New Delhi/Srinagar: Handicrafts are representative of a people’s culture and traditions, and the heritage of a region manually using indigenous materials and simple tools. It is the time-honoured knowledge passed through generations, a civilisation’s pride.
Creativity has no boundaries and it flows through the veins of the Union Territory of J&K. Handicrafts have remained the backbone of economy since the beginning of time. Jammu and Kashmir is a culturally rich heaven that has mesmerised and acted as a muse to a host of artists who have tried to replicate its beauty in their work.
Handicrafts hold a significant place in J&K’s economy — carpets, wood carving, Papier Mache, copperware art, Pashmina shawls, Crewel embroidery, grass baskets, etc. have been popularised across the globe for centuries due to their high craftsmanship and universal appeal. These manually laboured items have a special affectionate energy that the machine-made goods lack and no two items are alike making each item unique. It is impossible to travel to J&K and not return with these souvenirs that whisper secrets of the last centuries, each like a chapter of history. Presently the UT’s handicrafts fetch around Rs 1,700 crore annually. Handicrafts are the second largest industry after tourism in J&K.
The hilly district of Reasi of the UTof J&K is well known for its grass handicrafts as they have a quality of unique design and presentation. The district’s handicrafts such as Chabadi, Binna, etc., had started to fade, but in the past year the farm women of Reasi have shown strong commitment to resurrect this sector. Their focus expanded from Binna and Chabddi to laundry bags, footwear, pen stands, dry fruit trays, jewellery boxes, etc., using the local Babiyan and wild palm tree leaves for increased durability.
Earlier in August 2021 the women of Reasi district scored a position in the Union Ministry of Rural Development’s ‘Inspirational Stories of Aatmanirbhar Women’ for bringing back the traditional craft of making grass products in Pouni block of the district.
These handicrafts are a major part of the cultural heritage in the rural areas of J&K, transferred down through generations. Formerly many Self Help Group (SHG) women were involved in this unorganised sector for domestic use of this craft, and if at all it was sold it was at an abysmally low rate. But with India’s recent shift to eco-friendly products they fetch higher prices now.
The SHGs in Bhaga village also make various products like jute bags, traditional ornaments, paper plates, disposable leaf plates and bowls, teddy bears, spices, pickles, embroidery items, masks, cheese, kaladi (traditional cheese) and sandals among others.
This has been made possible due to the state’s intervention through Jammu and Kashmir Rural Livelihood Mission’s (JKRLM) Umeed Scheme. It is a Centre-sponsored scheme to encourage women to be self-dependent and self-sufficient. JKSRLM has linked these SHGs to banks as well through its, SHG Bank linkage programme for enabling them to access easy credit and invest in enhanced livelihoods.
The government of the UT has conducted grass handicrafts and skill development workshops in the rural village of Kheral, Malair and Saloon in the district of Reasi. Due to increase in capacity, the artisans are able to deliver premium grass handicraft product for the market, while expanding the production base. 100 SHG members of ‘Naari Ki Pehchaan Cluster Level Federation’ are involved in the activity. Financial support for training and raw materials is being provided by the government.
Workshops on skill showcase, design education, creativity and product development, pricing, marketing, branding and micro financing, etc., have been organised. Focus is being made on new techniques in production process like dying, designing, washing, etc.
With the government’s special initiatives, this sector is expanding and discovering its full bloom. Handicrafts provide an immense opportunity with low capital and can become an emphatic source of foreign exchange. There are number of schemes for the artisans launched by the government to uplift artisans.
The women are innovating the old designs by adding elements presently in style, and transforming the items with The SHG women are now confident in their art having many online shopping sites, universities, and urban customers as their clientele. Hand holding support has been provided to them to deal with online sales for the JKRLM website and Amazon selling, and for understanding consumer behaviour.
A turnover of Rs 1.25 lakh within six months having an input cost of Rs 10,000 speaks strongly of their endeavour. Recently JKRLM has launched the ‘Saath Initiative’ for strengthening JKRLM intermediary network and targeting 500 rural women residents of J&K, above the age of 18, members of SHGs, exhibiting demonstrable interest in scaling up the livelihood source into an enterprise, each with potential of providing employment to more than 50 rural women.
Since 2003, India has used the GI (Geographic Indication) system to safeguard more than 200 high-quality items depending on their geographical origin. Kashmir has six GIs in handicrafts including Kashmiri Pashmina Shawl, Kanni Shawl, Kashmiri Hand Knotted Carpet, Kashmir Walnut Wood Carving, etc., – which have already established enormous goodwill and reputation on a global scale.
The GI label for more such crafts will assist the tourism industry by projecting a positive image of the place. It’s a useful market-access tool as it adds value to the items that are designated this title, allowing them to access larger markets. Proper Branding and Labelling, minimum involvement of intermediaries, restructuring of training modules in line with employability and demands of handicrafts, facilitation centres with services such as guiding the artisans about their rights, insurance policies, welfare schemes, etc., can be force in the direction of self sufficiency for these artisans.
The JKSRLM in collaboration with other government departments conduct exhibitions through the UT and sell these products. Recently to promote pickle manufacturing by SHGs from Reasi, a retail outlet has been opened in Pouni area of the district. Close to 500 hoteliers in Katra and other areas near the Katra-Shiv Khori shrine have been requested to purchase pickles exclusively from these outlets run by women SHGs. The Katra hoteliers have also been persuaded to present these traditional crafts as souvenirs to the visiting tourists and guests.
During the Covid pandemic in the past two years, these empowered women have worked their way through with the help of such programs, as the pandemic brought in more work opportunities. It has uplifted the socio- economic condition of Reasi. There are 48,423 women SHGs that provide livelihood opportunities for 4,16,037 women in the UT currently. In Reasi town alone, 15,402 women are associated with 1,854 self-help groups. While this may seem to be a small component of economic development, but it certainly has helped the women in JKUT to steer through their economic path and has the potential to bring effective dividends if replicated in other economic spheres.