Protect Indian crafts; ban Chinese imports | Analysis
On a cold February morning in 2017, I was in Paris, on my bi-annual reconnaissance of European fashion. We were striding down Avenue Montaigne, a street that connects the Eiffel Tower with the famous Champs-Elysées , the most glamorous street in the fashion world, which houses the haute couture designers of Europe. To my surprise, there was a queue, around the block, of Chinese customers waiting to enter the LVMH store. As I was about to enter the store, I was approached by two Chinese women. They requested me to buy two handbags from the Louis Vuitton range at any price and had the money in hand. There was a quota system of sales in the store, and since they had exhausted their quota, they needed help.
In February, I was visiting the same avenue. The economy was undergoing great pain, and it was apparent with the absence of well-heeled customers. The Chinese were the only buyers around who were wooed by the French. Gone were the days of quotas on purchases.
But it is not just in terms of consumption patterns. The Chinese have become a force to reckon with in the fashion world, as they manufacture and supply almost all of the luxury clothing and goods to the world. But Covid-19 has dramatically altered the situation, with the market for Chinese goods shrinking.
China, however, remains focused on flooding the India market, by supplying copies of indigenously popular crafts, at a fraction of the cost. The Chinese do not work with a costing policy on their goods when they enter a market. It is, at best, a political policy which decides the price of their products. This means they can undercut anything, at any price, to get into India’s fashion and wedding business. They have been quick to create a collection, based on deep research of the values and habits of the Indian consumer. Unfortunately for Indian handmade crafts, China is focused on the production of machine-made alternatives, copying designs from India’s vast resources of craft skills, practised even today by 16 million Indians.
This cannot be allowed to continue, especially in a context where Indian craftsmen and women are already confronting rising unemployment due to the Covid-19 crisis. One really must look very carefully at why India is today being inundated with Chinese copies made on cheap fabrics, which is now taking on a vast repertoire — Benarsi and Chanderi saris; Rajasthani crafts of bandani, printed on synthetics; copies of mirror work embroideries of Gujarat and Kutch; a whole repertoire of kantha, suzani, phulkari and Lucknow embroideries, recreated on synthetics by digitised machinery in China; Banjara bags and Kolhapuri chappals, mostly imported from Xinjiang; fake cashmere from Mongolian wool, labelled as pashmina. Not one of these products, imported from China, now rapidly available in most markets, in big or small-town bazaars, helps generate local employment. Instead, they take away work from established craft sectors.
India is the only country which has preserved its fashion identity, and given indigenous fashion a young, modern interpretation based on traditional silhouettes, crafts and textile processes organic to the country — a truly Make in India product. It is a miracle, and an enigma, especially if one compares it with countries as disparate as Japan and Mexico where organic clothing is now in museums and the countries follow diktats of the ramps in Paris, with little relevance to their traditional culture and climate. In India, this miracle is a combination of a deep presence of India’s cultural textile crafts and its newfound affluence.
For most people I have spoken to, the most controversial and troubling trend is the substantial Chinese inroad into the Indian religious festive markets. I don’t have any quarrel with fairy lights being imported, though this is not rocket science and can be easily be produced in India. But I do think we need to review the imports of diyas; images of Ganesh, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati; Radha and Krishna sets for $1 to $50, from a country that is not sensitive to India’s religious preferences. This is almost sacrilegious, as these deities are traditionally carved by hand, made of clay and straw, by a combination of sculptors and potters. These are often done during the festive season in sheds in most village communities; the ritual of creating mud objects for worship is deep and historic. These are biodegradable, have an authenticity which gives them their character, and are based on the principle of recycling. We must protect our potters by banning imports of religious objects which are produced in moulds with modern-day materials, and pollute rivers where they are immersed after the festivals. With Covid-19, the traditional orders for potters are slow this year and it makes no sense to get containers of diya alternatives, and Diwali-gifting options from China.
As part of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India), India needs to review the present situation of imports of non-essential items. An already-strained crafts sector needs protection, not competition from giants in Shijiazhuang and Xiamen, who, in plastic moulds, will churn out any number of images for Holi and Diwali, or volumes of fake embroideries on digital machines at no price at all. These imports from China must be banned immediately before the festive seasons begin, to save our craftspeople from more pain than they are facing already.