Tibetans have turned their ancient folk art into Nepal’s top-ranking export.
One day in early 1960, when the Tibetan exiles were newcomers in Kathmandu, Jesuit priest Marshall D. Moran (now a sprightly 84) noticed a “shabby refugee” in the Jawalakhel locality clutching a bundle of wooded rods. Upon inquiring, Moran learnt that the wooden rods when assembled became a portable loom to weave rugs.
‘The refugees were illiterate, in rags. And needed help. I knew that rugs would come to their help,” says Moran. who was founding-member of the then nascent Nepal International Tibetan Refugee Relief Committee, and well they did. “Within three years, the refugees had forsaken the dark and dirty tents of the Jawalakhel refugee settlement, had wrist watches and were living in rented rooms.”
What the Relief Committee did was get the man with the loom to train ten others, who then trained ten others, Soon, with the support of international agencies, carpet-making spread to all five Tibetan settlements in Nepal, from Dhorpatan in the mid-west to Solu in the east. The carpet industry was actually born in these refugee camps, gaining an international cachet due to the Tibetan connection.
Today, the carpet industry can be regarded as the refugees’ boon to Nepal. Remarkably, what was first a handicrafts enterprise begun by distraught refugees has grown to become a full-fledged commercial success that ranks first among the country’s export commodities. The venture is also one of the best examples of aid-giving and aid-taking: the agencies that helped to get it on its feet then left it in the hands of the recipients who went on to build it beyond all expectations. As a national income-earner, the carpet industry has today edged ahead of even tourism and is second only to foreign aid.
By 1976. Nepal had exported nearly 50,000 sq m of carpets. In 1990, exports had grown more than 20-fold to 1.2 sq m of rugs, drawing in a total earning of U$70 million. For comparison, the tourism industry brought in a little more than U$68 million in 1989 and garment exports are about U$30 million annually. The carpet producers are confident that they will top L5 million sq m in exports this year. The other benefit of the carpet industry is its enormous value as an employment generator. Manufacturers say that their industry employs, directly or indirectly, about 300,000 workers, counting weavers, washers, transporters and so forth, but there is no way to confirm this figure.
WHIFF OF TIBET
The early rugs that emerged from the settlements were brightly coloured, according to tradition, with Tibetan and Chinese motifs such as the phoenix, snow lion, and dragon. They did not have borders and came in the standard six feet by three feet size or smaller.
The first rugs had reached the Swiss market by 1962; in the next fifteen years, Nepal’s burgeoning tourism industry helped to push the rug trade to greater heights. In a market that was trying to peddle knick-knacks to tourists, the Tibetan carpet became an instant hit. The rugs were attractive and they also had a whiff of the then-forbidden Tibet, and not just because they use raw Tibetan sheep wool.
As the international demand for Nepal-made rugs increased, many non-Tibetan entrepreneurs also entered the carpet business. Carpets also began to be woven increasingly not by Tibetans but by poor hillmen from the Nepali hinterland, notably Tamangs.
Today, more than 70 per cent of Nepal’s production is said to be owned by Tibetans. While most factories are privately-owned, a major producer, Carpet Trading Center, set up in 1966 to market the rugs produced in the Tibetan settlements, continues to use profits for those camps.
The industry has had its set-backs. For example, in 1977-78, the market fell into a slump, attributed to over-production and buyer fatigue with the same old snow lions and dragons. Rug-makers came to realise there was a larger market in Europe, particularly in West Germany and Switzerland, if they went beyond the traditional designs. Kathmandu producers gradually shifted from “ethnic” Tibetan carpets to producing rugs that could become a household item in Western homes. These so-called “Tibeto-Nepali carpets,” characterised by designs that had more open spaces and softer or more “natural” hues seem to have hit the mark.
Such bullish claims may be excused in the wake of unprecedented exports. Twice a week, a Soviet Illushin cargo jet with carpets lumbers off the runaway at Kathmandu’s airport. Chartered by Lufthansa, each flight is laden with 25-30 tons of Tibeto-Nepali carpets bound for European markets. Even with this flight, there is at least a 200 ton backlog at the airport apron awaiting shipment. “We need many more flights to satisfy this demand. It takes months to make a delivery,” says a producer.
One analyst who has studied the market says that while Nepal is already a major supplier of rugs to the world market, competing with established exporter countries like Morocco, it can win an even larger market share. Ironically, it is the very coarse (some would say “poor”) quality of Nepal’s rugs that guarantees the market. The crooked lines that give the Kathmandu export its “hand-crafted” look is said to be its appeal. The use of Tibetan sheep wool in a fifty-fifty blend with New Zealand wool gives Nepali carpets, in the words of carpet salesmen, “springiness, longevity and shine.” This same blend or “feel” is not available to other producers, either in India (they cannot get the Tibetan wool) or in Tibet (they don’t use New Zealand wool). Also Nepali producers have been able to adapt quickly to changing customer tastes and to deliver on commitments.
Despite impressive exports, the rug business has its problems. They range the whole gamut of issues from child labour and working conditions to the lack of quality control and increasing competition.
A major drawback is the lack of training facilities, not only to prepare weavers but also managers, designers and quality controllers. Despite the size of the industry, all training takes place on-the-job.
Carpet weavers are paid according to sq m of rug produced. Depending on the number of knots and the pattern, a sq m cart take up to four days to produce. Prior to their agitation of June 1990, their wages ranged from NRs200 to NRs250 per sq m. Negotiations, following the strikes, resulted in the increased rate of NRs350 per sq m. Those who work in the not-for-profit Carpet Trading Centre receive better wages of up to NRs400 per sq m, with a 15 per cent bonus for good work done, according to manager Thinley Paljor.
The cost of producing a carpet today is NRs1,615 per sq m (approximately U$54 at NRs30 per US dollar) according to the Central Carpet Industry Association in Kathmandu. The Government has fixed an export floor price of U$72 per sq. m. for washed and U$67 for unwashed rugs. Because of falling wool prices, many producers say that the government’s floor price is too high, which leaves room for undercutting by producers in India.
For an industry as vital as Nepal’s carpet industry, there is as yet no authority to ensure quality and minimum standards of production. Wholesale buyers have been put off because some manufacturers are using blends of 70 per cent New Zealand wool and only 30 per cent Tibetan wool. This is due to the cheaper New Zealand wool and also because, of declining consignment and quality of wool from Tibet. A few years ago, some producers even resorted to using wool trimmed from finished rugs, which only earned buyers’ distrust and a temporary lull in the market.
Until recently, the carpets were “washed”, that is, chemically treated by the importing agencies, mostly in West Germany. At present, however, with the installation of a washing plant about 70 per cent of rugs arc exported in “finished” form. This development and the direct cargo connection to Frankfurt have drawn retailers directly to Nepal.
But the washing process is hazardous to the workers as it involves handling acids and alkalis, mostly without adequate safeguards, and most washing plants pass the dangerous and untreated effluents into the nearest sewer or ditch. The environmental impact of washing may be significant; however, no studies have been done on this subject.
Another health-related problem not adequately addressed is the respiratory problems that arc caused by loose fibre in the air in the carpet factories. This particularly affects the women who card, spin and weave.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN
The glossy travel magazines tend to romanticise carpet-weaving as a cheerful vocation. Actually, many of today’s carpet factory workers are refugees of another kind. They are economic refugees fleeing Nepal’s rural poverty. Most of the non-Tibetan weavers are from such highland tribes as Tamangs, Gurungs and Rais. Lately, Brahmins, Chhetris and, interestingly, Dhimals from the Tarai, too, have begun drifting in in search of employment.
Most of the workers are women. A recent study by “Freedeal”, a legal support and research group in Kathmandu indicated that 19 per cent of carpet workers are children under 14; 33 per cent are minors between ages 14 and 16; 30 per cent are women; and only 18 per cent are adult males.
Women and the bigger children work the looms while infants and smaller children play nearby. The factories are mostly cramped and ill-ventilated. Workers are brought in by contractors and paid by them. Because wages are based on individual output, weavers tend to work up to 12 hours a day.
Young village girls can fall easy prey to unscrupulous middlemen, says Prabha Thacker, who has just completed a study of female workers in 44 carpet units in Kathmandu. She is critical about the working conditions of the women she studied and expresses special concern for the fate of young women workers.
The carpet producers are said to prefer children over adults because their deft hands make them ideal weavers. According to a study on children employed in carpet factories, by the group Child Workers in Nepal, 35 out of a sample of 37 youngsters worked an average of 14 hours a day. Also, half the children were paid through relatives or middlemen who kept some of the money for themselves.
Gauri Pradhan, Director of Child Workers in Nepal, says his group is contemplating various ways to tackle the problem such as putting lables, and asking buyers to purchase only rugs that have labels certifying that child workers were not used for production.
Sunder Bhawani of Dolpa Carpet Industries feels that the issue of child labour has been blown out of proportion in Nepal due to “marketing politics”. He says “Indian producers, targeted by children’s rights groups, can no longer employ children with ease. So they are now trying to sabotage the Nepali market by raking up the issue.”
LOOKING AT INDIA
Nepali carpet producers have other worries when they look south of the border. Says Binod Gyawali of Namaste Carpets, “The made-in-Nepal label has been helping us sell all along, but how long can goodwill alone keep us ahead?”
Nepali exporters point out that the Indian Government provides cash incentives of between 18 and 21 percent in export earnings. They say Tibetan carpet producers in Dalhousie, Ludhiana, Gangtok, Benaras and Dharamsala are in an increasingly advantageous position than Nepali producers.
At present, the facilities given to Nepal include import facilities under the open general license scheme, the lifting of customs duties on material imports and exemption from income tax on export earnings.
The Tibetan refugees gave Nepal a whole new industry, but are today’s carpets Tibetan? The Tibetan motifs of the 1960s have been replaced by patterns that are more likely to be geometric abstracts or fancy creations of design studios in Frankfurt or Munich sent over by telefax machines to producers in Nepal.
These carpets are not Tibetan or Nepali — nor even Tibeto-Nepali. Their design may be European; their content a mixture of Tibetan and New Zealand wool. The craftsmanship is from a labour pool from the Nepali hills and plains and the Tibetan diaspora and their management Tibetan and Nepali. Carpet-making, in the end, has spawned a dynamic Nepali industry that has staked an enviable niche in the modern marketplace.
Bhattarai is a reporter for Kathmandu’s The Rising Nepal daily.