Letters from India No 4

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan - Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, ie. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum - Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Piia Saari


DELHI -- I have been busy travelling in Rajasthan in 6.-10.3. and the main theme stems from my several visits to family artisans, crafts companies and exporters. Besides this the concept of fair trade and the shops selling fair products is discussed as a background to the theme. There was a meeting at Lokayan about tribal self-rule and a discussion with the Finnish delegation from the Department of International Development Cooperation. These will be discussed in the highlights section. Reflections describe the efforts of Marko, Jarna, Piia and Lokayan staff to purchase a refrigerator and to get a telephone connection to the activists.

The first Indian activist, Mr. Atal Behari Sharma has happily arrived Finland, and Lokayan decided to postpone the next activist's, Mr. Rajendra Ravi's, visit by one year (to April-June 2000) to have more time for the preparations. Vijay Pratap will travel to Finland around 17 April together with Marko and make a presentation in the Finnida NGO seminar to be held in Helsinki on 21-22 April. Also Smitu Kothari will be in Finland that time. I will continue to Bihar for 13.-21.3. and continue the study of the artisans' situation there, and attend a book-release in Patna about Bodhgaya land struggles.

Can trade be fair?

The power of transnational corporations and the way they have abused the people and the environment in the South are a concern for many. The question of child labour has become very acute in many countries. The low labour costs and loose standards to protect the environment as well as minimal rights for workers in South appeal to companies searching for maximal profit. The consumers' information on the products they consume is usually very limited for the simple reason that they cannot get the information from the places where they buy the products or they are not interested. The product passes through so many hands in its way from the producer to consumer that it loses some information on each step. Besides people are usually happy if the price-quality rate of the product is ok, they may not even happen to think about the workers rights in a distant country.

As the consumers have become more aware of the exploitative trade relations between North and South, new alternatives have also appeared. Some groups have established special shops, where you can buy products that are made in fair conditions and where you can get information on them. Usually the products are made in some cooperatives, organisations of producers, in NGOs or the like. In different countries the shops selling these products have different names (Fair Trade Shops, World Shops, etc.), but the basic principles are common. These include:

  • fair prices to the producers
  • environmentally friendly production
  • no child labour used in production
  • no middlemen used in trade relation; direct contacts between producer and purchaser
  • trade of finalised products, not mere raw materials
  • information about products provided for customers

There has also been an attempt to get the fair products available to all shops by introducing a symbol that can be identified with fair trade, the so called fair trade label. The idea is same than in the environmental labels that tell the product is environmental friendly. These kinds of fair trade labels are already used in many European countries but a common system is under preparation.

Theme: Rajasthani family crafts to export?

The traditional craftspeople in Rajasthan belong to certain castes, practise their profession at home with the whole family involved in the different tasks, buy the raw materials from and sell the final products at the local market. What the cheaper, factory-made cloth and garments industry and the increasing demand of standard-sized products to the export sales have meant to these craftspeople is a threatening burden of unemployment and the loss of the skills the generations and generations earlier used to have. The middlemen have now the main role in the chain as purchasers, wholesalers and exporters, and they are the people who can dictate to artisans what to produce and at which rates to sell.

My journey with Rita Nahata covered two cities (Jaipur and Jodhpur) and a smaller town, Barmer, near to Pakistani border. Journey through the arid plains and deserts was a thrilling experience, as the colourless nature was so sharply contrasted in the colours of people's dresses and the decorations in their houses. As a native Rajasthani and once an exporter herself Rita could show me some parts of this fascinating area that I could not have reached otherwise. She took me to artisans' homes, owners of bigger production units and an exporter enterprise, all of which were good examples of the different stages in the production chain. Observing the living conditions and style at each stage and the discussions with these people were an interesting lesson not only about crafts but also about the people's views on their profession. Here I share my experiences from four of such places.

Rana Mal Khatri's family practising traditional block-printing in Barmer Mr. Rana Mal Khatri has inherited the profession of block-printing from his father. A Rajasthani would trace from his name that he is a block-printer, as the printers traditionally belong to khatri (or chinppa) -caste. The whole family is involved in the printing, dying, washing and selling work, altogether 11 members. They design the patterns for the wooden stamps themselves, guaranteeing that the products are unique. Mr. Khatri has recently opened a showroom in Barmer and has also participated in exhibitions in different cities. His business seems to run well, he has some regular customers and has been able to provide secured livelihood for the big family.

Roopraj Durry Udhyog , a carpet-maker in Jodhpur An ordinary house at the end of a street in Salawas, a village near to Jodhpur, belongs to a family of durry-carpets' makers. Mr. Nemichand Prajapati sits under a shelter in his yard, explaining the operation of handloom to a couple of western people. A lot of carpets lie on the ground, goats lie a bit further away in the shadow. Mr. Prajapati tells that his company collects carpets from about 50 people working in their homes in the village and sells them to a person in Mumbai. He also sells carpets at his home, as in the tourist season his home gets regular visitors and the packets in his stock room, addressed to Europe, prove that the tourism is beneficial to him. He is a carpet-maker by his caste, prajapati. His father sits at the door opening with a little grandson in his lap, who is most probably going to continue the business in future, especially if tourism brings more customers.

Sonava Printers in Jaipur A small printing factory is situated at the outskirts of Jaipur, in Sanganer handicrafts area. Mr. Kund Bihari shows us his production unit and a stockroom full of home furnishing cloth. The same house is also his home. His grandfather started the enterprise producing block-printed cloth for specific castes at the locality. However, nowadays caste does not play an important role in the production anymore, and Mr. Bihari's printers can be of any caste. He employs 28 printers, 2 colour specialists, 4 washers and 3 stitchers, many of whom are migrant workers. During the monsoon there is no work for the printers, so they return to their home villages to take part in farming. Mr. Bihari tells that a worker can print about 10 metres of cloth in a day and earn on average 80-100 rupees. There are no holidays except the full moon day, so the 29 working days in a month would bring worker about 2300-2900 rupees.

The cotton cloth is bought from the wholesale market in Jaipur. The cloth comes there from cotton mills in Maharashtra and South India, as the quality of the cotton cloth woven in moist areas is better than that of dry areas. Printing, however, is ideal in Rajasthan's dry climate, as the colours printed one by one dry quickly in the sunshine. This company sells the products to 3 agents, who export them or sell in India. Mr. Bihari does not himself know to which countries the export products finally go. He tells that he must adjust to the market demand and produce such products that will sell. If there are no orders for the export products, he hopes to get at least orders for cheaper, low-quality products sold locally.

Bandari Exports in Jodhpur The busy and elitist atmosphere of an export enterprise in Jodhpur was a world itself. The rooms of the big building were full of all kinds of crafts, arranged neatly to the customers' eyes. The owner of the enterprise collects crafts from about 40 producers or families all around Rajasthan. He himself employs labour in finishing the products, packing and exporting. 100% of the products go abroad, mainly to Europe, America and Japan. The lunch at the upstairs of the enterprise, in the owner's house was a good chance to observe the life of one of the richest families in Jodhpur. The airy rooms, expensive furniture and many servants gave an impression of a very privileged lifestyle.

What conclusions can one draw from this short expedition to the artisans world? Everywhere the amount of the shops selling mass-produced garments and other utility items compared to the locally made crafts is large and increasing. The family artisans tend to give up their traditional professions in the pressures of cheaper products flowing to villages from cities. The craftspeople that still stick to their ancestors' way of life must increasingly orient to export markets and have good relation to their agents. And as far as money is concerned, a lot of it seems to accumulate at the hands of the middlemen.

Highlights from the fortnight

A meeting at Lokayan about tribal self-rule. On February 5th Smitu Kothari from Lokayan and Harsh Mander arranged a meeting on "The implementation of the Panchayats (extension to scheduled areas) Act. This Act lays down that in all schedule V-areas, consultation with the Gram Sabha, a local decision making body, is mandatory before any land acquisition proceedings can be undertaken. The whole day discussion covered several aspects of tribal self-rule, such as the question of land and resource ownership and the role of Gram Sabha in the local democracy. Smitu Kothari comments in the Right to Information -campaign's newsletter "Transparency" that the recent amendments to the Constitution recognising the rights of Panchayats and the right to self-rule in tribal areas have created the historic opportunity to rethink and rebuild the institutions and processes of democracy. On the other hand this new autonomy is given provided it does not threaten the prevailing liberalisation and the dominant export-oriented market. The traditional communities have been driven more by market demand than by cultural practice and ecological sustainability. This among other issues will be discussed in more detail in a meeting near Mumbai in 19.-21.3., where I am unfortunately unable to attend because of my journey to Bihar. The conclusions of the meeting will anyway be presented in one of the next "Letters from India".

Finnish Development Cooperation bureaucrats in Delhi Two people from the Finnish Department for International Development Cooperation, the director Ms. Marjatta Viitanen and the counsellor Ms. Ann-Christine Karna had come to India for two weeks to take part in many happenings in different cities. On 11th March several people from Lokayan attended a dinner party at Satu Santala's home at Finnish Embassy in Chanakyapuri with a bulk of embassy people. The next day we had a discussion at Lokayan about NGOs' and civil society's role in Finland and India. Ms. Viitanen was concerned on the elitism and bureaucracy of many Finnish NGOs, and the similar trends in Indian NGOs were discussed. Other issues like the impact of foreign funding, the demand to listen to the grassroots initiatives and the ways globalization has affected in people's way of life in cities were also raised.


Buying a refrigerator and connecting a telephone in Delhi How could one guess that buying a refrigerator would require so many visits and phone calls to electric shops? Or that connecting a telephone would make us so familiar with nice Mr. Krishna Kumar at the telephone department? After giving up the idea or buying a 165-litre Kelvinator (as the shop always told us they could supply it "day after tomorrow" and that day never came), we decided to discuss the possibility of buying an old one from one of the Lokayan people. Smitu told that his family needs a bigger refrigerator and he could sell the old 165-litre to us. OK, we agreed, as Delhi got warmer every day. But now Smitu understood that his old refrigerator actually was the same size, 300-litre, as the just bought new one. The new one was returned and the Finnish activists returned to the electric shops again. The result of bargaining and a cruise between a couple of shops now stands in a corner of our kitchen - a new 165 Godrej and serves its purpose perfectly.

Getting a telephone line was an experience, too. The people at the telephone department got totally confused on whether Mr. Lokayan, in whose name the phone was applied, existed or not. Anyway, after a couple of visits to our home, a few letters and phone calls we succeeded to assure them that Mr. Lokayan and these 3 Finnish people mean the same thing. One day two men came to us with a phone and line and the happy news: "The line will work in a couple of days, maybe tree or four or seven days. Somebody will tell you your number, too." So days were passed, but the phone was still dead until Mr. Krishna Kumar called us to Lokayan, told our number and assured the phone is working. "If any problem, just call me!" So did we, as the phone was still dead. Mr. Kumar was very sorry, as the foreign visitors had to suffer so much. After a few days the line was working, thanks to Rajendra Ravi's constant claims to telephone department and to Mr. Kumar's friendliness.