactly two years since PM Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown, marking the beginning of what is now as much history as it is our current reality. And while it was a chance of reflection and introspection for some, it brought unemployment, homelessness, and loss of income for many.

In India, one of the many sectors to have dealt with multiple blows is the arts and craft sector. The harsh realities of the pandemic put at risk the sustainability of the sector without concerted action at national and local levels. And even though restrictions have been relaxed and much has changed since the apocalyptic days of the first and second lockdown, the pandemic continues to bare open the intrinsic and systemic drawbacks in the informal sector as new strands of mostly negative and partially positive aspects come to light.

The crafts economy is the largest in India, second only to agriculture, with some reports recording a workforce of more than 200 million contributing Rs 10,000 crores annually with a 20 per cent year-on-year growth in exports. The sector is an integral part of India’s overall creative economy that stood at INR 50,000 crores pre-pandemic, according to British Council’s ‘Taking the Temperature‘ report. 

And with the renewed focus on craft, handmade and slow fashion during and post-pandemic, this sector has the potential to fuel India’s economy further. “[But] one of the biggest missing links in this sector is the data. The reports and articles published about artisans quote anywhere between 7 – 200 million, which does not inspire trust in numbers,” observes Shruti Singh, Head of Policy, Fashion Revolution India, which, in collaboration with British Council, developed a report titled ‘Reimagining the Craft Economy Post Covid-19‘ which documents the experience of the artisan and records the impact of the pandemic on the crafts sector in India. The report’s findings show the collaborative nature of the industry, and cross sector regulation as well as shedding light on the path ahead.

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Artisan communities are spread out throughout the country and having a systematic policy framework for mapping India’s craft economy will lead to mobilising funds, resources, and action that can drive measurable change on the ground. Targeted policy support is crucial to unlocking the potential of the craft sector, attracting private sector investment opportunities, and building sustainable growth,” Singh adds. Lack of reliable data is but one of the many evils tugging at the hems of this unorganised sector.

Exodus from craft

The onset of Covid-19 triggered an exodus of artisans from cities back to their villages with 40 per cent facing unemployment; close to 22 per cent of the sector lost 75 per cent of its annual income, according to the report. Under this financial strain, many craftworkers had to heavily discount their products at lower than the market value. Additionally, in India, the majority of craftworkers are self-employed and do not have contracts to protect their rights. The informal nature of the crafts economy has also led to many abandoning their crafts and moving to agricultural work to survive. This, further, is the result of lack of consolidated policy frame-work, as Jonathan Kennedy, Director Arts India, British Council points out. 

(Photo: British Council)

He elaborates: “The scale of the workforce associated with craft and their value in the creative economy suggests the need for a consolidated cross-government policy-framework and a task force which cuts across the different states and departments who hold in part the brief for crafts – handloom, textiles, tourism, culture, education — all of which play their part but presently there is no central oversight to ensure coherent and sustained government investment across the complex federal governance structure of India. This will further need systemic, structured and sustainable investment support to strengthen the supply chain, logistics, finance, digital skills, product design and marketing.”

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But, it’s a “tall order” notes Kennedy, given “the challenges of India’s scale, geographies, and many languages.”

Deepened divisons

And while many have weathered the blow, it did not affect every craft cluster in the same manner. The pandemic has deepened divisions between men and women in the crafts economy as well as the rural and urban crafts clusters. For example, 56 per cent of the crafts sector comprises women who were dealt the worst cards as, in India, around 6.7 million women disappeared from the workforce during the pandemic (there is no specific data for the crafts sector), as pointed out by Singh. Similarly, individual craftsmen and women were left in the rain (since craft is not part of the organised creative industries) while those associated with an organisation were extended extra support. 

A worker making a hand embroidery on a fabric at Varun Bahl’s design house. Express photo by Oinam Anand. 28 July 2011

A case study in the report is that of Mijwan Welfare Society which taught women how to handle the end-to-end supply chain during the pandemic. The women have gained new knowledge in modern design, embroidery and business skills in finance for fair product pricing, use of the internet for marketing, and online sales platforms to reach new audiences, which, as illustrated by the expeditious shift to digital during the pandemic, is crucial in the post-pandemic world. 

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A digital future

And while it is true that the future is digital, what does it mean for the future of India where uniform and economic access to mobile phones, computers, and a stable internet connection are yet to be a reality? “The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way crafts are produced, purchased, and consumed. Some craft organisations have been able to capitalise on expansion of online sales platforms such as Amazon and Etsy, but many in remote rural communities with limited access to stable WiFi and women with limited access to digital skills have not been able to respond to the brave new world of digital connectivity,” points out Kennedy.

He goes on to suggest that to achieve the full spectrum of digital connectivity and sector skills, we need a national programme of capacity building and training for artisans, especially women to transition to the expanding digital space. “Skills of storytelling, photography, social media promotion on online platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp will liberate craftworkers from traditional sales outlets to find new markets across digital borders.”

Craft and fashion 

The problems in the fashion industry have persisted for a long time but the pandemic amplified the focus on the flawed side of this business. According to Singh, it is estimated that global brands cancelled about £12 billion worth of orders during the pandemic. “Suppliers were left with stock either partially made or workers unpaid. And even though most bills got paid with severe campaigning and pressure on the retailers, there was no assurance that workers did, in fact, get their money.”

(Photo: British Council)

And even though it might seem otherwise, all is not lost. Along with baring decades-long flaws in the sector, the pandemic also catalysed positive action. For example, Singh says Fashion Revolution India’s research has shown there has been a fundamental shift in consumers’ mindset and the pandemic has accelerated the transition towards consumption choices that are rooted in sustainability, ethical trade, and environment-consciousness. She also says millennials and Gen Z are fueling “the rise of the meaningful economy as they invest in purpose-led brands and take decisions that are aligned with their values and the causes they are most passionate about. This is an indicator that mindful consumer behaviours and responsible consumption patterns are here to stay and are likely to rise in the future. This will cause a shift in the production practices with mindfulness towards worker welfare, fair wages, and ethical standards.” 

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Innovative, positive business modules

Pre-pandemic, there was a lack of substantial collaborative networks in the craft sector. The pandemic precipitated the need for better networks to meet the global challenge of lockdown, disruption to the supply chain, wasted stock, cancelled orders, delayed payments and loss of livelihoods. And many craft clusters showed resilience and came up with innovative and positive business models to support not just their own business but other’s, too, while those who were in relatively privileged positions extended help.

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The report points out the Care for Karigars campaign, wherein a cohort of designers launched a fundraiser on social media to support artisans. The campaign featured the best-selling products and 100 per cent of the sales went to artisans’ welfare. Another example is of Antaran by Tata Trusts Craft-based Livelihood Programme which works towards strengthening craft ecosystems, building the strength of handloom textiles such as natural fibres, hand-spun yarn and natural dyes, and reviving and reinterpreting the traditional weave designs in these selected clusters for wider markets.

But for the crafts sector to continue on its journey of recovery and redemption in the pandemic, wider appreciation and incentivisation needs to take place as in the fashion and textile industry, craftworkers and artisans are often considered itinerant labour and are not given due regard as highly skilled professionals, arts entrepreneurs, and expert artists. Undervaluing craftworkers as both artists and entrepreneurs undermines the intrinsic value to craft heritage, the creative economy and its contribution to national GDP.

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“If the next generation of families working in the crafts economy don’t see a future job in it, the loss of traditional crafts and expertise is at serious risk,” states Kennedy. “The sector needs powerful advocates and investment to strengthen the infrastructure from farm to supply chain, to handmade production as well as on and offline sales platforms. Sustainable and ethical crafts practice needs a structured and long-term approach to strengthen livelihoods post pandemic.”

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First published on: 16-03-2022 at 12:30:54 pm
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