Will corona lockdown be the endgame for 'local' Assamese jewellery?

Will corona lockdown be the endgame for 'local' Assamese jewellery?

Assamese jewelry. Photo: Wikimedia Assamese jewelry. Photo: Wikimedia

On the same day when PM Narendra Modi announced the Rs 20 lakh crore stimulus and gave the clarion call to go 'local', Bikash Karmakar sat idle in distress. In Howly, a small town under Barpeta district, Bikash Karmakar is one of the many sole proprietors of Assamese jewellery who are dealing with the corona induced economic crisis. Barpeta is rich in the manufacturing of Assamese Traditional Ornaments (ATOs) and it is estimated that there are about 35 manufacturing units.

Lockdown blues

In set ups like Howly, usually the small craftsmen are not the sellers. Production is fragmented into families and small households. At times they hire a middleman to facilitate sale to cities like Jorhat and Guwahati.

With the lockdown, market activities have virtually halted for Assamese jewellery. "We have people that supply our products to the cities and now it has all stopped". Karmakar also has a shop where he sells his produce locally and has employed people from his own family. On being asked about how he is able to pay the employees, he replied, "I can't even sustain myself. Unlike the labourers, we don't have a card to get free ration".

In the Barpeta district, the trade is divided into pockets. Barpeta town has the bigger players that focus on necklaces whereas Howly has small pockets that make the famous Gam Kharu, a bracelet that is worn by girls during Bihu. Apart from sales, procuring raw materials has proved to be difficult for ATO cultivators owing to the halt of transportation. Proprietors like Bikash face another challenge: "We do our own production and we have no money. So, we can't afford to buy raw materials. Everything is closed."

Then and now

The manufacture of gold ornaments, as well as gold-washing, flourished in medieval Assam during the reign of the Ahom dynasty. Gold dust was abundantly found in the sands of different rivers of the state. It was a major profession of the Sonowal Kacharis, an indigenous tribe of the region. As such, Jorhat, Nagaon, Barpeta Districts of Assam are the main manufacturers of ATOs.

The above excerpt is from a research paper published by Deepa Karmakar, a teacher from Barnagar College, Sarbhog, where she talks about the traditions and history of Assamese jewelry.

The same writer now reflects on the altered scenario. Speaking to Inside Northeast, she said, "Artisans near my area have started selling vegetables. People have shifted to other businesses like selling biscuits". She remarks that the core of the trade has been dismantled and been moved from labour and production to sales. "The process involves orders received from cities like Guwahati and Jorhat, and buying raw materials from Guwahati, following which the final product is then sold to the big towns, even Delhi, through dealers. None of the processes at present seem to be functional".

Moving from Lower to Middle Assam

Ranthali is a small village of Nagaon district which is about 8 km away from the main town. It is one of the important centres of Assam where different types of colorful Assamese jewellery are made. From the 2001 census, it was concluded that almost 90 percent of the total families are engaged in the Assamese jewellery business. Most of the producers are themselves sellers and retailers, as opposed to Howly. Some are small owners who work in tandem with the bigger units. From the historical point of view, this gold was locally available flowing down with the Subansiri river. The word Subansiri is a portmanteau word: 'subarna' and 'siri', meaning gold and flow respectively. This is the only source of occupation they have.

To make matters worse, the lockdown announced by the government came at the time of the peak season. It coincided with the Bihu and affected sales of almost every formal and informal sector of the region. Another dimension that Utpal said, "due to the lockdown, many marriages have been canceled. This has impacted whatever trade that has been left". He has still managed to open two of his shops in upper Assam but his production has completely stopped. "We are using whatever stock we already prepared in February and rest 99% other activities have been stopped". On being asked whether there is any scope of monetary help, he replied, "I am waiting for the vaccine".

Coming back to the city

Explaining the supply process, cities like Guwahati provide the market and wholesale places such as Lakhtokia sell raw gold to small craftsmen for their products. Guwahati has been hit by the coronavirus and has led to the closure of businesses even after the relaxation of lockdown was announced. In Guwahati, retail players have all been hit. "There are still customers coming due to wedding commitments but we are hit, it is obvious", says Annanya Bhuyan, who is from the famous Zangfai outlet involved in ATOs market.

The ATOs have several structural problems that have stalled their growth as they failed to make a dent in the Indian market. "There's a lack of marketing and we need to do more to portray its appeal in show business", said Bhuyan. On being asked whether PM announcements for MSMEs bring hope for the entrepreneurs, she said "this sector is unorganised and we still don't have a GI tag. How those efforts trickle down is yet to be seen".

Going forward: Assamese Jewellery

Amid the lockdown, Assam's economy has taken a backseat. The tea sector is facing a loss of 500-cr and the silk sector too is suffering losses. To generalise, fewer sales amid the lockdown have affected their business. This is only partly true. Upon closer inspection some grey areas emerge. The indigenous sectors have been ailing for a long time due to structural issues, lack of better markets and lack of innovation. At a time when we are heading towards 'atma-nirbharta' self-reliance, the survival of local industries should not be seen from the myopic eye of only monetary stimulus. With IoT (internet of things) and a generation chasing aesthetics, Assamese jewellery too can make a mark in the digital space.

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Edited By: Admin
Published On: May 15, 2020