Crafts as Sustainable Livelihood Option in Rural India

Sood, Anubha, a graduate in Social Policy and Planning in Developing Countries from the London School of Economics (2002) in currently working as a Manager-Market Access Initiatives with AIACA-All India Artisans and Crafts Workers Association. In the past she has worked with Action Aid, OXFAM, Dastkar and URMUL Trust. She specializes in various aspects of craft related income generation programme-identification of crafts, craft communities, production planning, quality control, linking with the appropriate markets and self sustenance of the programme. She has conducted extensive training programs with women and artisans in various aspects of income generation. She has also helped set up a crafts shop in Lucknow called SANATKADA.

The craft or handicraft sector is the largest decentralised and unorganised sector of the Indian economy. Craftspeople form the second largest employment sector in India, second only to agriculture. Handicrafts are rightly described as the craft of the people: there are twenty-three million craftspeople in India today. In India, craft is not merely an industry but a creation symbolising the inner desire and fulfilment of the community. While handicrafts, be it metal ware, pottery, mats, wood-work or weaving, fulfil a positive need in the daily life of people, they also act as a vehicle of self-expression, and of a conscious aesthetic approach.

The artisan is an important factor in the equation of Indian society and culture. By performing valid and fruitful social functions for the community, they earn for themselves a certain status and position in society. S/he is the heir to the people's traditions and weaves them into his/her craft. Most craft people have learned their skills from their fathers or mothers since caste and family affiliations, rather than training or market demand, have primacy in the Indian situation.

The handicrafts sector is a home-based industry which requires minimum expenditure, infrastructure or training to set up. It uses existing skills and locally available materials. Income generation through craft does not (and this is important in a rural society) disturb the cultural and social balance of either the home or the community. Many agricultural and pastoral communities depend on their traditional craft skills as a secondary source of income in times of drought, lean harvests, floods or famine. Their skills in embroidery, weaving, basket-making are a natural means to social and financial independence.

The craft sector contains many paradoxes. Artisanal contribution to the economy and the export market increases every year and more and more new crafts-people are being introduced into the sector - especially women - as a solution to rural and urban unemployment. At the same time mass-produced goods are steadily replacing utility items of daily use made by craftspeople, destroying the livelihood of many, without the concomitant capacity to absorb them into industry. However, with ever-increasing competition from mill-made products and decreasing buying power of village communities due to prevailing economic conditions, artisans have lost their traditional rural markets and their position within the community.

There is a swing against small scale village industries and indigenous technologies in favour of macro industries and hi-tech mechanised production. Traditional rural marketing infrastructures are being edged out by multinational corporations, supported by sophisticated marketing and advertising. The change in consumer buying trends and the entry of various new, aggressively promoted factory produced commodities into the rural and urban market, has meant that craft producers need more support than ever if they are to become viable and competitive.

As a socio economic group, artisans are amongst the poorest. Research shows that households headed by artisans, in general have much lower net wealth and almost all (90%) are landless as against 36% for households headed by others. The average income derived by a craftsperson is Rs 2000 per month for an average family of five members. The current state of India’s artisans is a matter of serious concern. Government Policies since the early twentieth century have emphasised generating employment and increasing export earnings through crafts, but in spite of this most craft people live in abject poverty. Though some have managed to adapt to changing times, and a few even thrive most of them live in dismal poverty with no prospects for a better tomorrow.

In the face of constant struggle, most artisans have given up and moved away from their traditional occupations. The skills, evolved over thousands of years, are being dissipated and blunted. Research indicates that neither the crafts persons, nor their progeny want to join the crafts sector, only a lack of available alternatives forces them to do so. They would not mind the tradition coming to an end. In one of the studies by Jaya Jaitly (2001), she reveals that in more than half the traditional leather artisan households, several family members have given up leather work, and are working as casual labourers. The new economic and industrial order that is emerging concedes no space to the artisanal sector.

There are number of reasons for the craft people’s current state: from the lack of capital to invest in raw materials to a scarcity of raw materials and their availability at reasonable rates; from the absence of direct marketing outlets to difficulty of access to urban areas that are now the main markets for craft products, from production problems to a lack of guidance in product design and development based on an understanding of the craft, the producer and the market - the constraints are many and varied.

  • Disappearing markets: Craft is basically a commercial activity. In order to make a living from craft production, the artisan needs to sell his/her products regularly, realise a viable income from each sale and be assured of regular sales in the future. Production for home consumption is radically different from production for a commercial market. Given changing and competitive markets, the traditional craft skill, however beautiful, needs sensitive adaptation, proper quality control, correct sizing and accurate costing, if it is going to win and keep a place in the market. In other words the right combination of human, financial, physical and social capital is essential. There has been a dramatic shift in consumer choice from artisanal goods to factory made ones. For example, hand woven cotton fabrics have lost out to mill-made synthetic ones; plastic, china and glassware have wiped out the market for earthenware.

  • Wages and capital: Wages for the craft people are meagre. Even the highest wages are low relative to the earnings of many others in the agriculture or other non- farm activities. Irregularities in the supply of work mean that there is forced underemployment. Quality of work can only be sustained if the craft people can obtain a living through working for the market. The combination of low wages and insufficient work tends to exacerbate poverty among craft people. The demand for a consistent market needs to be complimented by an availability of social networks and accessibility to financial and physical capital. Creating employment is not a matter of creating ‘jobs’, but of strengthening these workers and producers to overcome structural constraints and enter markets where they would be competitive.

  • Working capital is another most pressing need of artisans. Capital investment is the key not only to the development, but also to the continuing survival, of artisans and their craft. Lack of finance and cash flow is almost always the crux of craft people’s problems.

  • Technological obsolescence: Modern technology has enabled machines to imitate even the most intricate designs that were once the exclusive domain of the artisans, developed and perfected over centuries and passed down from generation to generation. Any form of innovation implies an element of risk and investment of capital. Given that most Indian artisans live on the margin of subsistence, they have virtually no reserves to invest in technological innovation (physical capital).

I will examine the efficacy of the craft sector providing a sustainable livelihood option through a project initiated in Rajasthan. Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas is a weavers society with a membership of 120 weavers, 100 of them are men and twenty women, spread over eleven villages. They belong to the Meghwal caste (a caste that figures in the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy in the region- the ‘Dalit’ community) the traditional weavers of this particular belt of Rajasthan. Weaving offers them an employment opportunity and means of livelihood to support their families in the hard desert condition (the area has been classified as one of the most backward in the country, in terms of both productivity and accessibility).

Formally registered in 1991, UMBVS owes its genesis to the famine relief activities undertaken by Urmul Trust, a Non-Government Development organisation based in Bikaner district, Rajasthan. In 1986-87, Rajasthan suffered a severe drought and Bikaner was one of the worst affected districts. It became imperative to provide employment to people faced with near starvation. Searching for alternative means of employment, the spinning of wool into woollen yarn - a traditional activity carried out by the women in the region, stood out as a possibility. The raw material was local, as were the skills and the market for the product. Urmul Trust bought wool, distributed it among the women for spinning and made payments as per the labour per kilogram of yarn spun.

As the stock of wool piled up, the Trust realised that the local market could not absorb the quantities that were being produced. A search for markets and outlets for spun woollen yarn led Urmul Trust to locate weavers in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts. With them, Urmul Trust struck a deal: that weavers would use the yarn supplied by the Trust, and in turn the Trust would purchase everything they produced, paying on a piece rate basis for the value-added services provided by the weavers. Subsequent developments led Urmul Trust to locate and move a few weavers in Jaisalmer district to the Urmul Trust campus in Lunkaransar with twin objectives, to help these weavers improve on their traditional designs, while simultaneously training local people in Lunkaransar how to weave, there by providing them with a sustainable livelihood option. For the next two years, a group of five weavers lived in Lunkaransar, training for and learning the demands of bigger markets. The practice of obtaining spun wool from the Trust, weaving and stocking finished products with the Trust continued. The Trust was responsible for the sale of the finished products.

In June 1988, the Trust organised a meet, where about hundred and twenty weavers from villages in Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer gathered. The mela (fair) was the first of its kind in Rajasthan and an opportunity for weavers across three districts to interact. The decision to establish an independent weaver’s organisation was taken here. People at Urmul Trust were sceptical - the enterprise was running at a loss - the weavers themselves were not sure, but they were determined to try it out. After much discussion and argument the proposal was adopted and the Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti was born. The five weavers that had been based in Lunkaransar shifted the base of operation of the new organisation to where they belonged (400 kms from Lunkaransar). On loan to them for a period of six months, the Trust placed four professionals who helped the weavers with marketing, production, accounting and design.

Within a few months, the weavers took charge of their business. Office bearers were chosen, systems were set in place, work was delegated and positions in the organisation filled. It was decided to ask the weavers to make a contribution of Rs1000 each towards the new society. This inculcated in each of the members, a sense that they owned a piece of the society, that it was ‘theirs’. This fund was used as capital and the profit / loss at the end of the year was shared by the members. They requested Urmul Trust to take back two of the four staff.

In early 1991, the weavers went ahead with the formal registration of UMBVS, and made a profit of Rs 270,000 for distribution amongst the weavers. They had done in one year what the Trust had not been able to in two years - make a profit!

Twelve years since the society was established the weavers get fair returns for their weaving. 70% of the cost of production goes to the weaver as weaving cost. As the women of the house help in the pre-weaving process, 30% of the amount goes to them. 50% of the profit accrued by the overall sale of the products goes back to the weavers in the form of a yearly bonus. Regular training programme are conducted to increase the number of weavers and in development and up gradation of weaving skills. The weaver’s benefit from a yearly bonus, interest free loans, compulsory savings and individual life insurance.

The exposure and motivation that some UMBVS members received from Urmul Trust, led UMBVS to look beyond their economic development programme. Today, apart from uniting rural artisans and keeping alive their traditional craft, the organization has adopted a sustainable development approach. Starting with weaving activities in five villages in the two districts, UMBVS is working in a total of 45 villages of Jaisalmer and Jodhpur District of Western Rajasthan, with interventions in areas of education, health and economic development of ‘Dalits’ (Meghwals) and women. It runs fourteen schools, has formed ten women’s collectives with a savings of Rs 20,000 (Urmul, 2001).

The weaver community of Meghwals used to be temporary migrants. Almost the entire family moved in search of employment to nearby areas, during the difficult periods prior to the agriculture season. With membership in UMBVS the migration of weaver families has completely stopped. They have built resources, a means of livelihood for the household to fall back on even if market trends, government policies, financial constraints hamper their production or marketing temporarily. The earnings from crafts supplement the household income to sustain their livelihood.

UMBVS is responsible for creating a mass awareness of the craft; it provides job security and steady income for the weavers. Its success lies in the fact that ‘weaving’ is a traditional craft, besides the fact that all the weavers belong to a close-knit community. They operate with controlled membership after proper training. UMBVS gives the weavers social prestige and an immense feeling of belonging- coupled with a feeling of ownership, as they control and run the entire organisation.

Rajasthan has been severely affected by the recurring drought for three years (1999 onwards). Hundreds of people had to migrate in search of work or were in heavy debt of the middlemen in order to support their families. Though the weavers faced problems because of shortage of water and due to climatic conditions, as compared to the other villagers they have been much better off as their work has secure returns.

The weavers (UMBVS) case study demonstrates Urmul Trust’s attempts to incorporate the local knowledge of a grassroots organization’s, and its efforts and takes into consideration existing social structures and social relationships. This helped in strengthening the organization and the analytical abilities of its members, ensuing their complete access and control over assets, processes and decision-making.

Both economic gain and a dignified status in society for craftspeople are necessary and possible if they are to be recognized and supported in the many roles they serve. A holistic approach to the development of the crafts sector is needed; focused around livelihoods, social development and environment of the artisans. The many and varied constraints, including the lack of capital, scarcity of raw material, disappearing markets, declining wages and technological obsolescence (to name a few) need to be tackled to improve the production capacity and to assist the artisans. Emphasis needs to be on a much greater effort at widening and strengthening policies to sustain livelihoods in which craftspeople are already skilled and productive.

  • Dastkar (1995), A Society For Crafts And Craftspeople

  • DFID (1999), Sustainable livelihoods material, guidance sheets

  • Government of India (1989), Report of the Task Force on Handicrafts for the VIII FiveYear Plan,
    Ministry of Textiles, New Delhi

  • Government of India (2001), Annual Report 2001-2002,
    Ministry of Textiles, New Delhi

  • Jaitly, J (2001), Visvakarma's Children,
    New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.

  • Premchander, S. (1991), Scaling-Up NGO Impact through Income Generation Programmes: Two Indian Experiences,
    Action Aid

  • Sardana, V. (1993), Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti,
    Save The Children Fund

  • Sruti (1995), India's Artisans: A status report.
    New Delhi.

  • Urmul Trust (1999), Moving in Sand and Time: Urmul Trust,
    New Delhi: SANAM Publishing

  • Urmul (2001), Annual Report: Jodhpur

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