Crafts and Sustainable Livelihoods in India

Climate change and sustainability are being fueled by large scale urbanization and mass migration to urban hubs. There is a crying need to build self sustaining rural livelihoods that can ensure a decent quality of life in rural habitats.

While most people in many forums are discussing the need for rural entrepreneurship the discussion seems to be restricted to Agri business. Agriculture is undoubtedly a large part of the rural economy, but what about the others we forget – the women of rural India who contribute equally to the domestic income by generating some of the most beautiful hand crafted products.

Craftspeople form the second largest employment sector in India, second only to agriculture. Handicrafts are rightly described as the craft of the people: there are twenty-three million craftspeople in India today (Jaitly, 2001).

The handicrafts sector is a home-based industry, which requires minimum expenditure, infrastructure or training to set up. It uses existing skills and locally available materials. Many agricultural and pastoral communities depend on their traditional craft skills as a secondary source of income in times of drought, lean harvests, floods or famine. Their skills in embroidery, weaving, and basket making are a natural means to social and financial independence. Many Indian crafts are the sole domain of the women in the household.

This tradition of creating beautiful pieces of work is ingrained into the Indian ethos. Often necessity and absence of resources built up self sufficiency and was reflected in the way we lived and how many rural communities still do. Almost every plant in the backyard had a use, food was grown in the vegetable patch behind the house or fished from the stream nearby and cloth was spun from locally available trees/ plants. This concept of using everything available now has a modern twist, many new materials have been added into the traditional mix to develop totally unique, Indianized solutions.

In my colleague Anurag’s,  recent trip to Jaisalmer District in Rajasthan she was astonished to find in a mud house a room full of vibrant coloured charpais (woven beds). They had been made in rope spun out of fabric. Old garments had been used to spin these multi colored ropes and woven into many the wooden cots. Each one was unique. In one corner of the room there were ropes made out of fabrics, plastic, camel hair, goat hair and even some canvas from an old army tent!

Every Indian State has its own unique set of traditional crafts that are now slowly eroding due to absence of the right infrastructure to promote them. Corporate India too has shown little interest in promoting rural craft skills.

With the right kind of inputs the craft sector can be developed into a powerhouse of rural skill and enterprise.

Design, Skill and Financial Inputs – Most Indian crafts are still being made the same way they were hundreds of years before. While this is interesting some of our crafts desperately need modern design inputs to increase quality, utility and improve aesthetics. Simple yet modern designs can help rural artisans in finding new buyers and better profit margins.

Branding – While Indian malls are full of branded products imported from various countries, there is a glaring absence of branded Indian Craft products (with a few notable exceptions such as Fab India).

Could this be a business opportunity perhaps for corporate India looking for socially responsible business opportunities?

The change in consumer buying trends and the entry of various new, aggressively promoted factory produced commodities into the rural and urban market, has meant that craft producers need more support than ever if they are to become viable and competitive. One simple way in which all of us in India can exercise our social responsibility could be through sustainable buying.

Can we do our bit by supporting local craft groups? After all many local craft groups are not looking for charity, they are self supporting, highly creative women who could do with a bit of help!

Hand woven beds in Jaiselmer