Thursday, June 28, 2007

Back to Reality

Mandvi, Gujrat

I have my family to thank for a lot of things, but on top of the list is teaching me to speak in my mother tongue. Being able to speak Gujrati has made such a remarkable difference in my ability to develop a relationship and solicit responses from the artisans and producers I’m working with here in Gujarat (in comparison to Mumbai). We all know I have a corky sense of humor, but believe it or not, my humor actually translates across cultures and it is such a relief that in addition to enjoying a cup of masala chai, I am also able to joke around and make people laugh. Having spent a day and a half with VGS, I made my mama proud – I was asked how I spoke such beautiful gujrati.

After drinking and perspiring nearly 5 liters of water, I concluded gathering my wage and product data. I noticed a trend that continued from my previous meetings with artisan groups I visited in Mumbai that didn’t settle well with me. I had reserved judgment, and am continuing to reserve judgment until the end of my trip. But I am an opinionated woman, so I am going to express my opinions about what I have observed so far (“so far” being the key word). I came to India with the notion that most handicrafts have an element of artistry that could not be duplicated with machines and therefore need to be preserved. But what I have found out so far is that in the name of cultural “art”, handicrafts are a good part simply part of an employment plan and purely an economic play. Let me explain.

The handicrafts sector is very inefficient and is resisting technological advancements. Now hear me out, there is a flip side to this. But first, from a purely business perspective, the handicrafts sector is inefficient because employing humans is cheaper in India (and many many parts of the world) than using machinery because (i) individuals and businesses (small) lack strong credit and thereby lack access to capital (ii) the poor infrastructure – unreliable electricity, water, etc. – makes it difficult to rely upon machinery (especially at the small business level), and (iii) labor is very cheap. The market minimum wage varies largely by regions, but I would say the lowest I have observed is near Rs. 60/ day (about $1.50/day). Now, this does not mean 8 hours a day. This means working prolly 12-13 hours a day and prolly in a physically demanding role.

In my opinion, many of these handmade products are being produced in human-equipped factories. For example, while Patwa’s jewelry products are beautiful, making these products by hand vs. machine does not increase the value of the product. Patwa’s artisans are in actuality minimum wage laborers that are mass producing products. Patwa’s equity should be in designing new products, and should not be limited to his labor.

When I visited a fashion scarves producer in Mumbai, I was a little jolted to find out that the firm doesn’t make a single product. They are simply a wholesale distributor/exporter – I’m not even sure all of their products are handmade. Any stitching work, embroidery work, etc. is outsourced. So I am a bit confused why a Fair Trade organization would work with a firm that has no direct impact on the actual scarf weavers. I hope to clarify this with Asha during my exit presentation. I’m sure there is more to the story than I am aware of.

When I visited a copper metal handicrafts company in Allibagh (off of the coast of Mumbai), I realized how naïve I was in my perception of the handicrafts sector. I figured there must be some particular reason why this copper metal workshop was located in Allibagh. I figured out later on that the reason the workshop was in Allibagh is not because the copper art originated in this area or the copper is mined from this area, but rather because the labor is cheaper off the coast of Mumbai than in Mumbai. Simple business economics: lower operating costs. Further, in Allibagh electricity is very unreliable, so the cutting and grinding machines that could be used to reduce the labor intensive work, cannot be used. This led me to question whether these products were being made by hand because of the nature of the handicraft or because in India the abundance of cheap labor reduced the incentive to modernize processes or upgrade systems.

The flip side of this story is that what it all comes down to, from a Fair Trade perspective and not a business perspective, is that the handicrafts sector is providing for these ‘artisans’ to earn a livelihood. However from both a social and business perspective, this is not a sustainable model. Because the reality of competition in our capitalist world is that machine made products for a large part ensure a higher quality, more standardized and larger output product. The largest competition that Patwa, fashion scarves and VGS face is from machine made products.

Which brings me back to VGS in Mandvi. Their largest competitive threat comes from machine- made, printed, Batik products. I realized that the art in Batik does not actually reside in any one persons artistic ability rather the art is in the batik dye process. I’m not an expert to determine whether there is actually a value added in making the product by hand or not. VGS recruits young village girls and boys and trains them in the art of Batik. However, unlike the copper metal work, fashion scarves and jewelry making, Batik work did originate in Kutch. The lure of Batik is two fold – the colors (and thereby the dye and designing/printing) and the embroidery work that accentuates the designs. After calculating the daily wages of various artisans, I found out that the embroiderers were consistently paid much below the minimum wage (possibly Rs. 20/day (~$0.50/day). The point I left VGS with is that even though embroidery work is being outsourced outside of the shop, it is one of the most ‘value-added’ parts of their products.

I departed VGS on my first of many scooter rides (pictured). Below I've also included pics of my visit to Vijaya Villas Palace, where the hindi movie Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam was filmed. The pic at the top is of Mandvi Beach (notice the wind turbines on the beach).


Footballwater said...

I love the pics! Keep'em coming.


HASMUKH said...

craftman is having art of creation which is God's gift,that give them eternal happiness.they try to make more better.MATEREALISTIC OUTLOOK IS THEGENERATOR OF COMPITITION -MECHENIZED ATTITUDE IS FUTILE!!!