A global disaster reminds us of the value of our village crafts economy

A gamccha weaver in West Bengal
Who would think that a Kashmiri papier mâché artist, who has been in isolation and lockdown for many more months than all of us, would still be creative and positive? Hakim Ghulam Mohamad calls from Srinagar regularly and describes how he is engaged in making artistically decorated writing slates for schoolchildren and games like ludo, snakes and ladders, and noughts and crosses to keep people occupied indoors now and to sell at bazaars later. “Ab zamana aise badlega ki aage ke liye kuchh to naya sochna hai, na? (Times are changing so rapidly that we need to think up new things for the future, don’t we?),” he asks, not realising what he said is perhaps a mantra for the future for all of us.

It should be unthinkable that India will choose to follow the Trumpian mindset of going back to business-as-usual after the global health disaster and all its ramifications on the economy. And now that China is recognised as a potential threat on many fronts, we need to focus on what is and can be “Made in India” to create a new world. Our plans for developing our infrastructure must go on, especially roads, bridges and transportation to outlying areas of the country, as well as between villages and small towns.

Equally, this is the perfect juncture for us to take a serious look at the traditional knowledge, wisdom and skills we have in every corner of our country. Tribal knowledge of herbs in the forests and their multiple uses, and artisans’ knowledge of old crafting skills that help them lead self-sufficient lives in their villages, must be given new attention and respect if we truly want an ecologically and economically sound India and world.

Kanta Khadse from Madhya Pradesh makes brooms with date palm leaves
The link between climate change and rampant destruction of the planet’s resources from the greed of multinational corporations over the years, economies built on sweatshops in Asia, profit being above human concerns — all of this have shown some the folly of their ways. We cannot be tweeting about newly audible birdsongs, blue skies or a clear Yamuna river during the lockdown if we do not change our modes of production and our race to get somewhere by trampling over nature or human dignity. It is time to examine some sustainable ways of reordering economic imbalances even if many central accounting and delivery systems need to be readjusted. Bureaucrats need to realign which ministries are important, paying more attention to rural livelihoods, local skilling, sustainable environments, health and relevant education syllabi. Digital education for rural adults in financial matters should be an important focus area to empower them to cope with taxation, banking and other requirements.

Womane weave kauna grass baskets in Manipur
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, unemployment figures rose from 7 per cent in January to 23 per cent by April. Obviously, the bulk of this is due to the lockdown with its accompanying effects on daily wagers, mainly migrants. Economists, bankers and others from the financial sector are now speaking of the need to develop rural economies to provide employment to the non-farm sector or those who move to cities because tiny family land holdings cannot sustain them. The term “reverse migration” has entered the vocabularies of those who never spoke of it before.

A face mask made in Bihar
Planners at bodies like the Niti Aayog and bureaucrats in the finance ministry should engage in a once-in-a lifetime exercise of restructuring the entire pattern of financial planning to accommodate the unstructured but not disorganised rural enterprises, and give attention to delivery systems that assist in their access to raw materials to increase their productivity. The whole concept of appropriate technology to assist production rather than displace local producers is no longer a woolly-headed Gandhian concept recycled by E F Schumacher who propagated the concept of “small is beautiful”. Millions of “small” can add up to one “large” beautiful. Polluting methodologies, giant machines and fuel-guzzling energy systems have to be reworked.

None of this necessitates a return to gobar-gas theories. Modern world technologies and India’s generous sunshine offer opportunities for a mission mode establishment of solar energy creation. Its judicious distribution will keep many schools, small health clinics, cottage enterprises and artisanal workshops and homes going in rural areas. Transportation can use relay race methods. Primarily, we can keep in mind that undernourished and semi-literate youths, compelled to detach from their roots, end up in cities with a host of serious social problems associated with rootlessness.

An art piece made by Hakim Ghulam Mohamad, a papier mache artist from Srinagar
The advantage of promoting artisanal and other local economies is to be able to ensure better conservation of a clean environment and the use of locally available raw materials. Activities like water harvesting and regeneration of local water bodies through multiple local methods, and ensuring that less harmful effluents go into streams and rivers, need to be supported by governments with more than a half-hearted belief in them rather than making a few local panchayats or NGOs struggle in isolation. Hiware Bazar, a village in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra, which encouraged not just reverse migration but tourism for income generation is a model to be studied seriously.

Jobs in rural areas can shift to more modern ways of production, with safety and hygiene standards that are not instituted for Western trade requirements but for the safety of our own people — the massive artisan sector that still pleads to be properly counted and documented. The biggest hit to this sector has come from the result of free global trade that enabled India’s markets to allow the rampant entry of myriad synthetic goods from China, Taiwan and South Korea ranging from textiles to toys. We have turned our people from dignified producers to cheap hustlers on the roadside.

Artisans, both urban and rural, have unique qualities — resilience, industriousness, pride in their skills and innovativeness. They conserve, reuse, recycle and reinvent. Most importantly, they largely use natural, organic materials. This should make them flag-bearers of a new world that is kinder to the environment. Apart from reducing carbon footprints by serving local markets there are demonstrable examples of private companies, like Jaipur Rugs in Rajasthan, which effectively link the rural skills of women to top-notch retail outlets abroad. Good technology can serve rural enterprises in the production of area-specific products like camel milk chocolates, soaps and sweets, and multiple handcrafted utility products including handmade paper, which only need recyclable materials and provide ample local employment.

Even pain artisanat (craft bread), presented with pride in France, can be resuscitated in small bakeries across our cityscape. Bamboo blinds, mud bricks, durries, footwear, small industrial and agricultural components can be made in rural areas to create livelihoods. Do we need computers and industrially produced paper for everything? Why not local book binding and even pencil-making units? All of these can be linked to efficient and modern supply and distribution chains. Development plans should be tailored according to different area-specific needs.

A clip going around these days promotes kulladhs, earthen cups, to drink tea in public places. The reasons are beautiful: “Plastic cups with hot substances are dangerous”; “Indian rather than Chinese cups are better, provide earnings to potters”; and, best of all, “We can touch India’s Mother Earth to our lips when we sip”.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel