The PM Vishwakarma scheme approved by the Cabinet on Wednesday to help traditional craftspeople and artisans can provide an economic boost to these professionals. Announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his Independence Day speech, the scheme, with an outlay of ₹13,000 crore, provides loans of up to a total of ₹3 lakh (in two tranches) at a concessional interest rate of 5%. It covers individuals from 18 trades such as cobblers, toy makers, laundrymen, barbers, masons and coir weavers. The government expects about five lakh families to be covered in the first year and 30 lakh families to benefit from the scheme over five years. But the scheme can help craftspeople and artisans only to the extent of freeing them from the difficulties they now face in accessing affordable credit from the formal banking system. However, the support extended to these struggling artisanal communities could come with its own risks in the way of unintended consequences. The challenges they face are far deeper than just the availability of cheap credit. By far the biggest of these that traditional art and craft professionals face is either the lack of patronage for their goods and services in the wider marketplace, or in the case of other trades, a skewed undervaluation of their economic output.
Crucially, the lack of access to formal credit may simply be a symptom rather than the cause of the underlying problem these communities face. No government scheme can help these communities in the long run unless it helps them overcome the fundamental problem of a lack of economic viability for their output. More seriously, if the scheme fails to open up new markets and simply extends loans to these communities in the name of promoting their welfare, it runs the risk of leaving not only the intended beneficiaries but also their families deeper in debt. Also, by laying stress on the intergenerational nature of knowledge dissemination in these communities, the scheme could end up leaving the next generation willy-nilly stuck for perpetuity in these traditional low-paying trades, many of which are practised in a caste straitjacket. The Vishwakarma scheme includes skilling programmes that offer a nominal stipend as well as financial help to purchase modern tools. Ultimately, the success of this well-intentioned scheme will hinge on its implementation, an area where the government would do well to rope in professionals with the know-how and entrepreneurial flair to help the craftspeople and artisans upgrade their offerings to cater to new markets and tap fresh opportunities.