As the first article of the year, this was to have been a positive one – focusing on headway that had been made by the government in tackling some of the problems faced by craftspeople. Progress could be measured either by measuring outcomes – in this case, the living standards of the target populations - or by looking at the inputs - government programs aimed at improving the lot of craftspeople.
In both cases I drew a blank. Improvements or changes in the living standards of crafts people and artisans cannot be commented on for the simple reason that there are no current data relating to this group – so no comparisons can be made. Nothing can be presented to balance the dismaying news about the distress faced by some of the craftspeople who find they can no longer support their families in the face of competition.
There are scattered success stories of increasing individual’s or some SHGs’ (Self Help Groups) access to markets, or achieving self-sufficiency. But, as a whole, there is no way we can tell if income or employment levels have increased among craftspeople – even as the reduction in poverty levels in the country over the past decade have meticulously been measured, debated over and well documented.
The most recent enumeration of ‘handicraft artisans’ was carried out in 1995-96 by the NCAER (National Council for Applied Economics Research), but by its own admission this was limited to the ‘known craft concentration pockets’ in the country and excluded several crafts such as agarbattis and gold jewelry. Given the heterogeneity of the sector, and the issues of definition and overlap with other areas, this is a creditable beginning
The information is now over a decade old, and was to be updated by the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation), in its next round. But this has been put on hold once again. This brings us to an important issue not just from the point of view of measuring progress, but of policy making. A reliable database is fundamental to micro-level planning in any sector. And handicrafts is no exception. To be effective, well-targeted, and not another colossal waste of funds, policies need to first be grounded in numbers.
Other inputs matter, but they come later. A comprehensive enumeration of the crafts sector is the first step to revealing specific problems and issues in each sub-sector, the extent of these problems, which areas need to be targeted first, and so on. At present, instead of being based on n a rigorous framework, the country’s planning for the crafts sector relies on the varying interest and inputs of NGOs and other bodies, and on the fluctuating interests of exporters. Well-meaning as these may be, they may not even touch on the worst-off within the community.
The Planning Commission is the government body that determines priorities and allots funds to different sectors for improving living standards, and increasing production and employment. It acknowledges the powerful employment effects of the handicrafts sector and its foreign exchange generation potential through exports.
But its Tenth Plan (2002-07) had to use data on handicraft exports to derive production and employment figures, and thus to allot funds for different projects “as a comprehensive database for handicrafts is not available.” Its stated objectives are primarily aimed at improving exports from this sector, while welfare of crafts people appears to be secondary or even tertiary (after the “preservation of cultural heritage”) to the exercise.
Inputs into the sector – the central government schemes - were shrouded in mystery. A ‘talk’ with one of the officials in the Village and Small Industries Division of the Planning Commission revealed nothing. Apart from the size of the current Annual Plan (Rs 150 crore) an attempt to find out which schemes were successful or where policy could be directed, was abortive. The website of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) listed some of the many schemes available for craftspeople, but the language is obtuse, and probably far beyond the reach of the target audience. While the right to information is an unalienable right for all of us, the information itself is not to be had. We are still in the dark about how craftspeople – a huge employment force in the country – are doing.