The handloom and handicraft industry has been the backbone of India’s rural economy for decades. It is one of the largest employment generators after agriculture, providing a key means of livelihood to the country’s rural and urban population. The sector functions on a self-sustaining business model, with craftsmen often growing their own raw materials and is well known for being a pioneer of environment-friendly zero-waste practices.
According to official estimates, India is home to 7 million artisans. However, data from unofficial sources indicates that the artisan strength is as high as 200 million. The wide nature of this range and disparity in the number is due to the informal and unorganised character of this sector.
India is home to >3,000 craft forms with artisans, spread across the country, working with papier-mâché in Jammu and Kashmir, thangka painting in Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh, phulkari and bagh textiles in Punjab, brassware in Haryana, basket-weaving in Uttaranchal, chikankari and zardozi work in Uttar Pradesh, blue pottery and block printing in Rajasthan, ajrak and kite making in Gujarat, gond painting in Madhya Pradesh, terracotta products and warli art in Maharashtra, crochet and lace work in Goa, sandalwood carving and banjara embroidery in Karnataka, vallam boat making in Kerala, thanjuvar kalamkari in Tamil Nadu, telia rumal and kondapalli toys in Andhra Pradesh, ikat work in Telangana, cane baskets in Nagaland, sikki grass products in Odisha, dhokra work in Jharkhand, kantha and patachitra crafts in West Bengal, madhubani paintings and mulberry silk products in Bihar, choktse tables in Sikkim, eri silk products in Assam and bamboo products in Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Meghalaya.
With this wide range of craft skills and the number of artisans in the country, India has the potential to make this sector a multi-billion-dollar industry. Handicraft exports from India reached Rs. 25,706.3 crore (US$ 3.5 billion) in 2019–20. Exports of various handicrafts segments are listed below:
The US, the UK, the UAE, Germany, France, Latin American countries, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia are the key countries that import handicrafts. India stands to gain exponentially as the handicraft sector expands and gains momentum.
The government is actively working towards developing the sector to maximise its potential. Artisans face challenges such as inaccessibility of funds, low penetration of technology, absence of market intelligence and poor institutional framework for growth. In addition, the sector is plagued by implicit contradiction of handmade products, which are typically at odds with scale of production. To overcome these challenges, the government has launched several initiatives and schemes.
Ambedkar Hastshilp Vikas Yojana
The Ambedkar Hastshilp Vikas Yojana collaborates with Dastkar Shashktikaran Yoajan to support artisans with their infrastructure, technology and human resource development needs. This scheme was launched with the objective of mobilising artisans into self-help groups and societies with the agenda of facilitating bulk production and economies in procurement of raw materials. The programme aims to empower these communities with design and technology upgrades, trainings and design workshops to impart commercial market intelligence, introduce new techniques and develop prototypes to suit the preferences of contemporary markets that are central for the implementation of this scheme.
Mega Cluster Scheme
The objective of this scheme includes employment generation and improvement in the standard of living of artisans. This programme follows a cluster-based approach in scaling infrastructure and production chains at handicraft centres, specifically in remote regions, where the sector is largely unorganised and has not evolved to adopt modern developments. Under this scheme, clusters are identified by the Handicrafts Mega Cluster Mission (HMCM) via central and state agencies for upskilling and development.
Marketing Support and Services Scheme
This scheme provides interventions for domestic marketing events to artisans in the form of financial assistance that aids them in organising and participating in trade fairs and exhibitions across the country and abroad. Financial assistance is also provided for social and welfare needs of artisans. Craft awareness, demonstration programmes and buyer-seller meets are another key aspect of this programme to ensure integrated, inclusive development of the sector. Another component of this scheme is increasing publicity and promoting brands in print and electronic media to improve visibility.
Research and Development Scheme
This initiative was introduced to generate feedback on economic, social, aesthetic and promotional aspects of crafts and artisans in the sector, with the objective of supporting implementation of aforementioned schemes. An in-house research and development team conducts surveys and studies on crafts and their production challenges, which could range from availability of raw materials and access to technology, product design flaws, quality control procedures, financial assistance, legal assistance, international certifications and other operational issues. This research is conducted periodically, and the findings are evaluated, solutioned and plugged into the relevant scheme.
These schemes fall under the government's National Handicraft Development Programme, which is being implemented by the Office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts.
The tangible and intangible nature of India’s craft heritage, coupled with its regional uniqueness, presents the country with a competitive global advantage. The Indian craft sector has the scope to become a billion-dollar marketplace with the right support and business environment. Developing a systematic approach, which nurtures the intrinsic value of craft skills and opens avenues for product design and manufacturing will increase access to new markets. Alongside, capitalising on e-commerce for online visibility and operational efficiencies will prove to be a critical success factor as the sector evolves and gains further traction.