Desert Storm

Like most people in Rajasthan, Hiralal Maheswari also holds the “lota” up in the air, tilts his head a little and drinks water without putting the utensil in his mouth. The hot, dry wind flowing across the Thar Desert in the middle of the Indian summer makes Hiralal uncomfortable. But he still carried on. He was instructing the group of middlemen in his business of hand embroidery. These middlemen also known as “Thekedars” are usually responsible for smooth running of the business. Hiralal’s business turnover was a little over 32 crores rupee.

He was seven years old when he came with his father to India from Umarkot (Pakistan). His father, Brijlal Maheswari acted as a “guide” for the Indian Forces in the India – Pakistan war in 1971. They along with other Hindu refugees crossed the border and settled in Gadra Road. The small hamlet of Gadra Road in Barmer district of Rajasthan is located almost on the Indo-Pak border. It has a population of nearly 1000 and consists mainly of migrant Hindus. Gadra Road is roughly 92 Kms from district headquarters, Barmer.

After Hiralal’s secondary examination Brijlal egged his eldest son to join the embroidery business he started in 1971. Hiralal joined the business otherwise he had to leave his home for higher studies in either Jodhpur or Jaipur. Hand embroidery became a livelihood provider for the Hindu migrants who otherwise had nothing worthwhile to do except for the three and half months of agriculture which also depended on scanty rainfall. Traditionally confined to their respective households and communities, embroidered products of remote rural Rajasthan found places in the international market.

This hand embroidery cluster has its genesis in the migration of Hindu refugees to Rajasthan, India during the 1971 India-Pakistan War. The amalgamation of the necessity of refugees to eke a living, of foreigners to take advantage of the exotic and ethnic tradition, and the entrepreneurship of the trading community, gave birth to this sector. Today, with an annual turnover of approximately 130-150 cores rupees, it provides livelihood opportunities to roughly 60,000 women in rural western Rajasthan.

The sector is controlled by around 180-200 manufacturing units concentrated around the Barmer district wherein 70-75 percent of the sector’s production takes place at Gadra Road, Dhanau, Binjiasar, Chohtan, and Barmer city are some of the prominent clusters around which the sector is organized. Chohtan, another bordering hamlet is the biggest centre and have 50 percent of the production units concentrated there, followed by Barmer which harbors 23 percent of such units. These manufacturing units are a misnomer in fact, as the entire production of the sector is highly decentralized and takes place in individual households in remote hamlets and villages. In terms of size, micro firms whose annual turnover is less than 10 lakh rupees dominate the production landscape with 53 percent of firms belonging to this category. However they contribute only 8 percent of the volume of the sector. On the other hand 7-10 large firms, which account for only 4 percent of the total firms, capture 51 percent of the market share.

Caste based kinships networks are the most powerful governors of the sub-sector. 70 percent of the manufacturers belong to Maheswari community while 20 percent to the Jain community, both are trading communities according to the traditional caste hierarchy. Thekedars (Agents/ middlemen) are from other communities such as Meghwals, Rajputs, Brahmins, and Baniyas. Woman embroiders especially belonging to a lower caste Meghwals community are the best in this trade.

Hiralal’s younger brother lives in Jaipur and looks after their export division. All handicrafts and embroidery items are sent to the European market especially to Germany. Hiralal still lives in that remote desert hamlet where electricity is only available for 12 -15 hours in a day. He still attends the evening “aarti” in the local Ram temple. He still mixes with the government officials and often sits for a drink after he closes his “embroidery manufacturing unit” after dusk. He still roams in a 4 x 4 jeep among the sandy terrain. He still watches soft pornography films. He still hasn’t prepared himself for a passport. He still gets intoxicated during Holi. He still has his benevolent nature. But he has admitted his two sons and daughter in an English medium school in Jaipur.

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