Srinagar’s UNESCO tag: A catalyst to revive the craft industry

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Cities have been and remain more than ever at the forefront of human development. The significance cities’ accord to human progress across the economic, social, cultural, and environmental sectors is crucial and is imperative to be understood in the context of sustainability, climate responsiveness, and more recently, contagions.

With the cultural aspect of cities as objective, UNESCO launched its flagship program of UNESCO Cultural Cities Network (UCCN) back in 2004 to strengthen and encourage production, distribution, and coordination of cultural activities within cities, with a special emphasis on existing stakeholders and ways to nurture partnerships across players and reinforce regional and international cooperation. 

Furthermore, the program aligns with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 of sustainable cities and communities to make cities ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’

The official UCCN portal puts the objective of the network cities as “placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international levels”. The program covers seven creative areas: Crafts and Folk Arts, Media Arts, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music, and Design.

On 8 November 2021, Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, was designated by the UNESCO Director-General among the 49 new cities to be part of the coveted list. The total UCCN network now spans 90 nations covering a total of 295 cities. From India, the cities of Chennai, Varanasi, Jaipur, Mumbai, and Hyderabad have already made to the list before.

The enlisting of Srinagar was the culmination of a strenuous effort by the concerned departments to project the city in the position it duly deserves; given the artistic excellence and high skilled artisans. 

The application dossier highlighting the industry was submitted by Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) with active support from allied government departments and civil society groups, especially INTACH Kashmir chapter (which prepared the dossier) and World Bank-funded Jhelum Tawi Flood Recovery Project (JTFRP). 

Dr. Abid Rasheed Shah, CEO of JTFRP, termed the accolade as a “pride moment for us all”.

UCCN calls for applications every two years from interested cities from UNESCO member states and associate members. A maximum of two applications of different fields are entertained per member. India nominated Srinagar and Gwalior this year. Srinagar emerged as a lone entrant to the elite list after external evaluation by international independent experts and member cities. 

The main benefits expected from enlisting are ‘sharing’ and ‘branding’. Being a member helps the city gain wider knowledge and builds up a distinctive brand identity. The assimilation into the global market will open up a business vacuum for the local craftsmen and act as a catalyst to revive the industry.

“A new urban model needs to be developed in every city, with its architects, town planners, landscapers, and citizens. We are urging everyone to work with states to reinforce the international cooperation between cities which UNESCO wishes to promote,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

UNESCO New Delhi Director Eric Falt too offered words of praise to all those who worked on the candidacy of Srinagar. 

“This a great recognition of the vitality of the arts and crafts sector in Srinagar,” he said.

The bureaucrats immediately took to social media, after the news broke, to celebrate and appreciate the artisans of Kashmir, who have kept the lantern of indigenous art lit in face of distress and economic turbulence. In recent years, the industry has plunged into disarray especially post 2014 Valley floods and COVID pandemic. The exports are dwindling with figures reaching the lowest levels. The workers associated with crafts remain despondent. Additionally, the meagre wages of craftsmen are also leading to disinterest from youth to engage with the sector.

Srinagar is heir to the legacy of distinguished arts and crafts with heavy influences from Persia and Central Asia. The valley is home to about 4,00,000 handicraft workers. With this significant recognition, the stakeholders are hopeful for better prospects in the future. 

“The honour will help artisans to showcase their handicrafts on the global stage,” Mahmood Ahmad Shah, Director — Industries and Commerce said. “We strive for the empowerment of artisans and the industry”, he further added highlighting the importance of the sector in the valley.

Saleem Beg, the convener of the INTACH Kashmir chapter, was elated with the selection of Srinagar and said, “Our crafts are not only economic assets, but more widely contribute to a process of building and rebuilding community identities.”

With the UCCN tag at the helm, there is both imperative and positive current to revive and revitalize all sectors of the craft industry with a special focus on dedicated educational institutes to facilitate designing and state of art manufacturing; and as well as promotion, marketing and incentivized support to people associated with the industry. 

The Author is an architect and urban planner from Srinagar, Kashmir, and an alumnus of CEPT Ahmedabad and can be reached at [email protected]

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