Cottage Industries In Neighbouring India-Pakistan Move At Different Pace
Lucknow/Islamabad, January 3 || Sitting in the courtyard of a home in India, Quasar Jahan starts work on an intricate embroidery pattern, humming a Hindi movie song that talks about a better future. Almost at the same time, Seema Babar in Pakistan artisan is concerned about the future of her embroidery business due to the lack of government support.
The two countries – India and Pakistan - share the same socio-cultural heritage, where women are at the fulcrum of the economic activities in villages. Their world has changed greatly after the partition, and the introduction of sewing machines.
Realising the potential of cottage industry to create employment opportunities, India has taken steps to revive it. With a slogan,“Vocal for Local,” India has created a program to provide loans to the artisans to establish themselves in an industry complicated by supply issues, markets and middlemen.
In Pakistan, the situation is different. “The cottage sector in Pakistan is undocumented and unorganized,” and there are no government incentives,” said Dr.Abid Qaiyum Suleri, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) of Pakistan.
Dr. Ashfaue Hasan Khan, an economist and former advisor to the Finance Ministry,said: “We have cottage sectors…the government should declare it as industrial zones to tap its potential.” In India, the government has named 807 items for exclusive production, which is about 40% of the total industrial output of India. There are numerous agencies to help move the cottage sector towards success, from the Central Silk Board and the Village Industries Board.
Cheap loans are also available formicro businesses in the non-farm and non-corporate sectors. Both countries have centres where the cottage industry has thrived. In Pakistan, the cities include Lahore, Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Sialkot, Gujranwala, Multan, Peshawar and Quetta. In India, they are in Lucknow, Kannauj, Bareilly, Jodhpur, Murshidabad and Varanasi.
These are centres of intricate designs where women sit in clusters to sew, embroider, weave and paint, often earning little for their labor. In both the countries, it is the women, more than men, who operate the cottage industry. There are innumerable stories where women have lost their homes, but survived and flourished by making jams, knitting sweaters, embroidery and tailoring.
Quasar Jahan, an embroidery worker, is dealing with a traumatic past. A divorcee with two children, she took up chikankari to support herself and her family. Quasar, 28,of India has a traumatic past that she wants to forget. Married at the age of 15, she was divorced when she was 22 and the mother of two children – a son, age 5, and a daughter, age 3.
Quasar never went to school, and said she was pushed into an early marriage, and then had to go through the heartbreak of a broken relationship. She took up chikankari to support herself and her children. She learned the centuries-old art of embroidery. With practice and perseverance, she now works magic with her nimble fingers.
Chikan embroidery is not new for Quasar as she has seen women at different centres.
In the courtyard near her home, women sit down to embroider after finishing their chores. She learned the artwork painstakingly and started working with the ladies. Initially, she earned Rs 100-125 per day after almost 8-10 hours of work.
The government reports that chikan embroidery provides employment to over 3.5 million artisans, mostly Muslim women, around Lucknow. Nearly 1 million people are associated with the chikan trade, as raw material suppliers, contractors, manufacturers and retailers. Finished clothes are washed and then dried under the sun in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh province.
Despite being a thriving sector, it is largely informal. The artisans earn on a per-piece rate. As they depend on a middleman for getting orders from big garment outlets, their bargaining power is non-existent and their earnings are poor despite all of the government help. “Poverty liberated me,” said Shahida Khatoon, another chikankari artisan. “It forced me to come out of the confines of the four walls of my house to earn money. This gave me confidence, and I used my earnings to educate my son and daughter.”
The transformation in her life began in 2017 when the chikan embroidery work was adopted by the provincial government of Uttar Pradesh under the One District One Product (ODOP) scheme, which aims to preserve, develop and boost the demand of local arts and crafts.
Quasar and women like her have now found a market and even have learned new words like “exhibition” and “boutique”– and now they know their chikan embroidery is much in demand. Recently, she went to Pune, a city in western India, and returned home earning a profit of Rs 27,000. “The government's help has transformed our lives,” Quatar said. “We are now getting a readymade market and even our work is sold online.”.
The story is different in Pakistan.Seema Babar said many of the women that she’s trained in the embroidery business now work independently from their houses and are earning good money. “Around 650 women have completed their training so far and over 60 women are still working in the centre,” she said. “Had the government supported us, we would have done better. What we need is cheap raw materials and government help in finding buyers. “It is a big struggle to keep this trade afloat without any support,” she said.
Seema Babar is teaching embroidery skills to local women at her centre, which is being run without government support. Around 650 women have completed their training so farat this centre , who are now working independently andcontribute families’ income. Mehreen (Begum), another artisan, from Mardan district in Pakistan, has been working in this trade for the last four years. Her intricate designs have won laurels across Pakistan.
“People like my embroidery, and I am getting orders from people,” she said. “Now, I am planning to export readymade garments to the Middle East and Europe. The problem is I do not have a space where women can sit and work for me.
“I have hired eight women who work from their homes,” she said. “I get orders and pass them on to these women. Once I complete the order, I get money. The profit margin is less - the middleman takes the major portion of the profit.”. She recounts that once a non-governmental organization (NGO) approached her with a proposal that it would finance and provide the raw materials. Since the profit would be shared,she rejected the offer.
Local women busy in embroidery work at a centre run by Seema Babar in Nowshehra district of Pakistan.
“We are facing a severe challenge in the form of high input costs, bad transportation, non-availability of raw material, frequent power outages, and lack of skilled workers,” Mehreen said. “No government institution extends a helping hand,”
Nazeer Ahmad Ansari, who runs his power loom in Tando Adam Khan in Sindh province of Pakistan,is now thinking of closing down his shop because of high input costs and load shedding. He said that export-oriented industrial units get electricity at Rs 19.99 per unit while he has to pay over Rs 40 per unit for electricity.
“I cannot operate without any (government) help,” he said. “At least provide us the infrastructure like uninterrupted power and good roads. Raw materials are costly and there is no one in Pakistan to help us.”
Nazeer Ahmad Ansari who runs his power loom at his house in Tando Adam Khan, Sindh province. Ijaz Khokar, chairman of Pakistan’s Readymade Garments Manufacturing and Exports Association(PREGMA), said that garments manufactured in Pakistan are much in demand in the Middle East, Europe and the US.
“We are not able to meet the market demand because of the lack of facilities provided to the artisans,” he said. “When it comes to the textile sector, the cottage industry survived in Gujranwala, Wazirabad and Sialkot, but it perished in other parts of the country.” Numerous studies and experts in Pakistan back up the need to make improvements.
The Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce said in a report that cottage and small-scale industries employ about 81 percent of the total labor force. “The cottage industry can act as a catalyst for the economic development of the country,” the report said.
“They cover a large number of people which affects the social structure through the possibility of absorbing rural labor, which would otherwise be unemployed. It also strengthens the position of women in the society as their participation increases the active labor force, and allows established organizations to contact them and get the work done.”
Zahid Aslam, former president of the Faisalabad Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FCCI), said that the cottage industry can stop the flight of people from the villages to the cities.“We must encourage sustainable models …enabling the coming generation to be self-employed instead of running after jobs,” he said.
In India’s biggest province, Uttar Pradesh, home to 230 million (equivalent to the population of Pakistan), has a global market for its cottage industry. Recently, at a G-7 meeting held in Germany, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gifted silver cuff links to US President Joe Biden and a matching brooch to First Lady Jill Biden. The work was made in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.
Two women give final touches to their traditional paintings, which are sold as handicraft items. “More than 20 million products worth US $12.19 billion (INR 1,000 crore) have been sold in 2020-21 on the Flipkart portal ,which has helped artisans of Uttar Pradesh in a big way,” said Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said.
Quasar is one of the beneficiaries. “Initially, I did not have funds. The loan provided by the government helped me purchase raw materials. The government initiative also helped me find a market. Now, I can say with pride that I too am an entrepreneur who has a business of my own.” But improvements still need to be made in India. Nomit P Kumar, a professor in the Giri Institute of Development Studies in Lucknow, said more must be done to protect artisans from the middlemen.
"This could only be done if we provide these artisans stable market, where they can sell their produce at competitive rate," she said.
-- Biswajeet Banerjee & Tahir Amin
(Banerjee is based in Lucknow, India, and Amin in Islamabad, Pakistan).
This story is part of a three-year program coordinated by the East-West Center to encourage Indian and Pakistani journalists to identify important stories of common interest in both countries.