Crisis in Varanasi: Update 1 - JANUARY 2007
This note is further to the November message on the situation on Varanasi, which came to our attention through the BBC television news report aired that month.
The Crafts Revival Trust (CRT) is coordinating the effort that can be made on behalf of the Varanasi weavers. Immediate humanitarian assistance plus longer-term adoption of ‘master looms’ had been suggested as immediate options. The activities suggested by CRT include contact with key silk traders, a community that can be guarded about sharing information and experience. Yet their support is critical to any effort that must ultimately provide marketing solutions to a marketing problem. CRT suggests a multi-pronged approach that would mobilize central and state governments, civil society, the silk trade and the media. It could begin with a brainstorming in New Delhi among key activists (those already contacted, others who could be brought in, institutions including Dastkar, Crafts Council India, Delhi Crafts Council and All India Artisans and Craftworkers Association, major sari retailers). This could lead to public presentations in Delhi and other cities, case information that could be collated and used on the CRT website and its monthly mailer, and shared with other participating organizations for use through their own networks. The ‘brainstorm’ output would assist a contact with government authorities on policy issues, economists and those involved with WTO/IPR issues. CRT has the support of economist Anuradha Basin and its December newsletter featured an item on the need to include crafts in trade negotiations. CRT has spoken to Gulshan Nanda, Chairperson, Cottage Industries who has enormous contacts in the sector.
Gulshanji has offered to assist, using her years of experience to contact Varanasi weavers and traders in Varanasi and Delhi. Such contact with local traders can be the essential first step toward information gathering and sensitization of market channels which must be mobilized --- to protect the craft rather than promote overseas imitations. Any effective advocacy activity would need to begin with the facts and figures on the dumping of Chinese imitations of Banarasi craft, and the economic/social impact on artisans. To respond to the output of this research one would need to bring together those who have a stake in the future of this craft, to consider the issue and alternative options for action. An exhibition to encourage public interest and understanding of the issue has been suggested. The Crafts Council of India’s new Kamala shop (Rajiv Gandhi Bhavan, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi) could be one venue.
Through the intervention of Gita Ram (Crafts Council of India), Shri Michael Pinto (former DC Handlooms) has been introduced to the issue. A meeting was held with Shri Pinto in Mumbai. He has raised important questions: What exactly have the Chinese copied and dumped on our markets? Is it technique, designs, material? Does this suggest that the term “Banarasi brocade” be registered/patented for trade purposes under the current WTO regime? (Gita Ram has informed us that Pochampalli has been registered/patented as a brand to protect textiles from that region of Tamil Nadu). Is the task one of educating public opinion to prefer the real thing, even at a higher cost, through appeals of authenticity, integrity, identity and national pride? Michael Pinto reminds us of the successful consumer campaigns conducted around the world by environmentalist against wearing and trading in animal skins. Is there a lesson in this for those trying to protect Indian craft traditions from another kind of extinction? He agrees that sensitizing and working with the trade on issues of intellectual property rights (IPR) is going to be essential.
The Crafts Council of India at its January national meet in Chennai was briefed about these developments. The Council and the state chapters represented at the meeting have pledged their support to this effort. The CCI newsletter of January 2006 as a lead article to draw members attention to the crisis in Varanasi and to other crafts that have been reporting similar challenges, such as the import into Gujarat of ‘Kutchi’ embroidery from Chinese craft factories.
Last year many of us were greatly exercised by the Times of India report on bogus ‘Kutchi’ embroidery being imported into Gujarat from China. Judy Frater (Kala Raksha, Bhuj) reports that the news story and the activities of traders who were part of this nexus have not had any perceptible impact on the artisans she works with in Kutch. No reports of death, suicide or withdrawal from the craft. Does this perhaps mean that the reputation for quality (and the demand for quality generated by them) have acted as insurance for Kutchi artisans? Is this an example of globalization that benefits, not destroys? We need to keep the Kutch experience in mind as we proceed.
Through BBC and later at Chennai we learnt that People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (www.pvchr.org), an NGO in Varanasi, is already working with the affected weavers in the area. PVCHR could advise us on the issue, the immediate and longer-term needs, and give an opinion on the approaches suggested so far. Supporting a local NGO would clearly be a most practical way to proceed. The activities of PVCHR on this issue have the attention of the ActionAid regional office in Lucknow. Shri Shankar Venkateswaran, formerly of ActionAid, and now with the America India Foundation (AIF), has assisted the effort to make grassroot contact in Varanasi.
We had the opportunity of interaction with AIF in New Delhi. Shri Arvind Kapur has expressed his interest, and will be happy to be kept in touch with developments.
The Press Institute of India has been reporting on the impact of the new trade regime on a range of artisan and small industries through its “Grassroots” journal. Director Arun Chacko of the PII has personally reported on some of these situations, and has offered the participation of PII in the proposed campaign. The Institute is interested in reporting from Varanasi, with the help of contacts we can suggest. The Varanasi and Lucknow contacts above could kick-start PII’s effort.
Paul Mason, the BBC journalist, whose report from Varanasi was the trigger for this response has been in touch, expressing a sustained interest in the issue at Varanasi and what media might contribute toward problem-solving.
Aid to Artisans (ATA, USA) is familiar with this challenge, and can be a source of advice on issues of international craft trade and opportunities for advocacy with authorities and trade channels overseas.
Our attention has been drawn to published resources that could assist our understanding. These include the analysis by Economist, Kaushik Basu on misunderstandings of globalization in The Little Magazine (issue1, 2004), which suggest that while globalization has its pitfalls and can potentially marginalize sections of the population, it can also confer huge benefits. The article refers to a macro study of the Indian economy by Maureen Leibl and Tirthankar Roy (“Handmade in India: Preliminary Analysis of Craft Producers and Craft Production”, Economic and Political Weekly, Dec 27 2003). Kaushik Basu has edited a volume “Indian Economy in 1990s and Beyond” (MIT Press) by Renana Jhabvala and Ravi Kandur. It is said to contain information we can use in this effort. The SRUTI report of some ten years ago on “The Status of Artisans in India” remains a seminal study.
Directly relevant to this issue is the Jodhpur Consensus on Cultural Industries which emerged from the Unesco seminar early last year. That document represents the joint auspices of the Senior Experts Symposium: UNESCO, UNIDO, WIPO (where IPR issues are centred), ADB and the World Bank. The Consensus refers specifically to the need to “protect and preserve diversity”, the importance of conserving local identities “essential to individual, community, and social development”, and the importance of “A new balance between strengthening of intellectual property rights and strengthening the public domain which needs to be struck; ensuring that this balance is established is essential to the development pathway”.
As a concluding note, let us recall that the problem of attacks on intellectual property of artisans is not confined to China or overseas threat. Crafts belonging to locations within the country are being copied recklessly or moving deliberately elsewhere. Without the active cooperation of Indian traders, Chinese craft factories would not be selling their imitation goods in the Indian markets. Therefore our response is not just about vigilance overseas, but establishing and respecting the bench marks of identity and origin that give integrity to artisans and their crafts.