Despair and devastation stare India's artisans in their face, as resource crunch, modern civilisation and government apathy combine in an onslaught on their teetering citadels. Down To Earth presents an exhaustive analysis
Artisans the untold story
BHOLA Ram Kumawat still makes the best wooden toys inUdaipur; but he may well be the craft's last sentinel.Kumawatbelongs to a family of renowned toymakersbut his son drawshandcarts for a living and his wife is a domestic help. Says the70old manThere are no forests left now - no khirni
(Wrightia tinctoria) trees. How do we continue our craft?
Unless the government acts soon, Udaipur's art will die.
Like Kumawatmillions of artisans across the country arehard pressed for raw materialthe access to which is limited -largely because industrial and commercial demand hasdramatically bolstered their pricesthus restricting the purchasing power of artisans. India's 9.8 lakh potters (1981 census)for instancefind it increasingly difficult to acquire clay.Sources of clayusually near water-pointsare beingencroached upon everywhere for cultivation or housing. "InBhujKutchthe whole area from where potters used to getclay is now a housing estate for police familiessays Jaya Jaitly, crafts consultant and head of the Dastkari Haat Samiti in Delhi.
IndiscrAi'minate felling is obliterating the trees that are important to artisans. Moreover, artisans are being alienated from their raw materials. Craftspersons are located in one region, while the raw materials they use are in another. Rajasthani wood artisans in Barmer, for instance, get the teak they need from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, while the main markets for their finished products are in Bombay and Delhi. As a consequence, middlemen have proliferated.
The lack of available data on the artisanal sector betrays the government's total apathy. Neither the National Income Accounts, published annually by the Central Statistical Organisation, nor the state-level data make any mention of the artisans' contribution to the gross domestic product. The 1991 census figures on grass, wood, cane, bamboo* and leather workers remain unpublished.
In the case of handicrafts, the only database available today is thie economic census of 1977 and 1980, and the figures maintained or extrapolated by the DCH (development commissioner handicrafts); the census figures were compiled from 47 industrial groups which 'correspond' to handicrafts. As the Eighth Five Year Plan document states:The data are neitherrealistic nor do they reveal the actual status of the industry. Itis essential to conduct a comprehensive survey of handicraftsin the country during the Eighth Plan."
Traditionallyrural leather units have been entirelyself-sufficient. The jajmani systema reciprocal arrangement between the artisans and the wider villagecommunity for supply of goods and servicesensuredthat leather workers had a regular supply of raw materials; all animals dying within the village boundarieswere at their disposal. This symbiosis has beenupset by the system's collapse. Todaylargeand affluent contractors vie with each other toclaim dead animals. The hides are then sent totanneries in DelhiMadrasKanpur orCalcutta. Rural leather artisans have nochoice but to import tanned leatherfrom urban centres.
Delhi has emerged as the largestmarket for raw hides in northern India.About 200pieces of raw hide fromRajasthanHaryanaPunjabUttarPradesh and Madhya Pradesh daily floodthe congested markets of the old city. Traderscharge a commission of about 10 per centandthen send most skins to tanneries in Madras and> Calcutta. "Very few go to tanneries in Najafgarh andNangloi (suburbs in Delhi) as they have a limitedT capacitysays Rais Ahmed Quereshi, proprietor, '4 Thekedar and Company, a dealer in raw skins.
Precise data on leather workers is not available. The Khadi and Village Industry Commission's (Kvic) 1993-94 annual report says: There are about 15 lakh artisansengaged in the leather sector inIndiawhich consists of theurban/organised sector engaging aboutone lakh and the rural/unorganisedsector engaging about 14 lakhartisans." But the NationalClassification of Occupations (1981 census)puts the total number of leatherworkers at 6.3 lakh.
In JodhpurRajasthana familiar sight at the Chaitari fairheldevery March is the loading ofthou-sands of raw hides and skins ontorailway wagonsto be sold outsidethe state. Nearly the samequantityof tanned leather is off-loaded.Only a few local tanneries - notenough to supply finished leatherto Jodhpur's 30leatherartisans making mojharis (traditional footwear) - have survivedin deep woods. scarcitythe contract system.
Escalating raw hide prices havemade life painfully difficultfor the Jatia tanner families inBhadwasia village near Jodhpur.Against the I 00-odd familiesearlier in the tradeonly 10survive.They operate collectivelybuyingraw hides at Rs 400 a price.Tanning expenditure amounts toanother Rs 100. One tannedhide yields a profit of Rs 200.Roughly two hides are sold a dayso that the profit per family perday is a paltry Rs 40.
The raw material crunch faced bythose who have survivedthe tyranny of modern tanneriesextends to tanning materials.Tanners in Bhadwasiatraditionally used tannins from alocalshrubdhamasa (Fagonia brugieri)and desi babool (Acacianilotica). These are becomingincreasingly inaccessible to theartisans "as common lands havebeen usurped by agriculture.Without free access to thesematerialstanners now have tobuy babool barksays Komal Kothari, an environmentalist from Jodhpur.
As vegetable tanned leather becomes scarce, mojhari workers are using chrome tanned leather for making uppers and inner soles. Hard vegetable tanned buffalo leather is fast being replaced by synthetic soles. Modern chrome tanning is 'dirty' - unlike vegetable tanning in which the effluents are not harmful to vegetation and soil. The chrome tanning process uses upto 50 chemicals, usually discharged untreated into rivers and other waterbodies.
Those artisans who tried imitating Western shoestyles using chrome leather and acrylic paste were defeated by the lack of technology. Lack of alternatives for survival force these leather workers to continue their trade. But they want their children to opt out. Leela Ram, an emigrant cobbler in Delhi hailing from Bansukh, a village near Jaipur, says,I amnot teaching any of my fivechildren the craft. They will be
Fine strands of the korai grass are woven together to forma pattu paiwith counts of above 100. Traditionallycoarsermats of lower counts called parumpais come from villages nearPattamadaisuch as KayatharThatchanallur and Veerava-nallur. But necessity has forced the Pattamadai artisans toabandon their fine art and settle for the less sublime. In all ofPattamadai todaythere are only a handful of fine matweaversthe majority having switched over to weaving mats oflower counts.
Says Hema Raghunathana designer with a Confederationof Indian Industry-sponsored project on resuscitation of themat weaving craft at PattamadaiIt is not very clear why the coarser mats began to be made. Some feel it was because of the market conditions - most people cannot afford the finer mats. Others say it is because of the difficulty in getting raw materials.Till the mid-'80sthe Lebbai Fine Mat WeaversCooperative Societyset up in 1954used to organise the rawmaterial supply for its members. Acontractor was engaged toprocure the grass which was then distributed to the weaverswho were members of the Society; availability of korai wasnever an issue.
The system collapsed gradually. As the demands of theweavers grewso did pressure on the existing korai.Simultaneouslyencroachments on the river banks increasedaffecting the availability of the grass. Todaythe Society'smembers too have all but stopped making the pattu pais whichmade Pattamadai famous. As only 10 weavers still weave thefine matsthey have to make their own arrangements for rawmaterial. Severely constrained by a lack of financestheypool some money to pay for the korai from neighbouringvillages (Chernamahadevi or Ambasamudram).
Other artisans rely on supplies from Karur325kmawaywhere a bundle of dried koraisufficient to maketwo matscosts Rs 40; each mat sells for Rs 50. SaysIbrahim Biwinational award winner for her exquisitemats. "Even after spending so much moneywe do notget good quality grass. All the good material is bought upby the people from Kayathar and elsewhere who work onthe power loom." Spliced korai cannot be used with apowerloombecause of which korai of the finestquality is procured by those who work with suchlooms. "They usually take the first and second gradematerialsBiwi says.
This raw material famine is perhaps worst for the women of Kerala working with agave and banana fibres. A year ago, the Jute Corporation of India had mooted an experimental scheme, whereby jute fibre was made available to artisans at a subsidised rate of Rs 10 per kg. jute fibre is brought from Calcutta to a few centres chosen to act as outlets/suppliers. For the southern states, the PSG College of Technology in Coimbatore supplies the fibre. So far, the DCH has trained 30 artisans to use this fibre.
According to G R Thampi, deputy director, marketing and extension service centre at the DCH Office in Thrissur, jute fibre has caught on very well both with artisans and the public. A jute mat sells for Rs 16, while one made of banana fibre sells for Rs 24.Although the price they receive per mat is lesstheartisans find this more remunerative because more of thesemats sell. But of coursethis is true only so long as the subsidycontinues. If they buy it from the open marketit might workout less attractive for themhe says.
There is also a finance crunch. Attempts at procuring finance usually meet with failure. Says Ibrahim Biwi,Officialskeep coming and saying that they will help us get bank loans.But nothing happens." In 1994Ibrahim Biwi had conducted aone-year training programme for 10 students with a grantfrom the DCHbut it was difficult to train 10 people on her single loom. "So I approached a bank for a loan to get anotherloom. They said eligibility for a loan was imparting trainingfor at least three years." But the DCH only provides grants foryear-long training programmes.
Many in Pattamadai - especially the younger generation- are loath to take up weaving since it is perceived as an occupation where the gains are not commensurate with the labour.Says Miran Biwia mother of twoThe only reason I am continuing with weaving is because I cannot do anything else.Most mat weavers today are middle-aged women whoseyoung daughters have taken up a vocation far more lucrative:beedi-rollingwhich fetches Rs 15-20 a day. "Beedi makingdoes not need lots of place and it is not a back-breaking woik says Miran Biwi.
Ban se hum to adhmare ho gaye (the ban has left us half-dead)states Sudama Pandey, one of Delhi's 500-odd ivory artisans who suddenly had their livelihoods snatched away when the government decided to ban ivory trade in 1986.
The labyrinthine lanes of Delhi's Jama Masjid and Chandni Chowk areas housed some of the best ivory carvers in the country. Other important centres for the craft were Amritsar, Agra, Murshidabad, Jaipur and Thiruvananthapuram. Ivory was also used in Mysore for intricate inlay work in rosewood.
In 1986, the dwindling elephant population in the country prompted the government to ban ivory trade under the Wildlife Protection Act (WPA), 1972. This came close on the heels of the ban on export of Indian ivory, following the inclusion of the Indian elephant in the lists of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Import of African ivory was, however, allowed.
Butsays Ranjit Talwar, administrator, Trade Record of Flora and Fauna in Commerce-India (TRAFFic-India),becauseit is virtually impossible to distinguish between the twoIndianivory continued to be laundered under the guise of African ivory."Consequentlythe amendment of the wPA in 1991 bannedtrade in all ivoryincluding African ivory. Although there wereproposals to gradually phase out ivory and introduce the artisans to a substituteultimately the government went in for acomplete ban. Defending the move Vinod RishidirectorProject Elephantsays "Immediate action was necessary tostop the poaching."
While the continuation of the ivory trade might have hadan -adverse impact on the elephant populationas AshishKotharifaculty member of the Indian institute of publicadministration and noted environmentalistsays cautiouslyIt is a little unfair to artisans to have banned the trade outright.The ban left hundreds of carvers destitute. YetD KMukhopadhyayadditional development commissionerDCHsays rather dismissivelySo what if ivory is banned? Craftspersons can always switch to some other craft.
This is what many did; but it has not been easy. Most haveshifted to sandalwood carving. "Butsays Nathu Lal of Jaipur's Khejdon ka Rasta (the street of artisans), Sandalwood is only a poor cousin of ivory. The work on it isall routine." Economicallytoothe artisans have suffered: asandalwood article depicting a row of elephants and weighingabout two kgis today bought by dealers for Rs 4500a similarpiece in ivory would have fetched Rs 100120
The ivory carvers in Thiruvananthapurarn were less lucky.Almost all of them abandoned the craftmany of them having moved to theMiddle East to work as labourers. It is nowonder then that carvers are interested inseeing their children take up other vocations. "I would like my son become anautorickshaw driver than get into carvingsays Pandey.
Artisans tried out a number of other substitutes to ivory. Stag horn, the first to be tried, was banned in 1989;.ivorina, a synthetic ivory substitute made fiom eggshells and developed by the Sakai Scientific Institute in Japan, proved unpopular with the artisans. And thus came the turn of the lowly plastic, currently the most widely used material for rosewood inlay work. But clearly, neither the artisans nor the dealers are happy with it.
Metal is the most recent entrant in the continuing search for a suitable replacement for ivory. Metal inlay is a fairly new art in Mysore, only two to three years old. There are, as yet, only a handful of artisans trying the new art.
Recently, rising pyre-wood prices had made a cremation costlier by Rs 56 at Delhi's Nigambodh ghat. This prompted an outcry from the media. But the case of vanishing forests and disappearing trees, which have caused many of India's 14.8 lakh wood-workers (1981 census) to hang up their tools of trade, is overlooked without as much discordant a murmur.
Wood-workers have traditionally fulfilled an utilitarian role in the community. The village carpenter supplied the community with bullock carts, agricultural implements, looms, potters' wheels, furniture and sundry other items of daily necessity. Village wood-workers still retain their importance: for 20 million people, the bullock cart remains a source of livelihood and a primary means of rural transport.
But the bullock cart is dragging under a threat. Today, the forests are contracted to private dealers, and carpenters buy the raw material for carts from mandis' (markets) at exorbitant prices. The traditional cart, weighing between 300-800 kg, is made of sheesham (Dalbergia sissoo) or sal (Shorea robusta). Says Dattatreya Nayak, a carpenter in Vadgaon Nigode, Raigad, Maharashtra, People do not get carts any more as wood is too costly. Wenow buy wood from the mandiwhereas earlier we used to getit from the forests."
Nayak is not the lone sufferer. The plight of wood-workers elsewhere is similar. Says KumawatWith forests fast disappearing, people will soon have to make rotis (bread) with iron pipes, since we will not be able to make wooden belans (rolling-pins) anymore.Felling of the khirmthe khairatis'(wood-workers) usual raw materialwas banned in the early1980forcing many into menial jobs. "A decade ago200families made toyslamp shadesflower pots and other products inKhairatiwadain Udaipur. Nowonly 50 do sosays Kumawat.
It is the same story in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan. In 1974, the Ranathambhore National Park came up in the thick forests surrounding the town. While it is debatable whether the project saved the tiger, it definitely pushed the 150-odd khairatis of the town towards extinction. For generations, these people had converted kadam (Mitragyna parviflora) and khirm wood into toys, flower vases and household effects. With the collection of such wood from the Park suddenly becoming illegal, the raw material supplies of the artisans dried up. Today merely 13 khairatis cling to their craft.
Earlierthe governmentgave us a permit to collect onesackful of wood for Rs 3.25.We somehow managed onthat. Five years agoeven thatwas withdrawn"says AbdulRazakwho still practises thecraft. Like othershe too tried- unsuccessfully - otherlocally available woods likesalar (Boswellia serrata).
This desperate search foralternatives to a disappearingraw material is common tomost wood-workers. InChannapatna50krn fromBangalore in Karnataka30artisans produce lacquereddolls and jewellery. The woodtraditionally used here is fromthe hale (Wrightia tomentosa) tree whose supply has beenshrinking over the years. "In my father's timeshale used togrow heresays artisan Syed Abdul Hai, pointing to his gar- den.Nowwe get wood from forests near Shimoga (275 kmaway). When the Shimoga forests vanishI do not know whatwe will do."
Some Channapatna artisans have experimented withyellow teak woodmore easily available than hale. But it is onlysecond best. Other alternatives to hale being tried out - stillat an experimental stage - at the Regional Design CentreBangaloreare rubber wood and coconut stemboth of whichgrow aplenty in the region.
Meanwhilein nearby Mysore (famed for its rosewoodinlay art)the rosewood stock is fast disappearing. Prices rangefrom Rs 90 to Rs 150 for a mana (10 kg) of rosewood billets atgovernment auctionsor Rs 900 to Rs 1100a cubic foot. "Tenyears agoI paid Rs 20 for a manasays V Ramesh, an artisan, Even two years agoit used to cost me Rs 40-50."
The dizzy spiralling of prices has gone hand-in-hand witha drop in the quality of rosewood. "What we get nowadays isoften full of knotsas hard as stone. Dealers do not want to buyarticles made from it because the grain is not evensays Ramesh. Further, big pieces needed for making large wall- hangings are few and far between.Even when they are occasionally availablethey are bought by those who can afford topay for them. We cannot11says Ramesh. Even the CraftDevelopment Centre for rosewood inlay set up by the DCH atKasargod is languishing for lack of raw material.
The proud descendant of a family of artisans fromDharwadKarnatakathe Bangalore-based sandalwood carverS M Badige started carving 33 years ago. By all accounts30years agowood was available much more easily than it istoday. "We used to get wood from thebamboo bazaar in Dharwad itself. Thewood used to come from the forests atShimogaSirsi and Shorab. We also usedto get them from the forests at Mysore.Now there are hardly any forests nearMysorehe says. The supply of sandal- wood (Santalum album) has been regulated by the state since Tipu Sultan had introduced a law in 1792. Sales to artisans have be en at various subsidised rates. According to - a 1966 DCH survey of sandalwood carving at Kumta, the concession was 75 per cent of the prevalent market rate in 1939. Between 1958-62, the cost hovered around Rs83 per kg. The subsidy for artisans was subsequently reduced to 50 per cent and remains so even today, when artisans have to pay between Rs 225-250 per kg at controlled rates; in the open market, sandalwood sells for Rs 450-550 a kg.
Elsewhere in India, sandalwood is priced at between Rs 350 and Rs 550 per kg. In 1965-66, the allotments of san- dalwood to artisans were 10 lbs (4.54 kg) per week for artisans working with lathes and 5 lbs (2.27 kg) per week for those without. Thd allotments remain the same. Complaints regard- ing the non-availablity of quotas abound. Carver N Shivanand in Mysore complains that in 1995, he received only three quo- tas.The pieces were so smallI could play gulli-danda withthem. How can I possibly survive on just this?" he says. Badigeagrees that the government quotas are hopelessly inadequate.Most of the time, we have to buy from the open market. We pay a higher price for it, but at least we can sometimes get good quality pieces.
Artisans might be able to circumvent the problem of rawmaterials if they had enough finances to build stocks when thematerials are available. But as Badige puts it: "If you apply fora loan at a bankthe first thing they ask you is whether youhave won any national or state award. No awardno loan."HoweverSampath Kumaran of the Karnataka HandicraftsDevelopment Corporation's office in Mysore maintains thatthe artisans are given the best quality sandalwood available.But Purushothammanager of the government-sponsoredmulti-crafts complex at BanimantapMysoresays that thebest quality sandalwoodsChina Budh and Ghatbadiahavenow disappeared.
Currentlyartisans do not figure in forest departments'plantation drives. Usuallyfast-growing species like the euca-lyptuspoplar and prosopis which are unpalatable to cattlearepromoted by the forest department. "In states like WestBengal and Orissathe forest departments have promotedlocally useful trees like sal and mahua (Madhuca indica). Butthis is not the national picturesays S S Rizvi, executive director of the Delhi-based Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development.
Already constrained by this paucity of raw materials, wood-workers are today facing the relentless onslaught of new goods, materials and products of technology. Plastic and met- 'alware have invaded even the remotest of villages. In Bassi, Rajasthan, plastic toys have eaten away at the core of the mar- ket that was dominated by Bassi's wooden toys. Satellite and cable televisions have largely displaced puppetry from the vil- lages. Rendered near-anachronisms, many wood-workers have already changed their craft. Once an expert puppetmaker, Avantilal Sutharan now makes shoddy furniture, cots and door frames.
Artisans almost everywhere were faced to modify or change their products to adapt to modern tastes and market demands. Channapatna's artisans, famed for their dolls and toys, have switched over to jewellery for women.Switching over to earrings and bangles for the export market was morelucrative; so we hardly make any toys nowsays Hai.
But some feel otherwise. Says R G Singh from Karnataka's largest handicrafts shop, the Ramsons Handicrafts Sales Emporium in Mysore,Channapatna dolls are not made anymore because the new generation of craftsperson .s do notknow how to make them." According to somemanyamongthe young artisans lack creativity. Says RameshToday@s craftspersons are good at copying. But they cannot play around with designs, they cannot innovate.Ramesh believesthat this is probably because of the kind of training youthsreceive today. "I began learni 'ng my craft from'my uncle whenI was seven years old. Nowadaysthese people get trained for ayear at the most. How can the quality of what they make andwhat I make be the same?" he reasons.
The world's tallest grassbamboo (Dendrocalamus sp)is fastdisappearingas is cane. Encouraged by government policiesand subsidiespaper and pulp mills devour much of thewealthleaving artisans disadvantaged.
India's 8.2 lakh canebamboo and fibre workers (1981census) are the country's third largest group of artisans -constituting 81.5 per cent in the household sector and 85.8 percent in the rural areas. What sets India apart from other bamboo producing Asian nations is the fact that the bulk of bamboo is consumed not by the artisansbut by industries.industrial consumers use bamboo for paper and rayon production and for scaffolding in urban construction. Paperand pulp industries payabout Rs two for a standardlength (4.5 metres) of bamboo.)market pays between Rs 30 aiOwners of bamboo grovesprefsince it involves large bulk ordeready cash - resulting in acut(artisans.
Till early '70sbasket weapanaickanpalayam village in 'collected bamboo from adjaceibought it at Rs six per headloabamboo supply ensuredthese artisans a daily earningof Rs eight. In the 1980stheSeshasayee Paper Millsnearthe villagebegan procuring bfrom the same forestsalmost uting raw material supply toartisans. Illegal collection andof bamboo pushed prices to Rsper headload; although the pric(of their products rosethe artisans' earnings fell.
Bamboo workers ofMaharashtra's Ratnagiridistrict tell a similar tale. A1983study by theVaikunthbhai MehtaSmarak TrustMumbairecorded bamboo artisans lamenting dwindling local suppliesthanks to the mushrooming paper mills. As much as 85 percent of their requirements were bought from outside thedistrict. In the district's northern partas 80 per cent of thebamboo went to industriesthe number of bamboo artisansfall drastically. A decade latera Centre for Science andEnvironment researcher from Delhi failed to find any practising bamboo craftsperson in Ratnagiri. In Tivri village nearChiplunthe bamboo worker-turned-casual labourerMahadeo said laconicallyYou want a basket? Get me bamboo first.
Bamboo artisans have also almost disappeared from theChangar area of KangraHimachal Pradesh. Increasing construction activities in Kangra has increased the demand fornaala thinner variety of bamboo that artisans also favour.L&al contractors work each year in a three to four year rotationbuying bamboo stands from farmers and transporting itto the Palarn belt where it is used as scaffolding.
The Doomnasthe region's traditional artisan castemadeproducts for everyday use which were famous even in Punjab.Most of them have now abandoned their traditional craftbecause of the fall in demandfall in social value of their craftand the rising cost of bamboo. Only seven Doomna familiescontinue making basketsin Daroh Kasba20km fromPalampur. With most of the naal being consumed by the construction industrythe Doomnas are restricted to using maggara thicker variety of bamboo whichcosts Rs 40-50 and makes for one big basket. It takes a week to completebutfetches only Rs 150. Most families have no choice but to supplement their incomes by making leaf plates and by working as casual labours.
Todayin Delhi's Motia Khan area80Sigravaditional bamboo workers lead acistence. "People prefer venetianrpboo chiks (blinds)says Madan e the invasion of the modern ; were used to shade balconies and from the glaring sun of the Indian
Canes, or rattans, have found diverse uses as in manufacture of furniture, baskets and fish- rolds to that of suspension bridges the northeast).
Earlier, cane was abundantly ailable all over the northeast. oday, it is restricted to Arunachal )radesh. Dhrupad Chowdhury, scientist-in-charge,at the Dima pur centre of the G B Pant Institute of Himalayan Environ ment and Development in Nagaland, explains,Canerequires a particular soilregime and moisture. Whentrees disappear and the barren rock is exposedcane cannot grow."
The lush tropical trees in the northeast have disappearedthanks to the lucrative trade in wooden planks. Trees felledfrom forestsespecially in Nagaland are sold in Dirnapur. Mostof the felling occurs in private forestsoften belonging to thelocal communityover which the forest department has nojurisdiction. Felling in private forestscoal mining and a pro-posed cement plant in Siju have already decimated much ofMeghalaya's forest wealth. There is no phanta; trade in planksof woodin Arunachal Pradesh yetbut local residents feel thatit will begin -7 once the Nagaland forests are depleted. In facta Meghalaya state forest department report says: "Most of theforest lands in the northeast are unclassed forestswith nolegal statusor are under private ownership. The local com-munities claim ownership over unclassed forest lands and alsoenjoy excessive concessions in the use of forest products fromthese forests."
Consequentlythe forests andwith them the artisanshavesuffered. In Porba village of Nagaland's Phek districtVeswuchowho used to make waterproof cane basketssaysI hardly get any cane now in the forests.
Manohar Singh Pangteymanaging directorNorth-EastHandicrafts and Handlocms Development Corporation LtdGuwahatiAssam fears that cane will become extinct from thenortheast in 10- 15 yearsthanks to the forest departments.Cane could have been planted at least on reserve forest lands. But it is difficult to grow and takes a long time. Forest officials will not be able to show their high rates of target achievement. So they plant useless eucalyptus trees.
The deteriorating situation has alarmed some environ-mentalists in Delhi. At a meeting with the minister of state forenvironment and forests (MEF)Rajesh PilotAshish Kothariand N D Jayaladvisor Indian National Trust for Art andCultural Heritage (INTACH)made a strong plea for a ban oncommercial felling in the northeast. The MEF'S response to theproposal is awaited. Over the last decademany cane workersfrom the northeast migrated to large cities like SilcharSiliguriGuwahati and Calcutta to take advantage of a flourishingmarket in cane furniture. Many of them have now becomeworkersmass producing furniture items from Japanese cata-logues. There is little originality of design or creativity. Theyare paid daily wages or piece-work rates by their employers -the dealers or the shop owners - who sell the products at bigprofit margins. Capital scarcity prevents the cane artisansfrom setting up their own units.
Not that artisans are always the hapless and passive victimsof changing circumstances. Collective action by artisans - theKarmi Brinda training-cum-production centrefor instance- has strengthened the wilting craft in Calcutta's Rambaganbasti. Sadly thoughRambagan's success does not reflect thegeneral sittiation in the country.
T@he ftick of comprehensive dataunfocussed programmes andpiecemeal approaches - these are but some of the indicationsof the government's apathy towards the sector. Recognition ofthe need to programmatically develop crafts did begin in 1952with the setting up of the All India Handloom and HandicraftsBoard. The Board was later bifurcated and the DCH was constituted. as a separate body.
The DCH functions through developmenttraining andmarketing centres across the country. Each state also has ahandicraft development corporation (HDC). Unfortunatelyallthese bodies are plagued by target-chasing and red tapism andhave been unable to reach out to artisans at large. A publicaccounts committee of Parliament has reported: "The primary task of the Board was to make handicrafts an effectiveinstrument of reducing unemployment and under-employment among artisans and to promote economic independenceand social status and individual dignity of artisans. TheCommittee regrets that the Board has notbeen able to achieve any concrete results inthis regard."
Says Laila Tyabjichairperson of theDelhi-based crafts promotion organisationDastkarThe HDcs have replaced the patrons of yore and today act as middlemen. But when the official is someone going from waterworks to family planning_via handicrafts, she/he knows nothing about markets or crafts.
Many of the industries under the purviewof the Kvic are non-artisanal. Besidesartisansfind the Kvic too bureaucratic. Another government agencythe Council forAdvancement of People's Action an@ RuralTechnology (cAPART) is responsible for promoting improved rural technology. Howeverkill in a fair none of its programmes is exclusivelyfocused on artisans. cAPART soon is likely tobe involved through NGOS in a Central governmeni scheme oftool-kit distribution to artisans. But "it is a political programme announced by the Prime Minister in 1991 and wouldnot solve artisans' problemsas those of the older generationsdo not need new tools and the younger lot does not want tocontinue the trade itselfsays Arun Sud, director, rural technology division, CAPART.
Lately, the government seems to have realised the impor- tance of market forces. Says B M Dattatreya, senior art director at Regional Design Centre Of DCH,Even five years agowewould take a prototype and try to thrust it on the market.Nowwe talk to dealers and exporters to determine the marketrequirements before propagating a design." Forty years ofgovernmental interventionhoweverhas failed to pull theartisanal sector from its morass of disarray. A macro view islacking. The domestic market for handicrafts has been shrink-ingwhereas the export market potential is enormous andgrowing steadily.
For examplesouth-east Asian countries have an us $15billion worth bamboo products marketaccording to theinternational Development Research Centre. The demand forbasketware alonewhich includes bamboowicker and rattan'productsis substantial in the usJapan apd Europewithimports growing from 150 to 200 per cent every year. China isthe most successful basketware exporterwith a market shareof over 40 per cent.
At this juncturea resolution of the crisis in the artisanalsector needs a concertedholistic effort by the governmentNGOs and people. At the official levelthis requires policies ofpricing and reservations which promote the purchase and useof hand-crafted articles. Arun Suddirector rural technologydevelopmentsaysThe government has consistently ignored the artisans by deliberately clubbing village industry with the smalIscale sector. We need a nodal agency to take care of them.
Marketing could be more innovative: for exampletheIndian Railways could reintroduce the use of kulhads (earthentea cups) for serving tea. According to DattatreyaDCH surveysindicate that utilitarian handicrafts are mo re in demand in theexport market than strictly ornamental objects.
But the more pressing problem is that of the artisans' lackof access to raw materials. Craftspersons in grassleather and caneand most wood-workers suffer from a total lack of the raw material itselfwhile those in bamboo find access to the materials difficult.
Indeedthe strategy has to be multi-dimensionalor else a large part of India's population will son be totally pauperised.
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