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May 24, 2020

Handicraft sector in trouble as restrictions continue


May 24, 2020

HYDERABAD: Ghulam Nabi Soomro, maintaining an Ajrak manufacturing workshop in Bhitshah town, Matiari district, said he paid workers from his savings for a month to prepare stocks, considering the emergency situation after the novel coronavirus might end in the next few days.

“Lockdown is taking longer than we anticipated, and it has now become difficult to continue engaging our workers. We have sufficient stocks, but no market to sell our products in,” he explained.

Due to the recent lockdown, handicraft businesses have been stuck. “Both, investors and workforce are facing financial constraints,” Ghulam Nabi said.

Interactions with artisans engaged with ajrak-making workshops in Bhitshah shows that initially skilled artisans, both men and women, were assigned specific tasks like printing, dyeing and washing ajraks at homes, instead of attending their workplaces to avoid any unfortunate situation.

Workers associated with these workshops being skilled have mechanism at homes to work from there during any restrictions. Reports gathered from the ajrak artisans show that they have developed new varieties in print and were expecting to sell their products on Eidul Fitr.

During normal days, clients used to walk-in to buy products from the workshop, but since the government announced restrictions, they were facing loss. Lack of transport was one major reason that clients were not showing up.

Now, when the restrictions have been somewhat relaxed, allowing people to move out for sale and purchase after around two months, these artisans are facing difficulties in supplying products in the markets on an urgent basis.

Artisans in Matiari make fabric on home-based power looms, ajrak, jewellery, caps, baskets of wheat straw, variety of ceramics, wooden products called Jandi, and rilli etc.

Each ajrak workshop hires 15-20 skilled workers. Bhitshah, Hala New and its neighbouring villages are considered a hub of traditional industry, producing variety of ajraks and dresses with similar prints, which have demand in urban centres as well as in rural areas.

The pandemic has made it difficult for workshop owners to pay their workers, as they have been unable to supply products to clients to ensure payments.

Artisans making baskets, bowls, plates, frames and other products from wheat straw and dry date leaves for home decoration were also experiencing similar challenges.

They have prepared products, but there are no buyers in the markets. Urban shops, their regular customers, have also been facing slowdown. Even recovering the cost of production has become impossible.

Noor Muhammad Sahito, a local activist from Village Sahita Noohpota, owning dozens of ajrak-making workshops, said almost all artisans were facing hardships.

The village is famous for producing a variety of ajraks for the crafts market. These artisans usually have contacts in Karachi and Hyderabad, but now they were facing hardship in reaching the cities.

A small number of artisans in fabric, and ajrak-making fields have online access, and were selling products via courier services, but a majority of the artisans do not have digital access.

A majority of artisans, especially women do not know how to use services such as online banking, mobile services, digital platforms, etc.

Qadir Bux Soomro Kashigar, running his ceramic workshop in Hala New town, also complained of similar challenges. He said his products were heavy, and not everyone was interested in ceramics. Those particular clients were not in the market right now.

Another issue faced by these artisans was the availability of raw materials, especially fabric and dyes. Even if they were able to source the raw materials, the cost was too high, making products very expensive and out of reach of regular customers.

Shakeel Abro, director, Sindh Indigenous and Traditional Crafts Company (SITCO), which plays a role in strengthening coordination with artisans, providing trainings and organising exhibitions once or twice a month, said, “Traditional industry is experiencing different challenges emerging one after another.”

Complimenting the immediate relief efforts of the government, he said SITCO also provided ration to these artisans, but this alone was not enough to resolve their problems.

“In fact, lockdown has pushed these artisans in trouble as they have lost their clients and market connections. Now, these artisans, especially ajrak makers, face difficulties being dependent on Faisalabad for fabrics during these restrictions,” he explained.

Ajrak, jandi (wooden products) and ceramic industry needs dyes and oxides which were being sold at exorbitant rates.

Furthermore, he said there was no particular permanent craft bazaar in any city of the province to offer opportunity to these artisans to run businesses there.

“Earlier, these artisans displayed their products at exhibitions in major cities once a month. But now, they are unable to even continue opening of their shops to attract ordinary clients,” Shakeel Abro said.

About the recent relief mechanism, the artisans believe that they were being offered Rs150,000 only as a loan, which was not enough to run workshops.

They usually pay more to workers, who need advance in some conditions. Increasing cost of raw materials has also created problems for them.

Therefore, artisans in different fields have demanded the government to announce incentives, mainly Qarz-e-Hasna (interest-free loans) to save this traditional industry, which contributed to the national exchequer, and employed hundreds of thousands people.