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LEARNING TOGETHER: A Lesson from Craft Economics

Chatterjee, Ashoke former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad from 1975-85 retired as a Distinguished Fellow in 2001. Ashoke Chatterjee is on the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, USA among several other organizations. His vast interests include water management and environmental issues. He has spearheaded the movement to find a solution to the crisis faced by the weavers of Varanasi.

It has been such a long journey, and yet a journey that has only just begun. The August Business Meet in Chennai provided an overview of CCI’s first incursion into what should perhaps have been its foundation: what it takes to make the case for sustainable livelihoods through heritage crafts. We can look back on the seminar which CCWB and CCI together organized in the Victoria Memorial in February 2008 as a Council watershed. We had by that realized the scale of ignorance of the contribution artisans make to national wellbeing. Their economic contribution translated into national production and income figures was needed if wellbeing in other terms (social, political, environmental, cultural, spiritual) was to receive acknowledgement. The consequences of ignorance and neglect had become apparent. Like other activists in the sector, CCI and state chapters seemed destined to run between pillar and post begging for support that awareness could have made automatic. Why had such a lacuna come about in a country with the world’s longest tradition of living craft, where craft had been at the centre of its struggle for Freedom, had been incorporated in to national planning once Independence came, which only the other day was tom-toming its achievements in ‘craft renaissance’, and where even its President acknowledges handcraft as the largest source of Indian livelihood after agriculture? What could be done to resolve the lacuna? Who would do what needed to be done?  How long would it take?

The Victoria Memorial may have seemed a strange setting for such reflection. Was it not a symbol of a Raj that had forced the decline in Indian handcrafts so as to encourage British exports of machine-made products, a strategy Gandhiji would later counter through his swadeshi movement? Yet as Gopalkrishna Gandhi reminded us, perhaps our setting was not bizarre. After all, VM was built by Indian artisans. They had brilliantly adapted traditional skills to what was for them a contemporary need of commemorating Her Royal Majesty. It was precisely their capacity of innovation and moving with the times which CCI has endeavored to support and promote since its inception.

That 2008 seminar shared our dilemma with participants from several sectors of knowledge and experience. What became clear in Calcutta was that our fears were genuine: there was indeed no reliable data on our sector, little appreciation of the cost of this ignorance to national progress, and no place where the responsibility for change could be clearly assigned. Yet change was needed --- and quickly, to counter a growing prejudice that dismissed craft heritage and activity as a ‘sunset’ industry irrelevant to Shining India. The change agent, it soon become apparent, would have to be CCI. No one else seemed to be around to do the job now. CCI might lack experience in data-gathering and statistical methodologies. It might lack economists on its teams and even contact with research institutions. As a small NGO, it could hardly claim the national reach that a data-gathering task like this requires. Yet first steps were needed, studies would have to begin, pilot demonstrations would have to be made --- not tomorrow, but starting yesterday. For this, CCI would require partnerships entirely new to it: with economists and other disciplines related to statistical analysis and planning.

Partnership has been the key feature of the journey since 2008. It has taken us through many weeks and months of investigation, exploration and research, culminating in the “Craft Economics and Impact Study” (CEIS) shared with Council chapters in Chennai in August, and then with 20 partners brought together at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi in September, followed by a first round of discussion with senior experts at the Planning Commission. Along the way we have interacted with researchers, scholars and statisticians --- learning from them, and they in turn learning from CCI about a sector vital to every citizen and yet invisible to most despite its enormous scale and significance. As I write, CCI is preparing for another round of discussions in New Delhi, Raghav Rajagopalan in Chennai (who took courage from his development background to lead the CEIS team) is interacting with new partners representing national planning for skills, Shikha Mukherjee (who has strengthened the CEIS team with her economic reporting and networking skills) in Kolkata has just unearthed a treasure-trove of livelihood data and insights, and Ruchira Ghosh at the Crafts Museum is contributing economics know-how not usually associated with the collections in that marvelous institution. Wisdom has come from many sides, with amazing generosity. Development Commissioners for Handicrafts and Handlooms have given us opportunities to participate in the drafting of the 12th Five Year Plan, enabling us to bring to the table knowledge and concerns generated by the CEIS. Far from suggesting that CCI should leave economics to the experts, Planning Commission economists have appreciated the CEIS as a step that had to be taken to impact a much larger context of national policy and action. For them as with others, the CEIS is all about learning together.

Learning together is perhaps the key lesson of these months of effort. Learning the economics of handcrafts is just the beginning of what is needed if India is to walk its decades-old talk about our glorious craft heritage. The work on cold statistics is enlivened by fresh understanding of values and issues that go well beyond numbers. We now have evidence to back past hunches of how ‘organized’ and innovative artisans really are (challenging the  labels of ‘unorganized’ and ‘informal’ imposed on them),  the resources of creativity and innovation they bring to industry well beyond crafts (machine tools, space applications, watches, industrial design), the huge contribution of women to the sector (as much as 50% in key production processes), the critical importance of craft activity to millions still on the margins of our society (women, minorities, tribal communities and those in remote and sensitive regions), the importance of hand production to environmental sustainability (use of local materials and the huge advantage of low carbon-footprint), the deep commitment of communities (including youth) to their heritage….the list goes on. This is a ‘sector of sectors’. To strengthen it demands bringing together many streams of knowledge and experience. Economics is clearly one of these, and yet only one. The future of Indian handcrafts now demands inter-disciplinary teamwork on a scale we have yet to imagine. CCI is familiar with building teams of artisans, craft activists, designers, marketing managers, administrators and planners. Tomorrow’s teams may include the economists we now know and a range of other expertise: livelihood management, sociology, anthropology, finance, corporate management, human rights, environmental science, media….

From the European Union has come that wonderful phrase “The future is hand-made” --- hand-made in India by a myriad partners holding hands?  



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