Monday, March 4, 2024

Vishwakarma scheme for artisans can be a game changer but with a few tweaks

With an outlay of 13,000 crore spread over five years, it aims to provide loan assistance of up to 3 lakh in two tranches, at a concessional interest rate of 5% per annum. While primarily a financing plan, the Vishwakarma scheme also plans to provide skill upgradation, tool-kit sops, incentives for digital transactions and marketing support to traditional craftspersons.

The scheme is targeted at 18 traditional craftspeople: carpenters, boat makers, armourers, blacksmiths, hammer and tool kit makers, locksmiths, goldsmiths, potters, sculptors, stone breakers, cobblers/shoesmiths/footwear artisans, mason basket/mat/broom makers/coir weavers, traditional doll & toy makers, barbers, garland makes, washermen, tailors, and fishing net makers.

Coming in the run-up to the general elections scheduled April-May, the political motive is clear here. The 18 identified crafts are pursued by artisans largely belonging to Scheduled Castes, Schedule Tribes, and OBCs, a large vote bank.

In fact, the Development Commissioner for Handicrafts, the government’s nodal agency for craft and artisan-based activities, lists as many as 72 crafts under its “Pehchaan” scheme, which provides and identity card for traditional craftspersons and artisans, which is a pre-requisite for availing of existing assistance programmes.

But the politics of the scheme are irrelevant to the actual benefits of the scheme, and indeed, irrelevant to the pressing need for such assistance. Available data on the crafts landscape is outdated. The last census of crafts was carried out during the Seventh Plan period, which ended in 2012. According to that, there were more than 68.8 lakh craftspersons in the country, with women (56.13%) and socially and economically disadvantaged sections like SC, ST and OBC (which together make up more than 72%) accounting for a majority of the pool. So from both a gender justice and social justice perspective, the scheme cannot be faulted for its intended target audience.

Finance, specifically lack of working capital and access to the formal financial system, is of course one of the biggest handicaps that India’s traditional artisans labour under. This is a good move and addresses a known need. However, that is only the first step. Lack of market access, lack of financial inclusion, and the absence of modern technology and tools to improve quality and productivity are equally big impediments to India’s traditional craftspersons and artisans realizing the true value of their output.

To be a true game changer, apart from financial assistance, the scheme should be dovetailed with skill development programmes. Sector skills councils should work on training and skill standards and testing and certification of traditional apprentices, currently training under the age old ‘ustaad’ (master) system which prevails in . this sector. Senior ‘ustaads’ should be also trained in modern skills, tools and methods so that standardization of trade skills can be achieved. Their role as trainers should also be formally recognised and incentivised so they can train and skill more apprentices beyond their own immediate family/need.

Introduction of quality standards and testing of both inputs and outputs needs to be brought in so that “hand-made” or “hand-crafted” stands as much for quality as tradition. In fact, much of the luxury goods sector does precisely this, combining high quality and modern designs with traditional skills to derive premium pricing. Standards and certification will also help tackle the multiplicity of non-tariff barriers which impede access to global markets for traditional crafts and help artisans realise better value for their work. And linking traditional artisans with modern designers can help open up new markets both at home and abroad, much as it has in the handloom sector.

Above all, the success of the scheme depends on implementation. There have been myriad government schemes over the years targeting similar outcomes but none have achieved the desired outcomes, due to excessive bureaucracy and rent-seeking which has denied benefits to intended recipients. Given that the essential framework for ‘Digital India’ already exists, using digital tools and technology can ensure targeted and leak-proof delivery.

The scheme can also serve as the template for other trades. In fact, many of the identified traditional crafts/skills are also trades, like tailor, mason, carpenter, etc. Others like plumber, painter, electrician or mechanic fall in between, relying largely on the traditional system of apprenticeship for skill development, but offering greater scope for mobility than others which are more strongly linked to caste. But their needs – access to finance, tools, technology, training and markets – are the same as those of traditional craftspersons. A holistic approach can help unleash the true potential of trades, as well as address the livelihood challenge faced by our youth.

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