​Ecommerce enables impoverished Indian artisans to become rupee millionaires

From conflict zones to victims of human trafficking and master craftspeople exploited by middlemen, ecommerce in India is bringing livelihoods to artisans across the country.

"Earlier I used to work for 15,000 rupees ($250) per month as karigar (craftsman) of leather jacket. Now I earn 15 lakh rupees ($22,000) a month by selling jackets to markets like the US, UK and Canada."

These are the almost unbelievable words and numbers offered by Nadeem Sayed, 28, a resident of Dharavi, India's (and Mumbai's) largest slum located smack dab in the heart of the city of some 25 million. Dharavi's houses have no running water, no sanitation, and no electricity. Rivers of sewage sometimes run through the streets, especially during the monsoons. Children wander about collecting scrap metal for a living, as recounted beautifully in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Boo's remarkable book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Yet, Dharavi is also a powerful engine of economic activity, housing thousands of artisans, craftspeople, entrepreneurs, and mini-factories whose products populate the living rooms of the more affluent in India and abroad. Reuters estimates this at 15,000 small scale industries spread over 500 acres.

The problem confronting people like Sayed is the all-pervasive menace that stymies prosperity and growth amongst the lower classes and castes in India -- the rapacious middleman. And if they weren't bad enough, there are other existential threats such as cheaper Chinese goods, rising raw material costs, and labour shortages. Now, however, thanks to ecommerce, Sayed and his ilk can finally earn what they deserve, accruing the kind of fortunes in the space of a just a year that his family wouldn't have been able to engineer in several lifetimes.

Thanks to people like Megha Gupta, an urban researcher who marshalled entrepreneurs in this vast, thriving slum together under the storefront Dharavimarket.com (powered by Snapdeal, India's third-largest ecommerce site), artisans there can see a future beyond immediate survival. In fact, in the last few years, all of the internet ecommerce biggies in India -- from Amazon, to Flipkart to Snapdeal -- have assiduously tied up with Indian artisans, providing them a marketplace for their goods as well as the knowhow and instructional sessions to create websites and backends that facilitate their sales. This process is the beginning of a major change in India that could finally allow people to fashion their own destinies rather than having them shaped for them.

Many of these craftsfolk come from troubled regions in the throes of violence and civil unrest. Bastar, in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, offers up some of the most exquisite tribal art the world has seen. Sadly, the region is racked by a debilitating conflict with roots in resource extraction, violence, underdevelopment, and governmental apathy and corruption, with women and children being the primary targets. Consequently, finding a market for Bastar's fabulous art and getting a fair price for its artists and artisans has been a gargantuan problem.

Kashmir is another violence-racked region whose artists and craftspeople suffered not only through decades of violence but also because of predatory middlemen. As the Hindustan Times reports, Shahnawaz Jan carried on his father's craft of paper mache but planned to quit because of an inability to make ends meet. Through ecommerce sales, he now receives a monthly income that not only allows him to more than keep afloat but also accords him something that is still elusive for many Indian artists -- the dignity that a stable, regular, and fair wage brings with it.

Shawl maker Mohammad is another Kashmiri who has been able to thrive by selling things like Kashmiri shawls online and side-stepping middlemen. "Initially, we would get 10 orders in a month and with the passage of time it has increased to 300 per month," says Mohammad in the Hindustan Times. He has apparently sold 50 lakh rupees ($ 80,000) worth of products in the last five years, ever since he allied himself with ecommerce site Kashmir Box, and has even taken on 10 more artisans to meet burgeoning demand for his products which he now sells exclusively through the website.

Some people are beginning to leverage the intersection of arts and crafts and ecommerce in the face of overarching humanitarian tragedies. To The Market sells things made by people who are survivors of human trafficking amongst other forms of abuse and enables people to shop by cause or country according to the Epoch Times. Founded by Jane Mosbacher Morris, who dreamed it up while travelling through Kolkata, India with a few human rights organisations on a work trip in 2013, the organization is "an Etsy-like platform" that allows cooperatives in this field to tie up with craftspeople who are former victims and manage their backend such as photography of products, packaging, and shipping, while also advising them on their business.

crafts-paper-mache-kashmir.jpg

Kahmir's famed paper mache

In a world where markets aren't truly free (remember the sub-prime fiasco anyone?), labour is often bonded, and the human tendency to profit off other people's miseries is an omnipresent reality, ecommerce is proving to be one of the few genuine and trustworthy paths towards empowerment.

Of course, there is a buzzword around artisans and ecommerce in India and you may find that many sites touted in a magazine article a year ago are barely functioning today. Others may not be experiencing the kind of infrastructure support that was originally promised to them. But in a country like India with a huge population of artisans who have no one else to turn to, the ecommerce revolution that is taking place in this arena can prove to be literally life-saving.

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