Opportunities in economic calamity

The unending coronavirus pandemic without discriminating between strong and weak economies has created upheaval in trade and industry across the globe. Being an unprecedented health emergency with no possible treatment in sight at the moment, halting all economic activities through lockdown emerged the only solution to arrest its spread, if not permanent cure. This lockdown pushed the world economies, be it strong or weak, into a grinding halt. It upended international trade flows and destroyed emerging markets dependent upon imports and exports. Global economic supply chains became the first causality and it led to shortages of not only essential commodities, but also caused shortage of medicines around the world.

In the given economic turmoil unleashed by the pandemic, return to pre-outbreak norms may not be quick and easy once the spread of the infection is brought under control. One of the biggest visible changes triggered by the outbreak is that the global flow of goods and services is going to alter permanently. In fact, the concept of globalization may undergo drastic change where trade and industry across the globe would be minimizing dependence on one particular country or part of the world.

In other words, we would be entering into an era where over-dependence on a global supply chain would become thing of the past.

Notably, world trade organization (WTO) has already suggested the economic calamity associated with the outbreak “may well be the deepest economic recession or downturn of our lifetimes.”

Precisely, we are locked in a situation where it is hard for the country to strike a balance between protecting lives and reviving economic activities. Amid this scenario, there are opportunities to discover possibilities for stimulating inclusive and equitable growth in various sectors of the economy, to discover local value chains that would create wealth by harnessing the local human potential and optimally utilise the natural resources. In other words, the crisis has thrown an opportunity for the country to pursue the objective of self-reliance.

As India is nationally bracing up for rolling out aggressive self-reliance campaign under the Atamnirbhar banner amid a huge stressor of Covid-19 which is still shaking up our psyche, triggering our fears and uncertainties, at local  level (J&K)  voices have started echoing for protection and promotion of local economy. J&K’s trade and industry has started evaluating the opportunities which this high magnitude health crisis has unleashed. It’s not that the crisis provides extra business for them, but it is a general opportunity to streamline and organize the economic sectors in a way that the benefits are reaped within the region and self-reliance is kick started.

It was heartening to note that for keeping the local (J&K) economy flourishing, the Business Recovery Task Force of PHD Chamber Kashmir Chapter recently gave a call to the people of the region to buy ‘local and think made in Kashmir first’.

While pointing towards the compelling reason to buy local in the current pandemic situation the Chamber’s call ‘Let’s-support-local-business’ makes sense. The industry body rightly said: “Vocal for Local is an undercurrent that was waiting for a trigger to become a fountain head for domestic growth and global outreach and it will strengthen the vision of our country and help us live by our motto of ‘Being Vocal to promote Local.”

Since call for ‘Let’s –support-local-business’ has been given, let’s debate about handicrafts sector, which has brought laurels to the J&K region.

Even as tourism is considered backbone of the state’s economy and key zone of employment in Jammu & Kashmir, the handicrafts sector is the spinal cord of this backbone. Our arts and crafts industry is identified as our cultural industry. Notably, this economically powerful cultural industry is an umbrella to over 6 lakh people who directly carve out their living out of their skillful craftsmanship.

Our craftsmen have been hailed for making our handicrafts a prized possession worldwide. Their skillful craftsmanship has captured hearts of millions of people. But for the past few years, I have come across some stunning shades of life of our artisan community. Their own hearts have been bleeding. Their craftsmanship has failed them to prosper as growing miseries have been taxing them. They have not grown to a size (standard of living) which could have motivated them to entirely bank on their skill to carve out their livelihood.

Reason is lack of financial resources as well as dingy working environment. The flow of money from formal system has not been smooth for them. In the name of financial support, the influential hijack the craft of these artisans for peanuts. In olden days, exporters and middlemen used to fleece the artisans by giving them small loans and in exchange taking their crafts at a very marginal price. They used to sell these pieces of arts in outside world at lucrative prices. Thus there was yearning gap between the people who used to produce it and those who used to sell it.

Today this situation has not changed much. Artisans continue to be in dilemma for lack of proper financial resources. What artisans today need besides hassle free financing, is social protection. Examples galore where craftsmen because of the conditions in which he was working fell victim to some diseases like tuberculosis etc. For being underpaid, they couldn’t bear the expenditure to fight out these diseases. Precisely, our artisan community is today an endangered community.

We need to help the artisan community to professionalize their production in terms of management, sales and branding. We also need to prioritize technological intervention, be it in design and branding or physical infrastructure, in the sector. This can generate not only interest among artisans but can also improve efficiency.

The products produced are not presented in a packed form. For example, our manufacturers or dealers in handicrafts present a shawl costing more than 3 or 5 lacs to their customers simply wrapped in a paper or in an ordinary polythene bag. The point is that our men associated with the industry are casual in their approach and have hardly given any attention to this aspect which otherwise could have helped in enhancing brand image as well as price for the products.

Given the plight of our cultural industry and the men associated with it, the industry body needs to tailor a broad-based welfare programme for them, besides designing a well thought-out marketing plan within the J&K region. The industry body should form a sector-wise task force with the responsibility of drafting innovative plans to motivate the locals to buy the local products or produce. It needs a strong will to make the ‘Buy-Local’ campaign a success.