Letters from India No 5

´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 -- This time "Letter" discusses the middlemen's role in trade as its main theme, as the question of "whether middlemen are necessary or not and harmful or not to the artisans", became very vital in my journey to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. NGOs and individual producers may have very different opinions in this question, yet it should be remembered that neither of them is a homogenous group. The highlight of the fortnight was the seminar in Patna about the Bodhgaya land struggles. The reflections describe feelings about my exchange period until now: some suggestions are provided. I find this kind of "interim report" important both for the Kepa-Lokayan program and for myself, to be able to convey the ideas to the others and to develop this program in future. The reflections also include a story of my wanderings at the ghats in Varanasi.

Theme: the role of the middlemen in handicrafts trade?

Craftspeople form the second largest employment sector in India after agriculture. According to the statistics from craft NGOs there are about 23 million crafts persons in India today. Earlier craft was the only industry known to mankind, and products were made based on the market requirements and designed according to utilitarian as well as aesthetic values. Traditions were handed over from father to son.

With foreign dominance Indian craft and the handloom industry have been severely exploited. Some of the urban, western-minded classes saw craft as being a part of the impractical aesthetics milieu. The need to redefine and rediscover the status for craft was felt only after the independence, and an awareness for protecting artisans' skills was accentuated by craft activists. Later agencies for craft development were established both by NGOs and by the Indian Government. Artisans had to find their own niche in a growing industrial environment, as the highly competitive market put them in a poor position. The different agencies had to bear in mind that protecting craft alone was not enough, but that the communities of craftspeople had to be taken care of, too.

A "middleman" has become almost like a swear word to the people involved in NGOs promoting small scale employment of artisans or in the fair trade movement, at least in the western countries. The middlemen are often seen as greedy exploiters, who unnecessarily increase the price of the product. Trading straightly with the producer was the NGOs' response to this situation. The higher prices of the products in these NGOs' shops were explained in terms of salaries to the producers: "By purchasing a craft from us you ensure that a woman gets employment and fair wages!" What about the money left over from not using any middlemen? Where has it gone?

It has also been suggested that the NGOs are the biggest middlemen themselves. Their western-style offices and equipment are easily much more expensive than the expenses of the middlemen. It is not always guaranteed that the producers really get fair wages after all. Usually NGOs' work, however, is appreciated, as they alongside implement welfare activities and education programmes, which can further assist the artisans to stand on their own feet.

The question of the middlemen is very complex in Indian context. Traditionally artisans did not need to use any middlemen: they sold their products locally in the same village, were recognised as a specific group and were known by other people. The increasing pressure to orient outwards to cities or even abroad has made it necessary to rely on the expertise of other people, e.g. sales agents, wholesalers, exporters etc.

Indian society has the characteristics of hierarchy and precise division of labour. Although the boundaries of castes in the crafts making are not so significant anymore, the way of thinking in terms of "one man, one work" still persists. Thus, there is a work for spinner, work for weaver, sewer, cutter, packer etc. In the same way, the effort the artisan made to sell the products at the local market, is now replaced by the effort he makes to sell it to an agent. The case is, of course, far more complicated if you see the linkages and structures of a whole village: there may be families involved in production as well as acting as agents for the other handicraft producers, or wholesalers themselves, and some still succeed in selling the products locally.

What do the craftspeople say themselves? Here are some of the reflections from my discussions with the artisans in eastern part of India.

Experiences from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh

In my trip to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh I met some NGO groups selling the products of individual artisans or artisans' organisations. Interesting examples were Adithi, a shop selling Bihari handicrafts in Patna, Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti marketing traditional "sujuni"-embroidery of local women from Muzaffarpur, and Sewa Mithila, a shelter home for divorced and widowed women in Madhubani running also a small shop there. I also visited in a Khadi-shop in Madhubani and followed the private wholesale marketing of saris in Varanasi.

Adithi - empowerment of women Adithi is an organisation started in 1988 by Viji Srinivasan and it aims to struggle for the greater economic and social development of women of poor families in India and to eliminate the hunger in a few demonstration projects. Adithi runs dairy projects, fisheries, handicrafts production and village industries, saving schemes for women and afforestation programs. It has about 50 partner organisations in Bihar. The organisation is funded by Indian Government as well as foreign agencies and some Indian banks, including Sidbi, "Small Investment Development Bank of India". Adithi's shop selling the handicrafts from partner groups is located in Patna, and I met two persons working there, Medha and Aseta. According to them Adithi always checks the background of the producers to be sure that they produce the crafts themselves and the organisation also insists the craftspeople to come to the meetings about marketing, pricing, quality control etc. Some of the producer groups have already become independent, but most remain very dependent on Adithi's marketing skills.

Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti - marketing difficulties A partner organisation of Adithi in a little village Bhushura in Muzaffarpur struggles with the marketing difficulties. Kailash Prasad Singh and his wife Ram Sati came up with the idea of reviving the domestic art of sujuni craft to assist the women who were living in poverty, and established Mahila Vikas Sahyog Samiti (MVSS) to market the handicrafts of the local women. Sujuni, the indigenous embroidered bed sheet, was usually made just before the birth of a child. Women of the family would collect old saris and connect them together with tiny running stitches. The embroidery tells the stories of villages, and with the encouragement of MVSS the women began to embroider also their social and political concerns into the fabric, such as the female infanticide, dowry system, ecological degradation, election violence etc. I also saw a sheet expressing the concerns of the nuclear weapon competition between India and Pakistan.

At the moment about 300 women work at their homes for MVSS and get the salary from the embroidery by square inch. Depending on their time used for work, women earn from 300 Rs. up to 5000 Rs. a month. A favourable circumstance in sujuni work is that a high proportion of expenses (about 60%) goes to the wages of the workers, and not to the raw materials and administration. The ready products are marketed to foreign NGOs through Adithi, and to art shops in Delhi. According to Kailash Prasad Singh the marketing is the biggest headache. For example Oxfam had refused to pay the advance, and now there is no money for the raw materials. The case with an Indian wholesaler or an agent would most probably be different, as they would either provide the organisation with the raw materials or with the advance. But selling these pieces of art is difficult anyhow: they become so expensive that only the elites can afford them. Somewhere in its way from the village sujuni bed cover's price is multiplied. The workers tell they can earn about 750 Rs. from one and in the shops these amount to several thousand rupees.

Sewa Mithila - home for abandoned women Sewa - Self Employed Women's Association - was started to create work opportunities to women in desperate situation. Sewa is an NGO working around India, and one of its group is Sewa Mithila in Madhubani. A home for the women was established here in 1983 and there live about 50 women, most of them either widows or divorcees. For some of them this is the only place they could come after the family had abandoned them for various reasons, or where they escaped the violence of their hunbands. "My husband tried to burn me!" tells an elderly lady, showing a long scar in her injured leg. Similar stories are expressed by other women. The whole community seems to be like a big family: the women have their children here with them, and Sewa provides every one a place to stay, food and work. Most women can paint the so called "Madhubani" art or stitch or make baskets from local sikki-grass; some are still practising their skills. The little salary (about 500 Rs./month) helps them to get dignity and control over their lives. It is delightful to hear that many of the women, who have once stayed here, have now become so independent that they are running some small businesses in handicrafts in the area, somebody has even established a dairy. Some families have accepted them back and they have been able to continue the craft making at home.

The general secretary of Sewa Mithila, Ms. Rane Tha, shows us the new building where the rooms for the women are about to be finished; Indian government (which is the biggest supporter of Sewa) has subsidized this construction programme. We also visit the Sewa's shop at the main street in Madhubani, a little room where the women's handicrafts are sold. But we hear that the sales have been bad.

At wholesale market of saris Varanasi is world famous for its wedding saris and the handwoven silk Saris can be seen all around the city in the bazaars. Where do they come from and how? I had a chance to see a sari's journey from the hands of the spinner and weaver to the hands of a customer, as I myself bought a sari in one of the shops in Old Varanasi.

One example: The mother spins the yarn for the male weavers of the family in the neighbourhood of Varanasi. The whole family is involved in the production, and besides some outsiders are employed in extra looms. The eldest son of the family proudly shows his new designs, they have been purchased from a local designer recently, and he can be sure that he is the only one making this kind of saris. He is a busy man: many times a week he goes to the nearby wholesale market and negotiates prices for his saris with the purchasers who further sell the saris to the shops in Varanasi and in other Indian cities.

Following the business at the market was interesting. At times it looked like using your elbows was much more effective that negotiation, as the market was so full of people. (Slowly, however, I understood that all the hustle was not daily, as the attention was paid to us: I and Rita weaving through the narrow lines of a wholesale market, where people buy ten saris or hundred saris but not ONE, were something extraordinary!) Comparing the prices of saris in the wholesale market and the shops in Varanasi gave some ideas of the role of the middlemen. It is difficult to draw some conclusions, however. One should know the quantities of saris sold, the expenditures of running a shop etc. The role of the middlemen was taken quite for granted by the artisans: "How can we sell anything without them?" was a common comment.

The experiences in the trip made my questions of middlemen's role much more complicated. At least it was obvious that there are no simple answers to whether these people are seen as exploiters or helpers by the artisans. Each visit revealed a different scene and a generalisation would distort this complex picture.

A highlight from the fortnight

A book on Bodhgaya land struggles In the Letter 2 Marko has described the background of the Bodhgaya's land dispute and the achievements of The Bodhgaya Bhumi Mukti Andolan -movement in claiming the lands to the people who cultivate them. Prabhat Kumar's Hindi book "Jameen Kiski Jote Uski" (The land belongs to the one who cultivates it) describes day-to-day events of the land struggle. The seminar on 14th March in A.N.Sinha Institute of Social Sciences in Patna collected the activists of the movement and people with different viewpoints to take part in the release function of this book and in the whole-day discussion about the land issue and about other movements struggling for social change.

The land in Bodhgaya previously owned by the Hindu religious trust had been distributed among the landless after the movement's successful pressure on the government to implement the land reform. After this most landless people became small farmers. The seminar raised the questions of the movements achievements to the communities in the area, as recently after the movement's discontinuance many disputes have arisen again. The seminar also discussed the need to have a strong social movement of the people in the area. There are many kind of rifts between people and caste conflicts are also noticed among the new land owners. As Bodhgaya is very famous for its religious background (Lord Buddha got enlightenment here), and a popular tourist site, the outsiders purchasing the land have also caused many troubles. Alcoholism and illegal alcohol production, which had been general problems in the area and caused violence in the families, are again returning, too. Also the irrigation causes headache to the farmers: the irrigation canals that were earlier taken care of by the religious trust, are not in function anymore because of the government's carelessness.

The visit to the holy sites in Bodhgaya, most importantly the vicinity of Bodhi tree, proved that tourism has a huge influence here, and it has succeeded in commercializing the holiness and the beliefs connected to the place. The city itself, full of Buddhist monasteries built by different countries, was somehow artificial in its appearance.



I think now it is time to express some of my ideas about the program, of which I have been a part for two months now. First of all, time has gone really fast in getting acquainted with the people at Lokayan and the issues they are working with, in settling to Delhi and in keeping contact with Kepa. This has been a very good way of learning inter-organisational relations, as one rarely gets a chance to be a part of two organisations simultaneously.

What has been puzzling me right from the beginning is the feeling that no one really knows what I am supposed to do here, in practise. The aims of this program as expressed in the contract (democratizing the North-South relations etc.) are of course rather abstract, and perhaps the tasks needed to meet these aims cannot be very practical, either. For a person who knows Lokayan and Kepa well, it may be easier to adjust to the situation and see the goals in the right context. A person like me, coming from an organisation that is engaged in very practical activity, found this a bit frustrating, at least in the beginning.

The tasks for the activists, both for Finnish and Indian, should be clearly defined and there should be a person in either organisations to help the activists to create their work plan, to contact the people and organisations relevant to their work. Many times the permanent staff is so busy in the daily work that there is no time to be spent with the activists, especially if their role in the organisation is somehow unclear. Employing such a "helper person" could be discussed with the activist well in advance before the post starts, because everyone may not need that kind of help. At least for me Rita Nahata's help has been very valuable.

The fact that there is nobody coming to Lokayan after I leave, also worries me. The next activists will again have to set up the apartment for themselves and somehow start from the beginning and that will take time. But of course this is just the beginning of the program and hopefully these problems will be solved in the future. I think it is very important for Kepa and Lokayan to discuss what kind of activists they want to send/receive and if it is realistic to find such people in these countries. I have got the idea that finding senior, experienced people from Finland ready for a short stay in India has been difficult. However, to be able to have innovative and profound dialogue, this kind of people are also needed.

These are just my personal opinions, and all in all, I find the work very interesting and I am very happy to be able to concentrate on the issues which are important to me (trade etc.). It has been very rewarding to discuss with Indian people about these issues and I am sure this experience will help me a lot in my work in Finland in future. People in Lokayan have really kindly helped me in all kinds of matters (from providing spare gas cylinders to my kitchen, to helping me to modify my work plan). The contacts to Kepa have been helpful and regular, because of the good e-mail connection. Hopefully there will soon be an e-mail connection straightly to Vijay Pratap too.


"One should go to the ghats early in the morning, when the sun rises and the place is full of pilgrims, sadhus, colours, life..." This was the guidance given to me by the "ghat experts". Notwithstanding, the first time I stepped at the famous stairs to river Ganges was early evening. I took a boat to the river and was able to see the fires from the cremation ghat. The river was amazingly silent, as if I were not in India at all.

The morning visit at the ghats was as described, plus a crowd of western tourists following the advice of the experts. Anyway, it was an experience. I was just wandering there all senses overloaded by India. This was the real India I had long ago been taught at school!

What about ghats at the middle of the day? Sleeping dogs, sleeping people under the umbrellas, the hot sun over my head and the boatmen shouting again and again "boat madam, very cheap!" The flowers of the salesmen at the ghats were dying and nobody needed them now, as there were no pujas going on. Well, the experts were right: we must go to a lot of trouble of waking up early, if we want to discover "real" India, the one that we want to see. Otherwise we will just see something we did not expect from India!