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Reviving rural jobs through 'hand-made' niche products

Triggered in Europe in the 18th century the industrial revolution heralded the defining societal changes from an agrarian and handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and modern machinery. Cultural transformations of a wider order followed. Traditional workers and entrepreneurs acquired new and distinctive skills, and their relation to their tasks shifted. Instead of being part-time craftsmen (e.g., farmers) working with traditional hand tools they evolved to machine operators or technically improved home-based entrepreneurs as larger factories and mechanized agriculture gained ground. Cottage industries of lesser productivity and efficiency got replaced by faster and efficient industries. In the second-most populated country India, cottage industries have significant role in absorbing work-force, both skilled and unskilled. They have a significant contribution in solving the problem of hunger, unemployment, poverty and even well-being feeling. That was why Mahatma Gandhi put emphasis on reviving the dying cottage industries. Truly, cottage industries have some real and practical advantages. They make the best use of home-based labor and are low capital investment ventures. Corruption or exploitation of the poor by the rich is limited. Even conflicts between the labor and entrepreneur, if they arise are settled amicably as the value chain of production remains at local societal level and is more transparent. Moreover, the work is more cheerful and satisfying. Last but not least, they have a firm linkage to our traditional culture of need over greed. However, as industrialization became the catalyst for economic growth, on which our current context of development perception rests, mass consumerism and materialistic world order emerged. Greed prevailing over need meant that individual profits are better than collective benefits. In simple terms, innovations for improving “Hand-Made” products could not keep pace with modernism that has faster pace, changing lifestyles and responsive assembly line of innovative technologies. For a while, cottage industries lost their pride and prominent place in the local economy.


However, irrespective of modernity and fast-track culture we live in, the global handicrafts market for instance reached a value of US$ 718 Billion in 2020. This is very good news for our Union Territory and especially Kashmir Valley that is extolled for its cottage industry having inherent reputation for finesse and unique quality rooted in our rich culture. The distinct advantage is due to the geographical richness manifested in the glorious Himalayas. Handicrafts are known here since 3rd Century BC and their design and finesse got a boost as skills and refinement of tools benefitted from foreigners who visited or ruled us (e.g., Central Asia, Iran, Turkey). The culture of J&K in larger periods of history is known for traditional peaceful connect between nature and culture, coexistence, compassion, and tolerance. In other words, the interaction of culture and geography was the key for our language, religions, medicine, economics and entertainment, and how these contributed to the type and quality of traditional practices of artisanship and entrepreneurship. The wealth of traditional skills is casted in indigenous art forms and crafts that include, among others, unique wood carvings, papier-mâché, carpet weaving, shawls, crewel embroidery, silverware, traditional music, basketry, cuisine and the distinct style of mountain architecture (etc.). As part of the Himalayan art it is generally religio-aesthetic in nature, and comprises iconography, composition, symbols, and motifs drawn from all forms of religions. Hence, superior craftsmanship, local entrepreneurship and associated institutions not only symbolize local cultural diversity, heritage and assets, and a certain type of customized governance, but also a range of livelihoods and services that could set the frame for future development (e.g., by involving traditional weavers and shawl-makers etc.). Cottage industries are labour intensive and have the ability to utilize the excess labor. For instance, the cottage handicrafts industry provides in J&K direct and gainful employment to over 340,000 artisans, as one of the prime government database mentions. To great extent, small-scale industry and cottage industry products are linked to ever-glorified tourism sector value chains as alone in 2019 foreign and domestic tourist arrivals stood at 57,920 and 16.16 million, respectively. If we just assume that each tourist (irrespective of where they come from) buys gifts/souvenirs and self-use articles worth 1000 Rupees during their trip, we certainly have an income of billions of Rupees apart from sustained rural employment even if there are already well organized bigger enterprises who produce at scale with improved technologies and are linked to alluring export markets as well (e.g., Pashmina shawl to European Market). Likewise, we may be deftly connected to “Online Market” but the profits don’t reach to those who actually produce by their hands and traditional tools with meagre daily wages and at the cost of their health and happiness.


The traditional handicraft industry over the years has managed to survive despite imitation (e.g., Kashmiri Shawls from Amritsar) or unsure on-the-spot visitors due to disturbed situation of past decades. However, the reality of very high unemployment rate among youth, household entrepreneurs losing to the bigger enterprises, shift to improved technologies, visible shift of youth interest in more sophisticated jobs, and scarcity of resource persons with rich tapestry of traditional knowledge are also galling our traditional cottage industry. The other rather negative aspect of the traditional cottage industry is that our children and teenagers are often getting exploited as child labor. They generally get low wages. More than often shawl makers, embroiders or carpet weavers work under unhygienic and inadequate light conditions, have inadequate nourishment or eyesight is drastically affected at an early age. Since most of handicrafts product making requires considerable hand-eye coordination and intense concentration, as a result chances of their health, efficiency, literacy and education getting adversely affected are real and happening.


Given the urgent needs for creating sustained employment and the overall vibrant economy, support to industrialization is unavoidable. However, we should build on what we are good at. In other words, the global handicrafts market has been surging up due to the increasing interest of people in art and culture. Further, the consciousness among world customers apart from that in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia, has been growing on what they are buying is certified for no social misuse or environmental deterioration having taken place. The key distribution channels such as department and specialty stores, internet and independent retailers, and several non-profit organizations are proactively promoting handicrafts business that rests on “Hand Made” products and organic production (e.g., natural fibre or dyes).


Hence it is time that by using a Geographical Indication (GI) Tag for Protecting Intellectual Property Rights and Promoting “Local Hand-Made Products” is used effectively to overcome some of the challenges related to branding. In consultation with Economic Chambers of Commerce, producers and business stakeholders, we must use the current industrialization package to Union Territory for reframing policy on “Hand-Made Products”. It must follow principles of sustainability, innovative solutions, standard capacity building inputs, Niche Markets and ensure that benefit sharing is equitable and lives of the producers are socially and environmentally safe so that handicrafts sector not only creates more jobs but also sustains these with pride.

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