To do business in India you need to understand the importance of zero. At the Indian Handicrafts and Gifts Fair (IH&G) held at a sprawling exhibition center near Delhi there are as many calculators as there are buyers. On three floors and for four days the world comes and looks at India: examining every inch of the hundreds of thousands of items displayed.
The inquisitive attendees are none other than international wholesale buyers of everything made in India, from home furnishings to decorative items and of course, the beautifully hand-painted Kashmir bells which in less than a year, will be hanging for sale in department stores and boutiques around the world. If Christmas is kind with Kashmir, Indian crafts are anything but seasonal. The global demand for Indian handicrafts is a 24/7 enterprise. And like so much in this Asian country, exports are booming. According to figures released by the Government, India’s exports have risen year-on-year to reach USD $300 billion in 2012, much of it from demand in the U.S. and Latin America.
At the IH&G Fair, more than two thousand exhibitors from the 28 states of India hosted the world. Buyers from retailers such as Liberty, Pier 1 Imports and Crate & Barrel shuffled their way down the halls and aisles, often sealing deals with their Indian colleagues over cups of chai. European, African and Central Asian buyers also placed orders on everything from lamp stands to pashmina shawls. Unlike other craft fairs, especially those in South America, the IHG Fair is not a retail event. It’s buyers market, and a strong one at that. A steady rupee and the influx of foreign investment have transformed the Indian economy on such a scale that it is evident inside and outside the India Expo Centre.
Growth for all
As we travel to Greater Noida, construction cranes tower over newly built suburbs, recently finished three-lane highways and smart shopping malls transplanted straight from South Florida. Foreign carmakers Volkswagen and Nissan showcase their latest models just blocks away from a new generation of manufacturing millionaires who proudly show their craftsmanship and creativity to the world.
Yogesh Khanna doesn’t consider himself “a rich man” despite the fact that last year, his family-run business posted a net profit of USD $8 million by exporting beautifully crafted paper boxes around the world. “I am a wealthy man because I can give employment to 800 workers,” says this entrepreneur. “Wealth is a relative thing. If you have a family and can give opportunities to those who are less fortunate, then you can consider yourself rich,” he says, as I fumble through cotton covered notebooks and diaries.
Khanna’s philosophy on wealth seems to echo India’s export leaders. In a country with a 9 percent annual growth rate, a strong currency, and a global market increasingly weary of the mass-manufacturing syndrome of Chinese-made goods, the focus now is sharing some of the prosperity. “We don’t try to make every artisan an exporter,” says Rakesh Kumar, Executive Director of the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts. “Our goal is that there is job security and social welfare for the most vulnerable.”
Being socially responsible in a country of 1.2 billion is a monumental task and the Government of India knows this. Therefore, it carefully monitors its exports, the welfare of its artisans and “cottage industries” – clusters made up of millions of local artisans who work together and compete for a share of the domestic and international market. “They are artisans who work with the raw materials available in their towns and villages. They make up the rich cultural heritage that is India,” says Kumar.
One billion entrepreneurs
India’s economic miracle didn’t happen overnight. During the last three decades, the country has experienced steady growth, and the debt crisis of 1980s seems as ancient history as the temples looming over the tracks of Delhi’s spotlessly clean and modern metro. Exports have played a key role in the nation’s modernization, which has seen more than 200 million people rise out of poverty in the last decade. “Everyone is a business person,” says Nikita Bhandari, who along with her mother and father runs Aashapura, a textile company based in Jaipur.
As exhibitors at the IH&G Fair, the Bhandari base their success on the fact that Indians value that which is made at home. Unlike China, 90 percent of all Indian handicrafts are handmade. “We have to believe in ourselves,” she says, surrounded by walls of folded block printed cotton tablecloths, which take months to create. “Why should we buy elsewhere, when we have the finest cotton?” Like many family-run businesses in Jaipur, the Bhandaris every year make the trip to this trade fair to open up new markets and show their beautiful designs to international buyers.
In a country of rapidly expanding opportunities in technology and communications, design is instrumental to why Indian crafts are so desired. “We are selling art,” says Raj Kumar Malhotra, a member of the Board of Trade of India’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, on the growing access informal artisans now have to computers. Design programs such as AutoCad and a culture so rich in colour and patterns have opened up a universe of creativity for textile manufacturers. Malhorta also believes that regional diversity has been good for Indian design. “With 18 official languages and 300 dialects, this country is still one. We each pray to a different god, but they are all working.”
If the gods are hard at work it is because of a “no one left behind” consciousness. Prosperity in this country has set in motion an optimism that is reflected across a vast territory, on all levels of society – from the small family-run mills in Agra to the manufacturing hubs of Mumbai. Movement, which once was relegated to the millions riding India’s trains, is now a mindset.
India’s great resource is its people. Hard working, always hospitable and proud of their culture, they forge ahead, for this is a country that has managed to successfully connect the craftsman to the cyber world, the village merchant with the global market. As another Indian Handicrafts and Gifts Fair looms on the horizon, there will be more innovation and investment in exports, but three words ultimately make the difference of what’s in demand, because ‘Made in India’ means so much to so many.