In today’s Finshots, we explain the state of India’s local handicrafts and how a novel new scheme One Station One Product is trying to bring change.

The Story

Gopal is a local artisan from a small village in Karnataka. He and his family have made and sold wooden toys for the last three generations. That’s what brings food to their table. But Gopal doesn’t want his children to carry forward this legacy. He has invested his hard-earned savings to educate them so that they can find better jobs in the city.

The protagonist of the little anecdote that you just read isn’t real. But the situation is. A quick Google search will throw out many such stories from across the country.

You see, India has a lot of skilled folks in the form of weavers, artisans, potters, wood artists and embroiderers. And unofficial figures suggest that we have nearly 200 million of them. This actually makes the sector one of the largest employment generators after agriculture. But the sad reality is that most artisans earn less than ₹10,000 a month

The sector is beset with problems. Most artisans work independently. And that means they simply don’t have economies of scale. They can’t buy raw materials at bulk prices. They can’t rely on technology because they don’t have the capital to invest in it. Their output is limited and they also have to compete with mass-market brands that copy their designs and sell for cheap.

Now over the years, successive governments have tried to alleviate their problems. They introduced schemes to organize artisans under self-help groups. They set up cluster manufacturing facilities to help with production. They have marketing assistance to set up events and sell directly to customers and eliminate middlemen.

But it hasn’t quite worked out.

Even the digital revolution hasn’t aided their cause. For instance, the online channel contributes a meagre 0.2% of total sales for handloom weavers. And that’s because artisans aren’t internet savvy either. A survey by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) found that only 20% of artisans had received any sort of training in the art of digital sales. So how do you expect them to be savvy enough to navigate marketplaces like Amazon, Flipkart, and ONDC!

And now, the government is trying something new to improve the situation. They saw the need to help artisans sell directly to customers. But also figured that e-commerce isn’t the panacea for everything. Training the artisans would be a tall order. So they decided to go old school. They thought, “Where can we get massive crowds who often make impulse purchases?”

The answer — railway stations!

Remember, we have nearly 7,500 railway stations across the country. 24 million people travel by train every day. And the bigger stations see an average footfall of 25,000 people a day. There are the passengers. There are people who come to see them off. And all of them love to buy a bunch of stuff from stalls as they while away their time.

So, a couple of months ago, the government launched a pilot to try out a new scheme. They called it One Station One Product (OSOP) Scheme. The government would help artisans set up official stalls at railway stations to sell their wares. And these artisans had to apply for the scheme by paying up a fee of about ₹1,000. The government would then allot them a special stall on a railway platform. And as of 1st May, we’ve set up 785 stalls at 728 stations across the length and breadth of the country.

It’s quite an interesting way to promote local art simply because it gives artisans a new place to promote their wares ― whether it’s traditional cold pressed oils, wooden and clay toys, tribal handicraft, zari, bandhani or even litti-chokha (a traditional Bhojpuri delicacy).

But it’s still too early to say whether things will work out.

For instance, the stalls are only allotted for a fortnight. This way, a different artisan gets the stage every time until all the applicants have been given a chance. What can they really hope to achieve in such a short span? We don’t know. But The Hindu says that follow-on orders have been happening over the phone. So that’s good.

Also, while a ₹1,000 fee for setting up a stall might seem like chump change, it’s not something most artisans can shell out easily. Sure, in some cases such as the Tiruchirappalli Railway Division in Tamil Nadu where the OSOP stalls have been up for a year already, sales seem to be going strong — with nearly ₹75 lakhs worth of local products being sold. But we don’t know if the trend will continue.

So can this new initiative really turn the lives of artisans around?

It’s hard to say. Some of the other problems artisans face are with access to raw materials, capital, and technology. This doesn’t solve any of that. But if it can at least help market the local crafts better, it might prove quite useful after all. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Until then…

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