Wounded hands

 Vibha Maru |  2015-10-18 18:29:27.0  |  New Delhi

Wounded hands

How heartrending would it be for an artist to quit the craft that kept him self-contained for ages, and the craftsmanship that embodied his tradition and gave him his unique identity? In India, every year 15 to 20 <g data-gr-id="58">per cent</g> of artisans abandon their art and move towards slum-dwelling or the structured walls of the industrial houses. Uncertainty and low-income rates are nudging artisans to switch over to other professions. And the pace at which the rich heritage is exhausting is destructive and needs immediate attention. 

The handicraft artisans of India, at least a large majority of them, are known for their perfection of craftsmanship, the excellence of design, and for and an unsurpassed sense of colour. Handicrafts, however, have recently gained publicity with government schemes and NGOs, flooding in with rescue operations. The effect is such that people living in metros have developed a unique taste for such goods and have taken them as a status symbol. But, the bitter truth lies in the fact that none of us cared to dig deep and reach out for the real artists where the reality seems abysmal. 

Mehmood’s grandfather is 86 and on the verge of complete blindness, but still he spends six hours a day to craft a pashmina shawl. As Mehmood, a stall owner at Delhi Haat shows the photograph of his grandfather he shares his plight, “Industrialisation has destroyed the market for us. Now anybody can make a shawl identical to our handwoven pashmina and call it a real pashmina. The real difficulty lies in the fact that people fail to recognise the real material and demand to sell it in cheap. Our sales have seen a serious decline ever since the new concept has taken birth.”  Duplication is, in fact, a nightmare for the handicraft industry in today’s age. The large-scale inflow of machine made products at relatively lower prices put the craftsmen at a great disadvantage. Capital is the basic requirement for any business to expand and in <g data-gr-id="70">case</g> of handicrafts, the government has provided various schemes to facilitate the same. But a lack of awareness and knowledge succumb artisans to take the loan from master craftsman or dealers at unfair interest rates. Being a highly unorganised sector artisans often suffer from the problem of irregular payments. Talking about irregular payment, Ram Soni, an artist from Rajasthan said, “It’s not just the private dealers who delay payments, often selling goods to government bodies is a no profit deal as they too fail to pay on time and delay the deserved payment for months.” 

 Handicrafts sector faces the problem of rapid changes in consumer preferences and inadequate advertising and publicity take them miles away from the mainstream market. “When an artist collaborates with an NGO all the publicity goes in the account of the same organisation and the person who has actually crafted the art remains devoid of even any recognition”, says Giriraj Chauhan, a national award-winning artist.

Coming from a rural background, it gets difficult for artisans to understand the complexities of the modern-day market. Beaten up by the above problems, artisans seek for a rescue home and a safe escape route, taking advantage of which, NGOs and co-operative societies set a partnership with them.  Such NGOs buy the goods from artisans at extremely low rates and sell it in the market at relatively higher prices. Artisans, on account of being vulnerable, sell their products to such institutions. “Approximately 90 <g data-gr-id="67">per cent</g> of the  NGOs working in this sector are corrupt. They purchase goods from artisans at negligible prices and sell them in big city showrooms with a 100 <g data-gr-id="68">per cent</g> profit margin. Unaware of the actual manufacturing and selling cost, customers buy the goods at unreasonable prices”, says Hari Krishan.                      
                                          
NGOs act as mediators in the face of the artist. Instead of helping artisans build their  identity, they act as corrupt middlemen. “The real artisans work in a murky backyard of a rural house, the faces you see at the exhibitions are just the mediators. These middlemen have a collaboration with some NGO which provides them a place for exhibition and some publicity in return for money. The real artisan doesn’t even get 10 <g data-gr-id="69">per cent</g> of the profit,” an artisan told us on the condition of anonymity. Pay disparity is at heights in this sector as artisans are not getting the deserved dues. “We pay Rs 70 to 100 on items on which the artist spend four to five hours,” said Noora Salma, a seller of woodcraft items.

The question that looms large here is of the role of government in this sector. Lately, Ministry of Handicraft and Delhi Tourism came together with various initiatives with an aim to promote the handicraft industry. Delhi Hatt is one such initiative, but how successful is the initiative is a trick question. According to government norms, a stall owner at Delhi Hatt <g data-gr-id="76">is suppose</g> to pay Rs 7500 to 10,000 to put up a stall for 15 days. All the artisans are registered with the Ministry of Handicraft and a strict, unbiased procedure is followed to select the artisans for putting up a stall in the Haat. The world seems perfect as we go through the Ministry’s website but the reality is a lot more different, “They say that it is an unbiased procedure but it is not. Delhi Haat has a collaboration with some artisans, NGOs, and middlemen, and preference is given to them. Also, it is about money, if you can manage to give Rs 35000 to 40,000 under the table, the stall is all yours,” an artisan said on the condition of anonymity. 

Talking about the biased selection process Chauhan said, “Since four years I am trying to get a stall in Delhi Haat. In spite of being a national award winner, I am not getting any position there”. Also, “The Ministry seems like a private clubhouse to me. It has set up a coalition with few NGOs and they have in turn collaborated with the private dealers. A group is manoeuvred in the higher authority and they have created a monopoly over the sector. With the fear of not getting any work independent artists are scared to talk against any NGOs or the Ministry”, said Hari Krishan. The above arguments put the Ministry of Handicraft in a difficult position and raises some serious question on the <g data-gr-id="75">section</g> procedure.

In spite of pursuing the Ministry for three continues weeks, the Ministry failed to give the exact details of the selection procedure.  These accounts mostly end with the writers suggesting some methods with which the government can improve the situation. Not this one. Here, the government already has all the answers, the concern, however, lies in implementing them honestly.

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