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How India’s Handicrafts Lost The Battle With Imports?

The Indian government has already requested a list of imports from the industry bodies to pin down non-essential items which can be substituted by local items.

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“Art is either revolution or plagiarism”- Paul Gauguin

Turn the pages of history, and you’ll find India to be a rich hub of art and handicrafts. This has prevailed even in modern times, such as the Firozabad glass industry, the Jodhpur furniture industry and the Bhadohi carpet industry. As India grew, these handicrafts cities emerged as quality manufacturers of distinct products famed across the world for their charm. But this came to an end once the Chinese product dumping disrupted the ecosystem of the Indian markets.

Although the echoes of Make-in-India and Vocal-for-Local continue to sweep across the nation, certain things have gone out of hand. Due to the Chinese imports and investments within the Indian market, it has become quite difficult to bring the Indian handicrafts back on their feet without suffering losses.

The Low Point

Before we go further in analysing this situation, here’s a small experience. Recently, I’d left for a small trip to Firozabad, along with a few members of WoodenStreet. Our objective was to source lamp and lighting articles from India’s glass manufacturing hub, deciding to favour the local handicrafts rather than the easily-available Chinese imports.

Despite these chaotic times, we were excited and carrying great expectations. One of the vendors, with whom we were constantly in touch, had promised that we would find the very articles we sought, as they were manufactured within their Firozabad facility.

But what waited us at the facility was disappointment and a reflection of reality. The factory sat cold and defunct; the space being used as a warehouse for Chinese glass lamps and other lighting articles. The vendor kept circling around with tall tales of halted production, holidays and convenient cover ups. However, with consistent push, he let go of the fact that they had turned to imports from China, and had stopped manufacturing long ago.

The Big Loss

This story has ripples in other manufacturing hubs too, like those of Moradabad, Bhadohi, etc. Lacking innovations and access to advanced machines, and failing to compete with cheap Chinese goods [1], these local manufacturers gave up manufacturing and turned to importing and reselling Chinese goods to sustain a living within the Indian markets. And although this sounds odd, it’s not a new scenario.

In 2020, China enjoyed a massive trade surplus of about $62.37 billion with India [2]. However, recent tensions between India and China have resulted in a surge of regulations and outcry which can have heavy impact on Chinese imports and their future within the Indian market [3].

The Indian government has already requested a list of imports from the industry bodies to pin down non-essential items which can be substituted by local items [4]. However, this move can have unseen consequences for the now-traders of Firozabad, who pushed away their working environment in favour of imported goods, and might have to close their shops completely.

For the Roots

Did these manufacturers, who shifted to importing, have any other choice? Within India’s economy, much of the priority is shifted to technological innovations and IT services. But much is left to conjecture due to reforms that seem good on paper, unlike the Chinese government which strategizes the growth of their economy. In China, small start-ups – even those which are copycats of western products – have taken the shape of MNCs operating across the globe with their products dominating the global markets [5]. So, where have we gone wrong?

It is apparent that an urgent change is required to transform the current handicrafts sector:

· Favourable Markets: Implementing faster response strategies against foreign dumping and competitive prices, the government can cultivate a supportive environment that favours local artisans and manufacturers [6].

· A Chance for Grassroots: Most entrepreneurs have a focus towards e-commerce and web-based solutions, turning a blind eye towards India’s rich historical crafts. By giving a chance to grassroots manufacturers and enabling them through web-based platforms will work both ways – provide jobs and keep the climate of manufacturing alive within India.

· Back to India: Investors too can help in this path by channelling their capital towards companies or start-ups that promote local players, thus giving the Make-in-India and Vocal-for-Local initiatives a much needed financial boost.

· The New Hub: Step-by-step, the Indian government has been climbing towards making this nation self-reliant and reduce the current trade deficit from imports of raw materials and products [7][8]. This progress will also create significantly better platforms to promote foreign investment through global MNCs, lifting India to the status of an alternative manufacturing hub to other Asian countries, such as Vietnam and China [9].

Rather than focusing on the growing trend of app-based businesses, entrepreneurs and investors need to pave way for India’s history to shine through, which can prove to be a beneficial boon for the nation. This path, however, requires a lot of work from both ends. Indian artisans too have the responsibility to bring about a change, especially to keep the soul of handicrafts alive.

And although, it might see that the battle has been lost, there is still a ray of hope. And this hope sits at the junction of revival of local manufacturing and the Atmanirbhar Bharat movement. If we miss out on this opportunity, the global trade will shift in favour of other ASEAN countries to fulfil the demands.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Lokendra Ranawat

CEO, WoodenStreet

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