Originally Published 2005-02-04 12:33:19 Published on Feb 04, 2005
Indian designers seem to be gaining in importance both in India and abroad because they are using a lot of embellished textiles in which intricate embroidery, zari, beads and semi precious stones are sown into the fabric. Unlike the western designers who use the cut of the dress or suit as the unique selling point,
The Disappearing Crafts
Indian designers seem to be gaining in importance both in India and abroad because they are using a lot of embellished textiles in which intricate embroidery, zari, beads and semi precious stones are sown into the fabric. Unlike the western designers who use the cut of the dress or suit as the unique selling point, Indian designers are captivating the markets with the intricate and beautiful zari work which they outsource from far off places. These costumes , saris, and stoles sell for thousands of rupees and, an intricately embroidered and embellished ensemble can even fetch Rs 1 lakh or more. 

Unfortunately, the workers who actually do the beautiful embroidery and bead and zari work are living in terrible conditions and they are also working in poor light which is going to cost them their eye-sight over time. Most importantly, they are earning a mere pittance as compared to the contribution they are making towards the look of the outfits. It is not only women who are doing these embroideries but also young boys who probably have dropped out of school. Their living conditions qualify them to below poverty line benefits like subsidised rice. But they have no money to improve the infrastructure of the village which remains stagnant and primitive. 

It was just around ten kilometers from Kolkata and close to the national highway but it seemed that the little village was in another century and another era. There was no sanitation, drainage, toilet facilities and running water. There was power in the huts but the workers were not using the tube lights to embroider the sequins on to the pattern of the sarees and dress materials. With deft fingers, girls and boys were working in the dim natural light which was coming from the slits in the bamboo roofs. All sat around the material which was attached to a bamboo frame. Above the frame was a green plastic sheet to shield the expensive material from rain and only through a few holes in the plastic, direct light was seeping through. The beads and sequins were in little bowls on top of the material, glittering in the dark. 

They were earning Rs 5 an hour which means that with an eight hour day, they were making less than the minimum wage. How is it that the zari workers of Kolkata whose work is famous all over India, and who are embellishing the clothes carrying the labels of most famous designers in the country, are living in such appalling condition ?

The reason is that though the village has a zari working tradition from the past, they are uneducated and are in the clutches of middlemen who supply them with raw materials and give them the designs. Since the workers are extremely poor , they accept readily the conditions for work laid out by middlemen and mahajans. Some of the people in the village along with zari workers are also involved in making wigs that are used in theatres across the country. But their value addition is fetching them very low incomes and their marketing channels are drying up because fewer and fewer theatre people are needing these types of wigs. The workers could easily be trained to make wigs for a bigger market at home and abroad in which different kinds of hair pieces are used by women. 

There is no doubt that the workers could have been better off if they had access to the basic raw materials and they dealt directly with the designers and if they could also have their own marketing facilities. With higher incomes, they could invest in proper working conditions and have properly lit rooms instead of their own small and dingy huts. Self-help groups could have played a very important role in various aspects of their business but unfortunately, the zari and wig workers have not been organized into self-help groups. 

The conditions in a nearby village were much better because all the women were in the business of basket making. They could get the bamboos locally (they have easy access to the raw material which is important) and with very small hand implements and a little training, they have launched into a lucrative side business through self-help groups. They had their own marketing outlet and assured income from the pan growers nearby who used these baskets for exporting their product to different States. It took 40 baskets to generate a profit of Rs 200.

In general, the women in the basket-making village seemed better clad and the village seemed cleaner and equipped with a tube well. The local panchayat was keenly participating in the welfare of the villagers. The panchayat had elected members who were keen to keep working hard for the village in order to get re-elected. 

There are villages like these all over the country where the 'other India' lives. It is far cry from the posh hotels and shopping malls that have come to characterize the modern cosmopolitan towns of India. What is urgently needed is an improved village infrastructure and since both the villages are quite close to the national highway going to Haldia port, it would not be difficult to improve connectivity through small feeder roads and through a telecommunications network. Health and education would have to be emphasized specially the health of the expectant mothers and the new born children. Access to schools should also be made possible for all living in villages.

In the area of credit, self-help groups would be very useful to negotiate with banks. Already, there are one or two big banks that are involved in the development of villages in West Bengal but more banks are needed. A design center that takes into account the latest trends, a marketing channel that would take goods from the villages to towns, access to raw materials and guaranteed higher wages, would be able to establish a much more efficient supply chain. If the tradition of zari work is to be carried forward, then the incomes of people involved should be improved greatly so that poverty does not push them into a non skilled , daily wage farm work.

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
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David Rusnok

David Rusnok

David Rusnok Researcher Strengthening National Climate Policy Implementation (SNAPFI) project DIW Germany

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