As the COVID-19 pandemic causes widespread shutdowns across the globe, crafts and handloom sector—the 2nd largest employment and informal industry—too is struggling with the disease’s slow but certain decimation of business.
After agriculture, the handlooms and handicrafts industries are together perhaps the largest employers in the country. In just handloom weaving, over 3.5 million Indians are engaged in producing hundreds of varieties of fabric, a majority of them working independently. According to the Council of Handicrafts Development Corporation, at least 70 lakh people are engaged in the production of thousands of traditional crafts, and just exports alone from this sector were valued at Rs. 8,318 crore in 2015.
Any calamity, political decision, or economic downturn first impacts those who are outside the safety net of secure jobs, insurance, provident funds or pensions. Craftspeople are among the most vulnerable. In fact, craftspeople may be the most susceptible, Crafts communities face a plethora of issues, from possible cancellations of orders to lack of awareness about the disease. All the fair from local crafts bazaars to international trade fairs are cancelled.
Cancellation of exhibitions throughout the country unfortunately incurred a big loss of business for artisans. A lot of sale, orders and other transactions happen during these exhibitions. People say that one result of worldwide self-isolation will be a major increase in online buying instead of hands-on retail. Few craftspeople have the technical and economic resources or knowhow to go online; those of us in the craft sector have to equip ourselves to help them.
The health pandemic was totally unexpected and its implications are indeed very worrisome. Civil society, NGOs, individuals working in the craft & handloom sector and the Government will have to come forward on a war footing to resolve issues arising from the pandemic. It is also an opportune time to reimagine production and market models, to be able to relook at localising markets and learn how technology and social media can complement and leverage the enterprise and resilience of these communities. Though we feel human interaction at a bazaar is the best way to appreciate the texture and contours of craft products. E-commerce could be an option, currently long-term clientele still come through exhibitions and trade fairs, and less through digital channels. This sentiment echoes with hundreds of karigars. The role of digital channels in selling handicrafts is yet to be seen.
Another way of structuring work on a long-term basis is through engaging craft communities in big design and craft projects from corporates, hospitality bodies, architects, interior designers. The earnings in these cases are far more and give them a secure and better livelihood.
Craft purchases come into the discretionary realm of buyer behavior, including in the so-called luxury category. The impact is bound to be immediate. Export markets worldwide are being affected so the outlook for India’s craft exports joins the long list of uncertainties. All this is compounded by the difficulty of activists getting into aggressive marketing efforts on behalf of artisans. What artisans most need is entrepreneurship/marketing/design capacities that can help them deal with risk and uncertainty. It would be so useful if one could turn this crisis to advantage and concentrate on capacity building through training and forward planning.
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