New lease of life for handloom sector

Sandeep Varaganti | Updated on January 15, 2018

Weaving a new chapter India handloom now matches global standards   -  KK Mustafah

This is thanks to internet and innovative marketing. But challenges remain in terms of upgrading skills and infrastructure

India has always had a strong legacy of unique hand-crafted products. We find testaments to the skill and creativity of our artisans from the Indus Valley, as early as 5,000 years ago. Craft in India, evolved from the need to create articles for day-to-day household, religious and cultural use. Handcrafted products enjoyed a special place in palaces, temples and homes and enjoyed royal patronage.

Over the centuries, while clinging to important traditions from the past, Indian craft is trying to adapt to changing global trends. While it has huge potential, this industry is faced with myriad challenges arising from the absence of patronage, lack of quality raw material, want of working capital, poor infrastructure (education, roads, etc.) and the influx of cheaper substitutes.

Handloom and handicraft contribute a sizeable revenue to the Indian economy and employ130 lakh artisans in rural and semi-rural locations. The industry is expected to employ 17.8 million by 2022. Indian handicraft is also witnessing huge demand in domestic as well as international markets, with exports alone amounting to $3.5 billion in FY17.

To add impetus to this industry, public and private sector, NGOs play a key role. Non-profits such as Dastkar work towards upskilling artisans and showcasing their products through haats/melas. Private players such as Indian Roots and Jaypore provide the much needed market linkage for Indian handicraft and handloom.

The Government, through its initiatives and schemes influences the entire value chain; raw material sourcing, financing and minimum wages, among other critical issues.

Myriad challenges

Craft makes use of a myriad of raw materials from jute to cotton to wood. These are now difficult to obtain for the craftsmen as they have low bargaining power due to the low volumes required, forcing them to contend with sub-standard quality raw materials. In some cases, production of raw material is being undertaken in places far from where the craft originated, making these products expensive and difficult to acquire.

Craftsmen find it tough to access credit and face a working capital crunch. Specially in handloom , where the entire process of making the product takes anywhere from 10-15 days, the problem is more acute.

The working capital requirement starts with the procurement of raw material, payment for the dying process, production of the product and finally selling the product — all the while requiring money to take care of his family needs. While there are multiple government schemes to tackle this problem, lack of awareness keep craftsmen out of them.

Skill woes

A majority of craftsmen live in areas that haven’t seen the same pace of development as Tier-1 or Tier-2 cities. Poor facilities such as lack of education (formal and skill-based), transport, common physical infrastructure (such as warehouses, dyeing units), packing and courier services are critical issues. Some villages don’t have internet acess at all.

The use of machines to mass produce traditional products in half the time, at a fraction of the cost, is yet another threat to the handloom and handicraft industry. It has made hand crafted products more expensive to own. For example, the cost of a handloom Benarasi saree starts from ₹5,000, while a power loom version is available for as little as ₹1,000. It is very difficult for the buyer to distinguish between a machine-made and hand-made product in the absence of an authentication mark.

The Ministry of Textiles has recently launched India Handloom Brand to create a differential identity for authentic and quality handloom products, making it easier for the buyer to make a purchase decision. There is no equivalent mark for handicrafts although the problem is solved to a limited extent by Craftmark (AIACA trademark) which is subscribed by 90 sellers.

Artisans have not been able to ride the e-commerce wave that has taken larger cities by storm. While India post is reliable and has an extensive network, it does not offer the same speed of delivery, return pickups and COD facilities that e-commerce customers expect.

Online access

This industry has much to gain from riding the e-commerce wave. Surveys show that the e-commerce market in India is growing fast. Once listed on an online platform, a weaver/artisan can instantly start selling directly to a population of a billion plus; whereas, currently he sells to a middle man at much lower prices.

Enabling a mindset change (from offline to online), building trust among weavers, availability of internet, working knowledge of computer, imaging in rural locations, inventory management, etc., are some of the blockers that e-commerce companies will face while interacting with weavers. The first few challenges can be overcome by spending more time in clusters and interacting regularly with the manufacturers.

Earlier, it was believed that imaging would be a major concern in rural areas but, now there are cost effective imaging solutions which make it possible to shoot the image at the artisan’s place of choice

E-commerce players have already started to lend a helping hand to this industry. Amazon, for instance, has a store called Crafted in India which curates authentic handloom and handicraft. Flipkart has tied up with the Ministry of Textiles (2014) under its Abhiyaan program to resuscitate dying crafts.

Snapdeal has a selection of six handloom state bodies that it merchandises under its Handloom Store. While craft is a new category for the already established e-commerce players, organisations such as FabIndia (1960), Jaypore (2012) and Indianroots (2013) have been in this space for a few years now. FabIndia, for example, is already connected to 55 thousand artisans through unique community-owned companies business model wherein the artisan has access to design inputs, micro finance and have built mechanisms where everyone in the supply chain is incentivised to deliver quality products. Considered a behemoth in the retail space, FabIndia has recently started selling online through their website.

Jaypore and Indusdiva, on the other hand provide design inputs to artisans and then buy these products for sale on their website. More recently, we have seen new players like GoCoop and weavesmart who are providing market access to artisans through the online route.

Such innovations and customised industry will have a long-term positive impact on the millions of lives touched by the craft sector. Only a concentrated effort by all the stakeholders in the value chain can help the sector overcome the challenges.

The writer is the chief operating officer of Prione

Published on March 16, 2017

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