Handicrafts were mostly made by rural women inside their homes, who formed an active domestic labour force, and contributed over 50 per cent to their overall incomes.
“Nearly 65 per cent of women earned their livelihood from handicraft work. Now 90 per cent of these women are jobless,” said Nawab Pirzada, assistant chief of industries section in Sindh Planning and Development Department. These jobless women artisans had shifted to other trades, mainly agriculture and livestock breeding, he said.
The range of handicraft products include ajrak, ceramics, articles made of date leaves, farassi rugs, jandi, khes, musical instruments, caps, straw products, bangles, crucia work, embroideries, kashi, rilli, Thari carpets and woodcarving.
Handicraft making was so common that every house in Sindh was turned into a small workshop or cottage industry. But unfortunately, during the last 15-20 years, handicrafts production has witnessed a nose-dive because of falling demand, absence of strategic planning and vision for revival of the indigenous crafts, says Khair Mohammad, president Larkana Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI).
If cottage industries were set up at tehsil levels and locals were employed to produce new batches of artisans, it would have surely helped revive the traditional arts and handicrafts, he said.
“Falling profits vis-Ã -vis rising costs of materials has reduced the handicraft-making activity,” said Ahmed Raza Chandio, a Sukkur-based Ajrak maker.
He said there were some 700 ajrak makers but their number had reduced to 10-15 only.
An old cloth-weaver of Hala, Allah Bachayo Memon, recalling the heydays of the province's handicraft industry, said there were around 10,000 workshops in Hala town alone, and thousands of cultural and traditional handicrafts were made and sold here every week. But, their number had dwindled now to a few.
“Besides Hala, a hub of handicrafts manufacturing, Shikarpur, Kashmore, Khairpur Mirs, Khanot, Matiari, Sekhat, Sehta, Badin, Thatta, Mithi and Nagarparkar were also flourishing handcrafts centres, where many people, over 70 per cent of them women, used to work and earn their livelihood through this craft,” said Memon
He blamed the Sindh Small Industrial Corporation for the plight of the industry as it failed to promote and effectively market the indigenous handicrafts at local and international levels. “The SSIC was established in early 1970s to explore new markets and strengthen Small Industrial Estates (SIEs).
Rampant corruption in SSIC and provincial industries department, and lack of government support to artisans ruined the once booming industry, complained Ejaz Ahmed, a prominent handicrafts trader in Karachi.
Some 15 years back there were around 200 handicrafts shops in the cooperative market in Saddar area of Karachi, and customers, mostly foreigners, thronged these shops. But, now only a couple of shops had been left.
Revival of the province's handicrafts industry, however, lies in the development of SIEs, provision of financial support to artisans, establishment of direct links between buyers and artisans, elimination of middlemen and improved marketing facilities, he suggested.
Dilbar Jan, a handicraft exporter in Karachi, who belongs to Wana, North Waziristan, said he used to export handicrafts worth millions of rupees every month and explored new markets in Russia and other countries. “But, the government's (including the Trade Development Authority) attitude towards handicraft exporters and SSIC proved a major obstacle to the development of Pakistani handicrafts', which is at the lowest level as compared to that of South Asian countries,” he deplored.
“We can invest billions of rupees for setting up cottage and agro-based industries in different districts, which can not only help generate employment but also revive economic activity. But, facilitation fee demanded by the SSIC officials and their delaying tactics in issuing NOCs prevents us from launching our projects,” said a former president of the Hyderabad Chamber of Commerce and Industries (HCCI).
But, officials in SSCI's finance department deny the allegations of business communities and say that a number of uplift plans have been put in place for the promotion of indigenous handicrafts and cottage industries.
There are some 18 SIEs all over Sindh but they lack basic infrastructure facilities and none of them is properly working.
A proposal for establishment of artisan colonies in Hala, Thatta and Sukkur has been sent to the government for next fiscal year's ADP, where artisans would be provided plots for residence and workshops through balloting, informed Abdul Rasheed Solangi, Managing Director SSIC.
Although, he agreed that a number of artisans have switched over to other means of livelihood, he insisted it had not impacted the handicrafts production; rather it had gone up.
He also said, “a Rs500 million proposal has been sent to the provincial government for approval under which the artisans would be given small interest-free credits to establish new workshops at artisan colonies.”
There are five 'display and sale outlets' of SSIC in Sindh, which directly procures handicrafts from artisans. But, all of the SSIC display and sale outlets are in pathetic condition.
“Limited variety of traditional handicrafts and lack of parking facility at the PIDC handicraft centre are major problems faced by visitors,” said Firoz Ali Lodhi, says manager of SSIC's handicraft display and sale outlet at Karachi. He suggested that the number of handicraft display and sale outlets should be increased and set up at district levels and also at all railway stations, airports, hotels and at major stopovers on highways.
Last July the Sindh Indigenous and Traditional Crafts Company (Sitco) was set up under section 42 of the Companies Ordinance 1984 with seed money of Rs800 million to promote indigenous crafts globally.
“Eighty-five per cent of the seed money would be used as an endowment fund and deposited in a bank and its profit would be used for empowerment of the poor artisan and revival of handicraft industry by providing wooden weaving machines and other handicraft-making equipment to the poor artisans, particularly women,” said Mohammad Iqbal Lakho, project manager in Poverty Alleviation and Public Private Partnership Unit of P&D department.
The Sitco would also establish direct linkages between local and foreign buyers and artisans and would receive orders from potential buyers and market handicrafts locally and internationally. Exhibitions of handicrafts would also be held at national and international levels, the official added. — Saleem Shaikh