January 6th is celebrated as ‘veshti’ day in Tamil Nadu every year! With pride, Tamil men step out of their homes dressed in traditional veshtis or lungis. While ‘veshti’ day is encouraged in the name of culture, the Tamil Nadu Handloom Weavers’ Co-operative Society has stated that it supports the “interests of cotton weavers”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has emphasized ‘make-in-India’. Remember too, Gandhiji’s successful strategy to promote spinning one’s own yarn as a mark of independence from the British and their machine-manufactured cotton. While these choices appear to be political statements they have significant economic impact. With Republic Day around the corner, we thought we’d examine how ‘Make-In-India’ can transform the fortunes of traditional Indian textile workers.
John Bissell is not a household name. Yet the company he founded is unique in many ways. Their brand is associated with making ‘ethnic’ fabrics cool, and moving them away from the government khadi bhandar aesthetic. They simplified, contemporized and commercialized traditional Indian designs and motifs, and brought them to the urban shopper who has rewarded them handsomely. They’ve grown bigger and bigger over the years, attracting funding from Premji Invest, Azim Premji’s investment fund and turning a profit of Rs54 crore in FY14.
If you haven’t guessed by now, we’re talking about Fabindia. Few people follow the make-in-India model as well as Fabindia does. Fabindia sources its products from community-owned supplier companies. The company’s presence has given the artisans an identity of their own as professionals, removing their dependence on government handouts. Business comes into the hands of people who make the products, wedding the interests of industry and culture.
Ultimately, the success story of Fabindia is not just in their success in bringing traditional Indian designs back in vogue. It’s that they managed to convert the concept of working in textiles to a profitable option for weavers. In an era of mass production, weavers are challenged in competing with machine and power looms that churn out hundreds of identical pieces in minutes. (Readymade synthetic fabrics are also cheaper to purchase and maintain for those with limited incomes.) Fabrics that are intricate and take hours to produce, sell for large amounts of money, making them unaffordable to many. Weavers aren’t adequately compensated for skills which have been handed down to them over the centuries.
A Dasra report on the crafts sector in India estimated that while there were around 7 million artisans practicing in the country, India’s share of the global handicrafts market was below 2%. ‘Make-in-India’ in the textile sector reaps benefits for the weaver communities while keeping India’s traditional art forms alive. We’re eager to find out if NGOs and social entrepreneurs working with weavers, artisans and other groups can replicate Fabindia’s success.
For the moment, impact investors see some potential in the sector. Last year, Aavishkar Venture Management invested Rs18 crore into Mela Artisans, a company that directly procures and retails products made by Indian artisans. While revenue figures are not available, Mela has “placed orders with more than 50 artisan groups across 10 states in India” since 2012. “..these groups employ 4,500 full-time artisans, of which 77 percent are women, and more than 6,000 part-time artisans.”
There doesn’t have to be only one winner in the debate on tradition and livelihoods. With a little bit of support we can make in India and support the livelihoods of Indians as well.
 http://www.miamiherald.com/news/business/biz-monday/article1966412.html, accessed on 5th January 2015