EPCH Project Officer sheds light on the export potential of Northeast

Priyanka Chakrabarty

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Guwahati: The Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) has several plans to promote handicrafts from the region. Business North East recently caught up with Project Officer Bhaskar Baruah. Despite Northeast's minuscule contribution to the overall Indian export scene, Baruah said efforts are underway to make the sector more "organized."

Excerpts from the interview are below:

Business Northeast: What is the current status of handloom and handcraft exports from the Northeast?

Bhaskar Baruah: At EPCH, our prime mandate is to provide a marketing place for handicrafts at the national and international levels. In the northeast, the number of members is much less, as less as 30.  However, from our side, we organize marketing events. The name of our main exhibition is called the Indian Handicrafts and Gifts Fair (IHGF). It is Asia’s largest exhibition introduced in 1994. This year’s edition will be the 58th edition which will take place in October.

BNE: What are the major handicraft products that are exported from the Northeast?

BB: From the Northeast, the highest potential is for home furnishing products including cushion covers, bed covers, and curtains. The Northeast can benefit from the utilization of traditional craftsmanship to develop new and innovative products. With the skill of the artisans, our role is to guide them in expanding their product range. We encourage them to explore innovative avenues such as home furnishing through the Ministry of Textiles's design development schemes. The Design Development Workshop and Guru Shisya Parampara, focusing on infusing traditional crafts with modern innovation to create marketable products are of great significance. Subsequently, these products are introduced to the global export market. The Ministry of Textiles oversees several similar schemes aimed at supporting artisans in the region.

BNE: Which state in the Northeast is performing best so far as handicrafts are concerned?

BB: Natural dye from Assam has a very high demand in all the exhibitions. These products come from Nagaon, Morigaon. From Nagaland, there is a demand for fashion accessories, and bamboo products like home décor have a huge demand. In Manipur, there is a special grass called Kouna from which fashion accessories such as bags, baskets, etc can be made. We have gained experience in these places having potential.

BNE: What are the challenges the handicraft expo from the Northeast is facing?

BB: In the Northeast, handicrafts primarily serve as a means of subsistence rather than a livelihood. The majority of people in the region own land and tend to prioritize agriculture over handicrafts. Handicrafts are typically reserved for domestic use. Additionally, there is often insufficient working capital available. If a large order is received, significant funds would be needed to purchase the necessary raw materials. Unfortunately, our community lacks the financial resources to meet such demands, despite possessing ample skills.

Again, be it a domestic market or export, the prime requirement will be quality. So, people who are linked to it need quality machinery to do their work. This enriches their production and income. The sector is not organized. Further, there is the issue of e-commerce. But for that, one must have sufficient products to address demands at the backend.  These are certain things. Not to speak on exports but these products have sufficient demand. But to improve all this an organized structure will be required. For example, bamboo products, and products made of water hyacinth had a huge demand during the Covid pandemic as there was a huge demand for Yoga mats.

BNE: Recently we heard that Amazon will tie up with the handicrafts of Tripura. How much it has progressed?

BB: Whenever there is a need for e-commerce, the most important thing is to have sufficient products at the backend. But as far as handicrafts are concerned, utilization of machines is very low - about 10 to 20 percent. There should be less variation. For example, we can see bamboo. There are home décor or kitchenware too made of bamboo. Beer mugs have great demand. When a product is created out of bamboo the raw material must be properly processed. The bamboo must be dry too. Otherwise, it catches fungus. In linked to export, this is an important criterion. It cannot be missed, If some deviation is found the whole order may be cancelled. 

BNE: What are the criteria for a product to be exported?

BB: The first thing, always, is quality. In some products, chemicals are used. In some products burnish might be used. Or knot bolts are there with bamboo. Sometimes knot bolts are used in bamboo. Sometimes packaging is done in plastic. Entirely price factor is affected due to such practices.

BNE: What new schemes are introduced by the government of Assam?

BB: There are export promotion councils (EPC) all over India. They are given direction by concerned ministries to look after the exports and increase them. We do not implement schemes from our side. We support our members and artisans in accessing a variety of marketing support schemes. Furthermore, we organize skill development programs offered by the Ministry of Textiles, tailored specifically for artisans. These efforts are geared towards product development targeted at the international market. It is crucial to officially recognize artisans to enable them to benefit from these schemes. To accomplish this, the Ministry of Textiles issues Artisan ID cards, and we provide assistance to artisans in obtaining these cards to access the benefits of MoT schemes.

BNE: Do you have any foreign collaborations for export?

BB: With EPCH, foreign buyers register themselves in our fairs. They attend our trade fairs.  As all our members are exporters, many times they also have their requirements such as products from the Northeast. We assist them so that they get to market in foreign countries.

BNE: We have heard that many people from greater India come and take products from our region for exporting. With that, they are earning in high volume. But our local people could not avail the same benefits. Can you please throw some light on it?

BB: In the Northeast, those aspiring to join the council must hail from the NE Region. Once their membership is approved, they are granted an RCMC (Registration Cum Membership Certificate). This certificate proves vital when our members handle export orders. While private exportation is possible, it remains unrecorded by our organization. Nonetheless, exporting from the Northeast poses a significant challenge.

BNE: What local collaborations have you had till now?

BB: We operate autonomously but collaborate with member exporters and artisans, offering assistance through various government ministries such as the Ministry of Textiles, the Ministry of Skill Development, and the Ministry of MSME.

BNE: How many expos and fairs have you organized in 2023?

BB: Our primary exhibition is the IHGF Delhi Fair, held twice annually in February and October. Additionally, we organize the Indian Fashion Jewellery and Accessories Fair (IFJAS), exclusively for fashion and jewellery. Regarding international fairs, we coordinate participation in events such as HEIMTEXTIL (Germany), AMBIENTE (Germany), SPRING FAIR (Birmingham, UK), and SOURCING AT MAGIC (Las Vegas, USA). Members can apply for these fairs, and those meeting eligibility criteria can participate in these events.

BNE: What is the volume of exports from the Northeast?

BB: In the fiscal year 2022-23, the total value of India's handicraft exports amounted to Rs 30,019.24 crores. The overall handicraft share for the Northeast is less than 5 percent.

BNE: What are the plans for export promotion?

BB: We have a special initiative and our prime requirement is design. If you can give innovative designs, there will be a demand in the market. We have developed an online portal for exporter members called Design Connect.  We tell them to register themselves. We also ask reputed designers to register themselves. Based on the requirements of the members we align themselves with the designers as per requirement. This was started in December-January and we are processing it.

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Priyanka Chakrabarty