Fleeing exploitation to join fair trade

Agra, a city of palaces hidden by the urban chaos

4 long hours separate Delhi from Agra. Having barely left the endless maze of viaducts and buildings that make up Delhi's suburbs, the highway runs through a lush countryside. Few major cities separate the sprawl of Delhi from that of Agra, and the journey seems very peaceful as one follows the Yamuna river, the sacred river of Hinduism.

Still, when one reaches the city, the change in landscape are striking. A chaotic urban sprawl slowly devours the greenery; sand, dust and cement begin to take over the horizon. We enter a city that is difficult to define, as its architecture seems hyperactive and anarchic.


Sometimes however, grandiose palaces appear between the hedges, imposing their grandeur and serenity on the chaos that surrounds them. "The Mughals have built palaces of dreams," said the ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss during his brief visit to India, in the last pages of his famed book, Tristes Tropiques.

It is true that these buildings have something ethereal in their grandeur and their yellow and reddish tones, as if their massive stones barely anchored them to reality.

Among these palaces built by the Mughal emperors, the Taj Mahal holds a special glamour, surrounded as it is by an aura of romanticism. This white stone mausoleum, built with exquisite symmetry on the banks of the Yamuna, justifies the trip to Agra for countless tourists.

Founded by the Mughals, a dynasty descended from the Mongols of Genghis Khan and the Turks of Tamerlane, the city of Agra was the capital of the Indian subcontinent before the emperors left it for Delhi. Almost 4 centuries separate us from the abandonment of this imperial city. It is now difficult to imagine the times when its riverside gardens were places of pleasure and refinement. As if not to shatter the myth that surrounds it, the Taj Mahal remains invisible from the highway: a dense forest separates it from the rest of the city.

The craftsmen of Agra, heirs to its ancestral history

However, fragments of the Agra of old still persist. One just has to explore the city's palaces and take a close look at the exquisite inlays and engravings that decorate their walls. Each of these works holds the story of a multitude of anonymous craftsmen, who came from all corners of India, sometimes even from Europe, to shape these eternal palaces.

Even today, at the exit of the Taj Mahal, the heirs otothese ancient skills display their works, hoping to catch the eye of tourists in need of souvenirs.

Hundreds of miniature Taj Mahals are lined up, accompanied by elephants and maharajahs carved in white stone. Soapstone carving is one of the ancestral skills that make the pride of Agra, and which remains alive thanks to the endless flow of tourists in the city.

However, the workshops where these objects are born remain a mystery to most.

Babloo knows about them. In fact, he escaped from one. Like many artisans in Agra, the art of soapstone carving was passed down to him by his family. With this skill, he hoped to make a living like his ancestors did.

Nowadays, Agra’s highly profitable artisan market is monopolized by conventional contractors, who are infamous for their lack of ethics. When “hiring” local artisans, they push them to produce crafts on a massive scale, while paying them very low salaries.

The unbalanced relationship between artisans and contractors does not stop there. Soapstone carving workshops are particularly dangerous: without an infrastructure that protects artisans from see-saws, or any proper ventilation, artisans are prone to accidents and lung disease.

While working for them, Babloo quickly felt that his health was declining. Having breathed in so much dust, his bicycle rides to work were becoming increasingly difficult.

Despite these trying conditions, it is very difficult for an artisan to leave a conventional workshop. To keep them working, the contractors refuse to pay the artisans their full wages, arguing that they seldom manage to produce their full orders, which are often quite considerable and ordered in a short time span.


Fair Trade: a solution to make a good living from your skills

While he was still working in a conventional workshop, Babloo heard of a fair trade workshop that had just opened in the outskirts of the city by TARA Projects. “Agra Bazar Trust”. Determined to take care of his fragile health, he gave up on receiving his full payment from the contractor, and joined fair trade.

The craftsmen at the “Agra Bazar Trust” come from various backgrounds: many are survivors of conventional workshops, others come from ethnic or religious minorities, and others still are elderly people who need an income to support themselves. Tasks, ranging from stone carving to the creation of handicraft design and the sorting of finished products, are divided according to each person's skills.

In this workshop, wages are indexed to the minimum wage in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and artisans are paid according to the quantity of objects produced. Another aspect that separates Agra Bazar from conventional workshops is that artisans are organized into committees responsible for assessing the quality of life of workers. Babloo decided to join the self-help group against dust, dedicated to detecting any ventilation problem in the workshops and to proposing new solutions to fight against this issue.

Responsible consumption and production of handicrafts is still a little-known problem in India and around the world. The sordid reality that hides behind the souvenir industry must be revealed through testimonies like the one given by Babloo.

Manuel-Antonio Monteagudo

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