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Sustainable Development: Why Culture Matters

The banglanatak dot com Case

by Dr Madhura Dutta

The goals and the approaches of social development have evolved over time, learning from global as well as local successes and failures in programmes, policies and partnerships. The current framework that our organisation, banglanatak dot com (BNC), works with is the Sustainable Development Goals, with a roadmap for ending poverty, protecting the planet and improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. The focus is increasingly on well-being, sustainable economies and inclusive growth.

Well being for rural communities

Working on culture and development, and specifically on grassroots entrepreneurship, has given us several insights into how local economies can be strengthened for inclusive growth, fundamental to which has been the factor of ‘well-being’. India has traditionally had the human and cultural capital to create resilient communities, the power of which was understood by visionary social reformers like Gandhi, Tagore, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, long before such approaches became mainstream. They saw the mindless industrialization and imitation of the West as a problem and threat to the core values and fabric of our societies. At BNC, when we had started working in rural India in 2000, we quickly realized that local cultural assets can be harnessed for economic, social, and environmental well being. Subsequent experimentation and piloting of “culture and development” models for almost a decade led to the “Art for Life” programme, whose goal was to significantly contribute to culture-based rural entrepreneurship, and economic and social empowerment of previously marginalized communities.

We felt fulfilled with our work and built relationships with people we worked with, shared their happiness and challenges, and got immersed in our collective efforts and journeys. Simultaneously we also tried to adopt the language, concepts and frameworks proposed by global thought leaders, and learn from their analysis of what is working and what is not.

The global context and our approach in India

The most recent and universal framework is the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which were adopted by all UN member states in 2015. In 2019, the UN took stock of the progress of these actions and published a report which states:

“…Despite the initial efforts, the world is not on track for achieving most of the 169 targets that comprise the Goals. The limited success in progress towards the Goals raises strong concerns and sounds the alarm for the international community. Much more needs to happen – and quickly – to bring about the transformative changes that are required: impeding policies should urgently be reversed or modified, and recent advances that holistically promote the Goals should be scaled up in an accelerated fashion.”

By the 1980s, UNESCO had already identified culture as a driver of sustainable development, and noted that that “culture impacts people’s behaviour, their contribution to the process of economic and social development, and their well being.” OECD’s 2005 publication, “Culture and Local Development” talks about opportunities of the culture sector in the areas of “cultural tourism, cultural districts and cultural neighbourhoods” that can improve quality of life.

India faces major challenges in providing youth employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, the rural unemployment rate had steadily grown from a low of around 3% in 2017 to as much as 7% in March 2020, even before the Covid-19 lockdown. Culture-based approaches to development provide a promising way forward, especially in rural areas rich in traditional cultural skills.

Our search for a solution

The Art For Life (AFL) programme in rural Bengal, even though at a very small scale, has significantly contributed to decent work, poverty alleviation, and productive employment  for practitioners of traditional art and craft forms, substantially reducing desperate out-migration to cities. When we first developed this model in 2004, it focused on building upon already existing culture-based cottage/family led informal industries in villages; age-old income generating activities which had been disintegrating due to globalization and increasing urbanization. Our objectives then were to create sustainable livelihoods through capacity building, collectivization, facilitating access to economic and welfare resources, developing and contemporising cultural products to suit global markets, and establishing direct linkages to buyers. What we learned in the process is that this revival and professionalization of local cultural forms improved not only the rural practitioners’ income and livelihood, but also their collective well-being. These many impacts surprised us, and taught us about the strength of people’s action to bring about positive transformations in their societies.

How we built on our learning

As part of our journey, we started documenting and analysing the processes across various geographies, cultures and art forms of West Bengal. Although the fundamental model remained the same, the local strategies changed and evolved based on what type of art or craft form we were working with and how these were linked to the lifestyle of the community. The factors linked to cultural form included the production processes, community rituals and the customs associated with them, gender implications, and whether those art forms depended on individual or collaborative work. At the societal level, there were factors such as caste systems, social inequalities, internal community conflicts, and political apathy. Despite these, the salient issues were similar – marginalization, poverty, lack of education, poor health and hygiene practices and facilities, and a sense of alienation with low morale, self-respect and dignity of life.

Fundamental changes

AFL did lead to some fundamental changes that happened despite differences in the societal, institutional and business structures. These were meaningful employment, dignity of work, and creation of a collective community identity based on their traditional cultural forms, and a sense of pride in their own unique skills, previously lost. To create opportunities for exposure, awareness, creativity and branding, the programme integrated international collaborations and community-owned and led village festivals, What evolved as an off-shoot was cultural tourism. the villages started becoming tourism destinations, in turn strengthening local economies and village vitality. ‘Village to city’ became ‘city to village’. The positivity in collective collaboration was reflected in overall village-level development: women’s mobility and decision-making power improved, children started going to school and education became important, sanitation and infrastructure improved through community-led action in partnership with local government.

Case studies

Of course, not all villages achieved the same level of success and growth was not homogeneous.  However, there are several case studies worth mentioning.

One is the Patachitra village of Naya (West Midnapore) which has been reborn into a vibrant hub of scroll painters and is a regular tourist destination. Swarna Chitrakar, the woman leader and star of the village, has been instrumental in putting this village on the international tourist map. Today there are tourists every day in the village, and over 200 artists travel the world to not only exhibit but also train students in various universities, collaborate with artists visiting them, and engage in art residencies.

Charida in Purulia, the village of mask makers for Chhau dance, was essentially a sub-industry for this tribal dance form. No one thought of them as skilled artisans. The village mostly developed organically after our initial AFL interventions, and today it is a known hub of mask makers. All the porches of these artisans’ houses are workshops where they also sell. The entire village street looks stunning with these brightly coloured masks outside every workshop with benches for anyone to sit and watch the artisans work.

In the kantha work cluster in Nanoor (Birbhum), Muslim women embroiderers, once confined to their homes with no possibility of economic independence, have today become small entrepreneurs. About 100 women entrepreneurs provide work to about 600 women in the villages. You can visit their homes, see how they work, interact with them and also purchase products, which can even be done  through WhatsApp. The changemaker of this village is Tajkira, a woman social entrepreneur whose inspiration and confidence led to collective good and development.

 A fifteen year summary

Over a period of fifteen years, AFL has been able to bring about 25,000 artists across 30 art forms under its fold, catalysing the development of Rural Cultural Hubs and revitalizing art, artistes and villages. Today, these artists have about three to five times increase in their income, a level playing field for productive employment irrespective of gender, and community cohesion providing a sense of security to the village people. It tells us about going back to the future through dynamic, sustainable and innovative people-centred economies.

Dr. Madhura Dutta is currently a Program Specialist for ‘Culture and Development’ at banglanatak dot com. She has over 18 years of global work experience including at banglanatak dot com, UNESCO, All India Artisans & Craftworkers Association and CSRs.

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