I HAVE read with great interest Professor Harriss-White’s article on India’s informal economy and climate change in Seminar’s August 2021issue (# 745). I hope this piece will be widely circulated, read and, above all, digested. So much of the sector that includes most Indian livelihoods remains invisible to decision-makers. This is the principal reason why India’s craft sector is in crisis, a situation made so much more desperate by the factors she points out including demonetization, clumsy GST reforms and the pandemic. To this must be added the growing impact of climate change and the disasters that go with it, as well as political upheavals in some of India’s most craft-rich regions including Kashmir, the Northeast and the so-called Naxal belt.
Artisans and handcrafts are not mentioned in the paper. Yet these constitute a huge part of the so-called informal economy (IE). Indeed the hand sector is often touted as India’s second largest source of livelihood after agriculture while evidence to back this claim does not exist. The gap between official figures (11m-16m artisans) and unofficial estimates (these go as high as 250m) should be completely unacceptable. Some of us have been working over many years to establish a reliable database for the ‘handmade in India’ sector. Despite huge effort and some progress, the crisis of data remains, with the pandemic now adding yet another hurdle. Unless this crisis is resolved, artisans and their crafts will remain invisible to key authorities. Investments which the sector so desperately needs to build its capacities will not take place, including those essential to meeting the challenges of natural resource management within climate change. Yet the struggle for awareness continues. (In the hope that this situation might be of interest to your investigation, I am attaching a copy of my C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture last year which details the ‘data crisis and journey’ of the Crafts Council of India and its colleagues since 2009.)
An element within all this is the challenge of language. The craft sector is labeled as ‘unorganized’ and ‘informal’. Yet there is little that is ‘informal’ about crafts that have moved down through centuries with secure systems and values. Every Indian craft has its own systems of organization and formality. What we are up against today is not just ignorance. There is also contempt for a heritage that some consider to be about the past, not the future, and as an embarrassing hangover from an era that should be erased. Over a decade ago we were informed at high levels of decision-making that ours was a ‘sunset sector’ that should be allowed to fade. This at a time when China announced that it considered handcraft and IT as keys to global power, and a slogan had emerged from within the EU that ‘The future is handmade’. These expressions recognized craftsmanship as an essential resource for the creativity and innovation demanded by global competition, an understanding demonstrated much earlier by East Asia, Switzerland and Scandinavia.
We have been trying to communicate India’s great advantage of a massive industry that has as one of its many strengths minimal demands on the environment and on fossil fuel. Among other arguments is the fact that handcrafts represent needs and opportunities in the context of climate change and promotion of green livelihoods for people in their own rural locations. Two linked dimensions are natural disasters (recently suffered by artisans in Kerala, Kashmir and in the northeast and earlier in Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) as well as efforts on-going to build the capacity of craft communities to remain green and to conserve natural resources under threat, including water and forest produce. Important beginnings are underway throughout the country. These may be of interest to your investigations. To meet such requirements on any scale demands investment, which in turn demands data!
Although our artisans and their wisdom contribute directly to at least 11 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (including Goal 13 on climate change), yet the entire sector remains invisible to current systems of reporting progress on the SDG front. The reason is the absence of data.
As our efforts at change continue, I do hope that ‘handmade in India’ will inform your own work. Activity on-going toward keeping crafts ‘green’ and building green capacities within craft communities may be of particular interest. I and my colleagues will be happy to share progress and plans, and to put you in touch with others working toward these goals.
Crafts Council of India, Ahmedabad
PROFESSOR Chatterjee has written a very interesting response to my article on the informal economy. It concerns craft. He elaborates the argument in his C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture of 2020 given at the IIC, entitled ‘Handcrafting a Sustainable Future: Challenge and opportunity in a new millennium’.
In a society living in harmony with material – and energy – balances, collectives of pluri-active craft producers might generate some of their needs and wants. If we ignore their satellite dishes, the bamboo-based forest cultures of Arunachal probably come closest to this. Professor Chatterjee’s case for craft converges with my Seminar essay when he writes that craft combines livelihood-intensity with the lowest carbon footprint – although he does not make comparable calculations of greenhouse gases and of labour. But the Sustainable Development Goals – hard infrastructure, IT and communications, buildings and housing, healthcare, food and water, education, waste disposal, not to mention the wherewithal for justice and for defence and adding clothing to the list – are all development projects in physical materials, energy and technological competences that lie outside the remit of the varied definitions of craft – even if contributions to them are made by crafts. The means to deliver these dimensions of development with minimal disruption to nature and with maximum and equal benefit to the whole of society everywhere – and the roles of craft-skills in such a project – are revolutionary questions.
Although outside the scope of my Seminar essay, Professor Chatterjee and I also agree that craft constituted part of post-Independence India’s cultural identity and that it has been superseded, except perhaps for the kinds of themes attracting Pondicherry’s tourists. While craft can be found in many societies – see rice beer brewing, cheese-making and other fermented products, bark-paper-making, the many crafts of jhum agriculture, ornate house – and store-building, basket-making, textiles weaving etc in just one Monpa household – Craft is a specific subset of the informal economy with khadi as its most-noted example. Indeed, Crafts suffer – to the point of crisis – from lack of data and lack of political lobbying power, as does the informal economy more generally. Thunderclap policies like demonetisation, GST and the covid response have added dramatically to the crisis of invisibility now suffered by suppliers of Craft products. Indeed, reports on the impact of the Covid response in rural India suggest that, along with marginal farmers and agricultural labourers, artisan households are being pauperised in a process that harks back to what led in times past to famines. Support for Craft production has periodically surged and receded. And the ways production is organised are many and various and have not remained preserved in aspic. Now, in the wake of the Farm Laws protests, when, for the purpose of formal loans, rural artisans are to be classified as farmers (as reported by the Peoples’ Archive of Rural India), we have a right to question the likely outcome of artisans’ typical lack of collateral.
My additional reflections about Craft are threefold. First, specialised craft knowledge is not learned at school or university but through apprenticeships that are often lengthy. In India these are structured and supported not through markets but through family, clan or caste. Not only do these institutions enable highly specialised skills and knowledge to be perpetuated, they also pose barriers both to entry and to exit. They facilitate and they constrain. So, the development of crafts would need either to take these social status groups on board and develop them explicitly or to do away with them and replace them with secular institutions.
Second, India is not the only country in the world where high manual dexterity is combined with low social status. The hand-working of gold perhaps has highest status but faces mechanisation. China has raised the status of Craft by selecting national treasures, providing workshops for them, subsidising assured livelihoods, delinking markets from livelihoods and requiring the treasures to apprentice and train the next generation. But the next generation is reported to be reluctant.
Third, while changes in demand and supply have periodically threatened crafts, Craft production faces extinction worldwide. In central France for example, demand, shaped by ecclesiastical patronage, for champlevé enamel reliquaries and challises atrophied in the Middle Ages after supply disappeared when the English sacked the city of Limoges, the epicentre of craft enamel. Then the crafting of painted enamel plates, plaques and vases was extinguished by 18th century competition from handmade porcelain. And in the last century, copies of fine art paintings, handmade in a cluster of enamelling factories, lost favour as wedding presents. Now all the techniques of enamel are in terminal decline, demand being sufficient to support just a few jewellers. (I know how demanding it is from direct experience, having tried to learn one technique for over 15 years.) Crafts, such as upholstery, tapestry, pottery and textiles printing, may survive as skilled hobbies, with middle class women taking over from the working class men for whom it was a livelihood. Collective workshops, of the kind envisioned by the socialist craftsman William Morris, have anyway been much rarer than factories in the production of craft objects. Professor Chatterjee writes that craft is a creative way of life. But it is usually now a way of life that is grindingly unrewarding – only compatible with our contemporary capitalist societies when there’s a market for its commodified products.
Emeritus Professor and Fellow, Wolfson College