Banaras's ancient weaving trade has been precariously poised and on the brink of collapse for nearly two decades. Stories of master weavers who once wove magic with zari and silk to produce shimmering saris with elaborate motifs, now being forced to pull auto rickshaws or work at construction sites have sporadically made news.
But there is now a glimmer of hope. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's pitch last week to weavers, asking them to utilize e-commerce to sell their goods could prove to be a game changer for this faltering trade. By providing them access to global demand, market intelligence, data analytics and new marketing tactics, e-commerce has the power to radically alter the traditional construct in which these craftsmen function. Their fate has currently been crippled by exploitative middlemen who have made the trade unremunerative as well as non-transparent. Restricted market access to the connoisseurs of the real Banarasi weave as well as the growing popularity of cheap imitation silk from China are also known to have affected demand, driving prices down.
Successive governments have paid lip service to the weavers' cause, from promising subsidies and direct purchases of their products to waiving off electricity bills and assuring technology support. None have cut ice, and the weavers' downward spiral has only accelerated over time.
Much of this can change, if an effective digital marketplace is brought into play, to synchronize the supply chain believes Kunal Bahl, Co-founder & CEO of Snapdeal.com. The Prime Minister said 20 crore brides will need 20 crore saris. Not all of them can go to Banaras to buy one. They can however log on to an e-tailing website to source what they need if the city's master weavers are provided with an online platform to sell.
Bahl's company claims to have enabled over 1000 SMEs and entrepreneurs to hit the Rs 1 crore in annualized sales mark as a result of its technological, branding and distribution prowess. He says that with support from the government, Snapdeal should be able to further its reach to include all indigenous craftsmen and artisans including those from Banaras on his portal.
"The digital marketplace model has proved to be a significant socio economic and geographic equalizer for small businesses in India. They are now able to reach a much larger customer base using a fraction of the capital they would require for traditional offline store expansion. This, clubbed with the low cost of sales and distribution, contributes to higher profits and is creating life-changing experiences for them" Bahl told Business Standard in an email interview.
Meanwhile Snapdeal's rival Flipkart is already a step ahead in the game. The company has recently developed a public private partnership platform, inking an MOU with the Textiles Ministry to educate the local weavers of Varanasi on how online marketplaces can enable them to boost and expand their business. This is part of its “Flipkart Kaarigar ke Dwaar” initiative launched this September.
"Within a short span of time, we have 19 sellers from Varanasi who have engaged with us" says Ankit Nagori, Flipkart's Senior Vice President - Marketplace, about the pilot program that is currently underway. The company has multiple engagement initiatives with NGOs and local industries planned in the near future. Flipkart is also reported to have brought students from NIFT to design the weaves and introduce innovation in product and packaging, precisely the kind of intervention experts have advocated.
Needless to say that for any meaningful change to occur, things will have to move far beyond pilots. The jury is still out on how successful e-commerce intervention can be in altering mindsets and tackling the socio-political dynamics of this trade. Can a long established order of manufacturers, brick & mortar traders & middlemen who have all historically held a stake in running this business be easily done away with, without a backlash? Also without state support on improvement of peripheral infrastructure such as regular power availability or machinery up-gradation, can the benefits of a digital platform be fully realized?
There are many unanswered questions, but little doubt that if the weavers of Banaras are to be brought out of the doldrums, they will need to embrace this new technology sooner rather than later.