Towards a national policy

RAJEEV SETHI

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IT is now more than 20 years since the concept of cultural diplomacy was first put on the anvil and some of us became involved with launching the Festivals of India in the West. Despite their success as a confidence-building exercise and their enormous public appeal, they soon became mired in controversy for lack of a clear game plan.

Celebrating the deep connections between ‘making, doing and being’ that best articulates our civilizational ethos, we had for the first time stretched the canvas of culture across inter-ministerial divides to include a holistic concern for the arts, sciences and industry. The relationship of a global market place and our evolving ‘Indian’ identity was tentatively acknowledged in most manifestations. While deliberating on the future of work in a fast shrinking world, one often questioned the hegemonic cultural aspirations of the First World. Despite its smug ambition, it was clear that unsustainable consumption would lead to the demise of a production and manufacturing industry in the ‘developed’ world, leaving a more tenuous service sector to fuel its economic well-being.

As predicted, the bulk of production continued to shift from the West, accelerating in the ’80s to ‘Third World’ countries with their cheaper labour force. An exhibition I curated and directed in 1985 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Design in the USA – The Golden Eye: an international tribute to the artisans of India – was conceived to strategically position the subcontinent’s unique traditions of craft skills as a muscular vocabulary capable of supporting the most contemporary imagination of architects and designers anywhere. The idea was to give India a creative edge in the competitive field of building arts and trade. The fact that China and Southeast Asia overtook and appropriated this initiative is another story and points to our short term quick-fix approach to culture that leaves out commerce.

The century ended with service providers becoming the beacon of hope for the erstwhile colonizers of the world. At the same time a growing awareness that knowledge societies would ultimately rule the roost, led to a rapid extension of the base of backroom expertise supporting the service sector. Multilayered economies like India that had invested much earlier in technical education, began to show their teeth. Perceived as the demon of outsourcing haunting western societies, being ‘Bangalored’ became a new adverb to define India’s role. There was a naive assumption that the lead western societies had in creative and original thinking would leave the rest ‘less evolved’ doing what they were thought to be best at – ‘Coolie-tech’.

The emphasis on the term creative industry, first used by United Kingdom and the United States, included megabuck entertainment, music and arts industry at one end and high-tech nanotech and bio-genetics on the other, was principally motivated by proprietorial concerns. The term cultural industries, however, was used about six years ago by the President of The World Bank, James Wolfensohn, who put together a committee inviting Yoyo Ma the cellist, Amartya Sen the economist, Lord Rothschild the fortune builder and a rather awed me, a cultural activist and designer, to act as ‘mentors and prime movers of the Bank towards policies to integrate support for cultural industries as an intrinsic part of poverty reduction and development of art, crafts and design industries in developing countries.’

 

When I first heard the word industry being affixed to culture, I felt it lent a fine, provocative edge to what was considered a soft sector. This I believed would have the right resonance in the precinct of the World Bank where hard-nosed economists, we had reason to believe, had moved from juggling cold statistics to sensing the potential of spirited, contextual growth. For countries with a huge traditional knowledge base that needed protection in this big bad world of copyright hijack and patent fortunes, this sounded like good news. The use of the phrase cultural industries gave some importance to a sector long thought of as sick with subsidy and apathy and instead suggested a revenue model with tangible commerce that could, if appropriately harnessed, also nurture belief and values that are difficult to measure.

India has lately set up a high powered Knowledge Commission, pitching a stake in the fastest growing sector of creative new technologies. Clearly, we will be seen as poaching on the economic future of ‘advanced’ nation states relatively lacking a wealth of ancient heritage. Rich countries obsessed with staying one step ahead will now have to face competition from countries like ours, leapfrogging with home spun state-of-the-art innovations that have global markets.

However, what is needed side by side, with more than just lip-service acknowledgement, is a role for our traditional knowledge systems (mostly ‘owned’ by the community) and their associated cultural industries. These time-tested products, services and solutions can drive grassroot development strategies, generating ideas and prototypes that rework our heritage as a viable paradigm for growth and socioeconomic recovery. Maybe, by the end of the 10th five years plan for instance, each panchayat or a cluster of panchayats could be encouraged to introduce a couple of ideas or innovations unique to their region and resources that would be developed and protected for revenue generation.

 

How do we transform the derogatively titled ‘unorganized’ sector into a more dignified self-organized, self-supporting entity? The question now is how to jog jaded perceptions, tie up loose ends, effect forward and backward integration and create a leaner, synergetic mechanism to do more with less.

To this effect I wrote to our esteemed Vice Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia in July 2004, on the need for an energized game plan to bolster employment through microenterprise and cultural industries. I had expressed a critical need to list all the various departments and government initiatives under different ministries that cater to the artisanal or cultural industries. More coherence and effective synergy among them could only then be nurtured.

‘Our founding fathers, enthused by the challenge of setting up a modern industrialized nation, could not ignore the scales of development initiatives and the "layering" of delivery systems, impacting a country with five lakh villages. Since independence we have tried various combination-prescriptions. The Ministry of Industries fostered a Department of Cottage Industries... Textiles had to look after Handlooms… the Department of Handicrafts came under the then Ministry of Foreign Trade, and now for some reason is under Textiles… Khadi, seemingly autonomous, was tossed around in an attempt to nurture a dream blurred by subsidy and sentiment… The food processing industry, another giant where decentralized, artisanal production is a systemic strength, still hasn’t come into its own… indigenous cosmetics and pharmaceuticals go here and there... and there is little that the Ministry of Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation has been expected to do to nurture traditional building arts skills.

‘Since varying socio-economic contexts, political persuasions and decentralization require a flexible planning process, each state was left to determine its own infrastructure to suit their resources. Duplication of services in the field by different departments is inevitable in a country like India, and perhaps has its own advantages where failure of leadership is endemic. The "unorganized", decentralized sector has received little beyond lip-service by way of prioritized coordination or expertise from its various foster-parent-bodies. The concept of decentralized development has therefore been not just marginalized, but tragically devalued. And the ad hoc, multi-window approach of the past has not yielded the kind of impact that this huge sector deserves.

‘The employment potential of these sectors gets weaker each year because of various policies, inadequate resources and weak lobbying power at the disposal of their constituencies. Other issues to be scrutinized are product development, production efficiency, the exploration of new markets and taxation, sustainable employment, labour regulations and human welfare for India’s second-largest workforce. Updating is required for the roles of the census in taking stock, and of corporate and cooperative initiatives in making big with the small. Perhaps all these could be brought onto the same page. For today we have a situation where planners and officials of several ministries access information that is haphazard at best when it comes to producers that do not have the lobbying power of the organized sector.

‘Many decades ago, crafts came to be delinked from the training institutions built for the arts by the British (like the Mayo School, the Madras Presidency or the J.J. College of Arts and Craft). Post independence, a case for a ministry that combines a mandate for artisanal industries and culture did not materialize. Instead, culture and tourism were found to be more compatible. The Department of Culture, with its ingrained dependence on grants and subsidies, came to be subsumed under educational portfolios, later to be dubbed – rather grandly, if euphemistically – Human Resources.

‘About 30 years ago I asked the honourable Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay whether handicrafts and handlooms, clubbed as they were under a ministry merely to boost exports, would harness their full potential. Kamladevi’s reply pointed the way to a learning ground. The marketplace, she said, is critical: "Commerce is oxygen for the lungs... but if there is little brain and heart to inform action, there will be only marginal survival for the small."

‘Our purpose is not to suggest the unleashing of another white elephant ministry. It is, rather, a call to create a small interdisciplinary group to choreograph extensive research and field-consultations with artisans and cooperatives across the country, followed by (statistical) analysis of this primary information and conclusions drawn from other reliable sources. In about a year, perhaps this could generate an integrated action plan for implementation across regional and institutional fences. Decentralized artisanal production and micro-enterprise could surely benefit from an independent, forward-looking initiative.

‘I believe the government and Planning Commission could be better informed on methodologies to streamline planning for decentralized micro-enterprise.’

This letter in July led to several meetings with the astute Secretary Planning, Rajiv Ratan Shah and his colleagues and was later followed by many informal consultations with other experts outside of the Planning Commission.

 

A broad ranging report of the Inter-ministerial Group of Technological Investment and Marketing Support for Household and Artisanal Manufacturing was commissioned in August 2004 and presented in January 2005 by the Planning Commission. This I believe has paved the way for out-of-the-box thinking.

By March it became clear that a more ‘public friendly’ task force would be desirable for examining all the recommendations and I was asked to draw up the terms of reference that would involve me more officially with the Planning Commission. I was reintroduced after many years to Syeda Hameed, Member Planning, who requested me to vice chair this group.

Among the recommendations of the inter-ministerial group, vetted by no less than nine secretaries of the GOI, is a startlingly fresh recommendation of a new ministerial ‘Department for Artisans’ to provide ‘focused attention’ to ‘particularly the marginalized cross-section of society’ and ‘fine-tune several ministries to concentrate on their core activity rather then peripheral issues sapping their energies.’ Thus, to rationalize the institutional framework it recommends that several sectors presently under various ministries be consolidated under the control of this department. It makes the critical point of a shift to demand-driven, sustainable business mode with clear accountability and management control systems – i.e. a professionalisation of this institutional framework.

 

For instance, carving out handloom, handicrafts, sericulture and wool from the present Ministry of Textiles and placing them under the new department would help the Ministry of Textiles to face up to the post Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) regime ushered in with effect from 1 January 2005. The ministry is required henceforth to operate in a fierce and globally competitive environment. The mill sector today contributes about 4% of the total fabric production in the country. The remaining 96% is contributed by handloom and decentralized power-loom sectors. The proposed institutional rationalization would help the ministry to concentrate on the mill sector and help raise the level of India’s share in global textile trade from 3% to 15%. This task would be impossible to achieve in the existing arrangements.

The report goes on to propose a ‘National Council of Artisans’ under the Prime Minister – ‘a unified command mechanism to interface with other financial/technical institutions, state governments and panchayati raj institutions’ – with chief ministers and ministers of relevant central departments as members.

These are far-reaching and unprecedented recommendations and are as good as anything on paper. It indicates what we as a task force would have to achieve in tangible and intangible terms on the ground. Going beyond files to reach the doorsteps of those we have chosen to serve will require a broad based public participation and long term commitment. It will also entail a clearly laid out plan.

 

The term ‘cultural industries’ being used for the first time in the context of Government of India, covers a large ground of activities all of which share similar concerns and command a holistic blueprint that could create a new brand for traditional India with a creative edge. The global goodwill and other factors that can support this endeavour are briefly outlined in my conclusions.

The inter-ministerial group however, has focused on the artisans as the protagonists of ‘manufacturing’ sector and has thus been more broadly concerned with the production of ‘material culture’. It has not engaged with the critical realm of intangible heritage and its service providers, i.e. those engaged in enterprises based on traditional (or contemporary) knowledge systems. Folk/classical/modern forms, skills and practices that face similar predicaments and potential possibilities. These supportive cultural systems are critical drivers articulating economic and social development. The literary arts, the performing arts including music and theatre, the culinary and healing arts, and syncretic media-based production such as publishing, cinema and multi-media add up to form a whole. These industries create content, using creativity, skill and (in some cases) intellectual property to produce goods and services with social and cultural meaning, and with huge, booming market potential across the globe.

Today these forms – from crafts to new media – collectively comprise the panorama of ‘cultural industries’. This is the largest paradigm shift from our mehekma-bound thinking. We need to engage it with new vigour and confidence in order to give teeth to contemporary cultural enterprise.

All this is not without a precedence. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay may have been known as the mother of craft revival, but was also one of the founders of the Sangeet Natak Academy. Pupul Jayakar’s feeling for the ritual arts and textiles came from her savvy and philosophical grasp of marketing, and the Festivals of India provided fertile ground for all these arts to connect. In my limited experience, putting together four distinct cultural protagonists – Dastkar (craftsmen), Lok Kalakars (folk performers), Sangeetkars (musicians) and Bunkars (weavers) – into one apex cooperative society, The Nehru Kala Kunj, way back in 1986, which followed the Bhule Bisre Kalakar cooperative of 1976 – demonstrated the alchemy that arises when different disciplines interface. The more successful of my exhibitions have been those that juxtaposed material culture with related performing practices and living contexts.

 

The brilliant conception of the Zonal Cultural Centres by Rajiv Gandhi may have shown a new way had they not been heavily bureaucratized and marginalized by successive governments. In conception, they permeated political state boundaries with a multi-dimensional agenda to create new platforms for documenting, administering and disseminating a wide array of cultural activities – from food to regional sports, poetry to clothing, crafts to music, and healing arts to habitat.

We have a subcontinent with so many living skills. Tradition tells us that a day in the life of a skilled is the same as a year in the life of the unskilled: ‘Hunarmand ka ek din, behunar ka ek saal.

Finally, how do we begin to quantify the quality and more so, the potential of creativity in an industry, and in a society?

In order to map the parameters of cultural industries, which is a prerequisite for any policy decisions relating to the vast sector, we need a preliminary framework to assess existing manifestations of creativity. Notwithstanding its profound impact on spiritual well-being, a more tangible measurement would include the various forms of associated capital: structural or institutional capital, human capital, and social capital. Are there then also any indigenous or culturally-specific approaches that assist this assessment?

 

Some contributory indicators (assessed as a ratio of working population/output/capital/productivity) include the number of manifestations of creativity such as arts and cultural programmes, number of workforce engaged in skilled pursuits, their economic contributions and productivity growth, number of patents or proprietary rights on products/processes, investments in R&D and higher education, donations and expenditure towards social welfare and cultural activities, and several non-economic factors such as mobility of workers and capital, societal regimes of law, civil rights and freedoms, socio-cultural and financial infrastructure, ethical and behavioural attributes of trust, reciprocity, cooperation, public participation, attitudes to minorities, and so on.

It is against this background of extremely relevant experience from our subcontinent that we can now undertake to delineate this new initiative – the first in South Asia. In this process, we cannot afford to ignore developments in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia where the concept of cultural industries has received more than mere recognition.

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