On 14 May 2015, Union Minister for Minority Affairs Najma Heptullah launched a major welfare scheme in Varanasi, aimed at preserving and upgrading traditional arts and handicraft skills, in a move that will benefit thousands of traditional craftsmen, many of whom belong to minority communities.
Upgradation of Skills and Training in Ancestral Arts/Crafts for Development (USTAD) is a Rs 17-crore initiative to preserve and promote traditional skills and ensure wider market access. Launching USTAD in Varanasi holds political and social significance.
Varanasi has been a traditional manufacturing centre and trading hub for handloom weavers. There are over one lakh weavers in the region of which over 40,000 remain active. In addition, there are thousands of support workers and tradesmen who are involved in ancillary activities like dyers, card makers, design artists etc.
Varanasi is a traditional home to the famous Banarasi saree, while nearby Bhadohi is the hub for carpet weaving and trading. A large section of the weavers involved in both industries come from the minority community, and therefore, USTAD becomes relevant both politically and socially. Besides, it’s also Prime Minister Modi’s constituency.
Traditional Arts and Craftsmanship is Dying
India has evolved its unique identity in traditional arts and craftsmanship, as skills have been passed from generation to generation. Indian handicrafts and handloom products have reached all corners of the world, creating a unique space based on design, quality and superior craftsmanship.
However, with modern technology and automation, traditional weavers have been facing a strong challenge from the power loom sector, which mass produces fabric at lower costs. Younger generation not willing to learn the skills and continue the family tradition is another challenge being faced by families involved in the trade for generations.
In earlier times, highly skilled craftsmen were honoured and given financial incentives and special privileges by the rulers. With changing times most of them involved in traditional skills had to live in penury due to dwindling income. This is one of the main reasons that the younger generation has been unwilling to continue with traditional family skills. It is in this context that the government has launched USTAD to arrest migration of the younger generation to other jobs by developing traditional skills, creating opportunities and offering further support to widen market access.
USTAD: A Unique Initiative
Developing traditional skills has been close to PM Modi’s heart and with large number of workers involved in this sector across India, the government has been keen on ensuring that this segment becomes a part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative and receives full support from government in terms of funding and infrastructure.
USTAD will draw professional inputs and support from organisations like National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad along with other focused institutions to assist in creating programmes that will ensure higher acceptance of traditional products by a diverse clientele.
A very good example of a traditional industry is the jute industry. It is based mostly in West Bengal and had been struggling for many years with low demand, obsolete technology and dropping prices. With closer involvement of the private sector, leading designers got involved in developing a range of products, garments and furnishings based on jute, and today these are slowly making a mark in global markets.
In a unique move, the government has roped in e-commerce company Snapdeal to offer its platform to promote traditional craftsmen and products. If promoted adequately, this would be the first time that craftsmen in interior India will get the opportunity to showcase and market their unique offerings to a wider audience, something that was out of reach earlier. The potential is immense for both artisans and the support industry.
USTAD: A Shot in the Arm for Minority Communities
The timing couldn’t have been better. There is a vast army of very skilled craftsmen belonging to minority communities. This large but unseen army has been behind the success of India’s global image for unique and skilled handicrafts and handloom products.
Unfortunately, these minority communities lack education, housing and related basic amenities that is a right of all citizens. Despite challenging conditions, families have remained committed to the family craft and skill and continued to pass it on to the next generation.
USTAD will come as a boon to this segment, as for the first time they will have access to contemporary designs, development support, training and more importantly, support for wider market access. All of which together should result in higher income for these people. If successful, USTAD could well be extended to a wider segment with higher funding and support from the government.
USTAD: A Continuation of the Government’s Thrust on Social Welfare
PM Modi-led NDA government has recently launched a slew of social welfare schemes aimed at providing relief and protection to a large segment of the population that has not had access to India’s developing story.
The Prime Minister launched the Jan Dhan Yojana to bring a vast majority into the banking system and ensure fast and efficient delivery of welfare benefit through direct cash transfer to the targeted segment. He further followed it up with three welfare initiatives recently; the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana (PMSBY), Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY) and the Atal Pension Yojana (APY), all directed towards providing relief and insurance cover to the underprivileged. USTAD is an extension of the welfare initiative that the Prime Minister has launched.
With the present government completing one year in office, it can boast of launching a series of welfare programs. Let’s hope USTAD draws support and involvement from all stakeholders, after all it involves India’s heritage.
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