Weaving a fine tapestry in CSR

Radhika Sachdev speaks to the company spokesperson for all the right answers on Jaipur Rugs

Established by Nand Kishore Chaudhary (NKC) in 1978 with just two looms, Jaipur Rugs is today, one of the country’s largest manufacturers of hand-knotted rugs, with operations spanning across 20+ branches in six states and 600 Indian villages. Working independently with over 40,000 artisans, the company distributes to over 45 countries

Q. Unlike other companies’ dependant on manual labour, Jaipur Rugs has a sterling record in CSR, especially to do with women weavers. Tell us more about your programmes with the women weaver community.
We have an artisan base of 40,000 where more than 70% are made up of women. Our mission has always been to bring in artisans fully into the value chain, so whatever issues stand in the way of doing that, we try to tackle those head on. All of our artisans go through rigorous skills training for hand-knotting as well as the many finishing processes in the making of handmade rugs. Our training has evolved over the years to be not just skill-based but also knowledge-based. We provide industry education so artisans know what they’re making, who they’re making it for, and where their hard work ends up. By establishing Jaipur Rugs Foundation, we’re able to also provide plenty of support and development to them in other areas as well, such as providing seasonal health camps, financial literacy education, leadership development, and social scheme inclusion relating to Aadhar and Recognition of Prior Learning. Nearly all our artisan base has benefitted from these programmes.

Q. When was your Foundation established? What is your annual spend on its activities?
We established it in 2004. The inspiration was simple enough — in order to bring the artisans closer to the consumer, which has always been my main goal, their day-to-day lives would have to be improved in a myriad of ways. Education, healthcare, social and entrepreneurial development were chosen to turn weavers not just into skilled artisans, but successful business people who can interact with a global client base and become role models for members of their community. Our annual spend for these programs have increased over the years, with the 2017-2018 fiscal year spend at a little over Rs 36,100,000.

Q. A Harvard University study attributes your company’s remarkable business success to a “robust supply chain” – what would you attribute this robustness to?
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort training everyone consistently, all the way from artisans to upper management. I believe in a school of thought called Unlearning, where white collar professionals are asked to set aside their formal education for a moment to learn the ins and outs of our rural supply chain, and more importantly, the communities which are involved. Similarly, artisans are trained on business principles of time management, resource allocation, streamlining processes, and ownership. This has enabled both our artisan network and staff at head and regional offices to always remain on the same page. There’s been a pretty flat chain-of-command so that decisions are made at individual levels and company level, simultaneously. This set-up consists of daily communication between management, head office staff, regional branch managers, local quality supervisors, village quality leaders (Bunkar Sakhis), and individual artisans. The breakthrough in this came in the early 90s with the use of walkie-talkies between staff and artisan leaders. Those walkie-talkies have now been replaced by smart phones.

Q. What is the sphere and geographical range of your activities?
Jaipur Rugs covers 600 villages across the five states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, and Bihar. Over 30,000 artisans are women.

Q. How did you zero in on women workers?
Carpet weaving has always been a job delegated to men But I observed that male artisans were more interested in politics and less focused on work. I decided to shift the business to a women-centric model. I found that women were open to learning new skills and also had enough free time to do so. Thus the idea of “Doorstep Entrepreneurship” took flight. Because the looms would be set up directly in the homes of the artisans or their neighbours and all materials were delivered to their doorstep, the social pressures of staying indoors also got addressed.

Q. You have your base in both the states. Which state treats its women better – Rajasthan or Gujarat?
It’s not a hidden fact that across India, women are often treated differently. Rajasthan and Gujarat are both guilty of this kind of maltreatment but we take a soft approach to shaping their attitudes inside-out. With so many different tribes, each with its own leadership, dialect, and social rules, I had to spend years in the Gujarat Tribal Belt with the locals to earn their trust and bring forth weaving as a viable rural work opportunity for women. Rajasthan and UP have a renowned history of hand-knotting fine carpets, however, Gujarat is catching up.

Q. You export to 40 countries – did compliance with the stricter labour laws there compel you towards introducing reforms in India?
That’s not entirely correct. We’ve always been an artisan-focused company and our structure of Doorstep Entrepreneurship and on-time fair wages haven’t changed since the company’s inception.

Q. Has sustainability become a fad in recent years or are companies really willing to go beyond economics to ensure progress for all stakeholders?
Sustainability started out as a fad, but it’s here to stay. We’ve done a lot to ensure that our products and processes focus on less wastage, responsible craftsmanship, and the sustainability of both raw materials and a dying craft. We have a rug collection made entirely from recycled saris and our Artisan Originals Initiative gives artisans a chance to show off their talents with one-of-a-kind rugs they design and craft using leftover yarn from our other collections.

Q. You had very humble beginnings. Would it be correct to say that this is what may have led to the transformation of Jaipur rugs into a social organisation?
When I first started out with the hand-knotted rug business, society including my own family shunned me for working with people who were seen as a “low-caste” or “untouchables”. Going from nine weavers and two looms, the company has now spread across northern India. Indeed, Jaipur Rugs was always a social organisation, but it’s not until development specialists, such as CK Prahalad gave a name to it, that our company received its due recognition in this space.

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