Building Sustainable Livelihoods in India
Across the world, change and sustainability are leading to large-scale urbanization and mass migration to urban hubs. The situation in India too is not very different. The absence of jobs in the rural heartland and an inability to eke out a decent living from farming is leading to 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 and reverse this trend.
While most people in many Indian forums are discussing the need for rural entrepreneurship, the discussion seems to be restricted to agribusiness. 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 in the Indian ethos. Often, necessity and absence of resources built up self sufficiency, which 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 and plants. This concept of using everything available now has a modern twist, and many new materials have been added into the traditional mix to develop totally unique, Indianized solutions.
On my friend 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 from rope spun out of fabric. Old garments had been used to spin these multi-colored ropes and woven into many of the wooden cots. Each one was unique. In a corner of the same room there were ropes made out of fabrics, plastic, camel hair, goat hair and even some canvas from an old army tent!
Such remarkable examples of innovation are found in many rural households. However, instead of building up on its strengths of creativity, innovation and craftsmanship, modern India seems to have forgotten its ancient heritage. Every Indian state has its own unique set of traditional crafts that are now slowly eroding due to the absence of right infrastructure to promote them. Corporate India, too, has shown little interest in promoting rural skills.
With the right kind of input the craft sector can be developed into a powerhouse of sustainable skill and livelihood:
Design, skill and financial input
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 input to increase quality and utility and improve aesthetics. Simple yet modern designs can help rural artisans in finding new buyers and better profit margins.
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 for corporate India, which is now 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 can exercise our social responsibility could be through sustainable buying.
Can we all 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.
All images courtesy of Anurag (Leela Design Studio)