One needed reading glasses to find the handloom and handicraft sector in the Union budget fineprint. It was slightly step-motherly treatment of India’s second-largest employment sector. Especially since it’s the only sector (note the president’s speech earlier this month at the National Master Craftsperson Awards) to show 30 per cent growth during an economic slowdown.
During the elections, a newspaper advertisement had Narendra Modi speaking of new economic prospects for India’s craftspeople and weavers. Those working in this neglected sector were delighted at its inclusion in the promised “achhe din”. The 12th Plan had offered little to craftspeople beyond the old worn-out “schemes”, with review committees given no opportunity to re-evaluate their efficacy and impact, or to revamp them for changing times and markets.
Despite unanimity that livelihood creation and skill development were an urgent priority, India’s economists and planners seemed to see only urban solutions. They were blinkered to the opportunities the craft and handloom sector offers — not just to the millions of existing craftspeople and weavers, but the thousands of ancillary small-scale industries that can be created around craft — raw material cultivation, cotton, silk and wool spinning and dyeing, dry cleaning and packaging plants, wood seasoning depots, loom, forge and tool makers, etc — creating potential employment for the 13 million new job-seekers entering the marketplace each year.
They also ignored two other crucial points — one, that craft is a vital add-on to low agricultural incomes, the two activities operating in tandem; the other, hugely important, that strategic investment in the craft sector and its ancillary industries could prevent the relentless migration of unskilled rural youth to our already overburdened cities. One senior bureaucrat famously dismissed the sector, then under his watch, as a “sunset industry” that needed minimal short-term support until it presumably disappeared quietly beyond our aspirational horizon.
This seems short-sighted. At a time when we are trying to catch up with more advanced nations in most things, the Indian craft sector offers a skill pool that no other country can match. Why not treat craftspeople as assets and invest in them accordingly? It’s no happenstance that China, always a canny step ahead in the global marketplace, is casting a beady eye at our handicraft skills and regularly importing Indian craftspeople to train their own workforce.
So it was good to hear Modi say in February that “handicrafts reflect not only a