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Gandhian activist who revitalised Indian handicraft dies at 85

alt Yogesh Pawar | Updated: Nov 15, 2010, 03:27 AM IST, DNA

Well-known economist, Gandhian activist and freedom fighter Lakshmi Chand Jain passed away on Sunday after a long battle with cancer.

He was cremated at Delhi and is survived by his wife Devaki and sons Gopal and Sreenivasan.

Born on December 13, 1925, the first of four siblings, Lakshmi spent much of his childhood in Old Delhi. His father Phool Chand Jain was a newspaperman. His mother Chameli Devi Sancheti hailed from Rajasthan where her Jain family prospered as merchants. He was named Santosh, but when his sister, died, he was given her name.

Lakshmi’s father was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a stalwart of the Delhi branch of the Congress. In 1932, Lakshmi’s mother was arrested for picketing shops selling foreign goods.

His love for handicrafts began during his vacations when he became acquainted with his mother’s clan. In and around her village, handloom weavers made turbans that were sold all over India. The Sanchetis were involved in this prosperous trade.

The turbulent life of his politically active parents did not disrupt his education as the grandparents ensured he went to a good school. In 1939, he joined Hindu College, Delhi. He took the course leading to a medical degree but turned from science to the study of history and philosophy. His grasp of practical economics is a product of practical experience.

It was his work with refugees and the guidance of Kamaldevi Chattopadhyay that saw him join her countrywide campaign to revitalise Indian handicrafts. He travelled all over India to learn from the artisans. The government accepted the union’s plan of action and set up the Handicrafts Development Board (1955) and persuaded Jain to become the secretary.

The Cottage Industries Emporium blossomed into a national showcase under the coop. union’s direction. Today, each state has its own handicrafts emporium.

In 1953-54, India’s total export of handicrafts was valued at $6 million. Today, it is about $2.5 billion. The number of individuals making their livelihoods from handicrafts has increased from fewer than 1 million in the mid-1950s to 3.5 million today.

Shortly after Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966, she devalued India’s currency. Prices rose. To help counter the crisis, she called upon Jain. Within 15 days, he set up in New Delhi a huge consumer’s cooperative, the Super Bazaar. In the bazaar, Jain initiated the practice of monitoring prices daily. Today there are 100-odd branches of the Super Bazaar in Delhi, with similar chains in every state.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency declaration awakened Jain and Independence veterans of the movement to the possibility that everything they struggled for was in jeopardy. He joined like-minded intellectuals to form the brain trust that prepared Janata’s political manifesto and helped articulate its mission.

Later he plunged into research and writing, exploring the variables of India’s poverty vis-a-vis its development policies. The radical propositions in his studies aroused cries of negativism from critics, but Jain insisted that abandoning a policy that does not work is constructive.

Aside from his passion for democratic decentralisation, he also attacked the government’s decision to favour the textile industry at the expense of the handloom sector.

His message can be gleaned from an interview he gave soon after receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1989 for public service.

“We owe it to ourselves and to the freedom struggle ... to make good our opportunities,” he had said.

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