This season, shoppers all over the world surfed the Net looking for unique gift items and some bought copper flowerpots, vases and candlestands fashioned by the Bishwokarmas of Palpa. This is part of a larger trend in e-commerce in the US-retailing authentic, politically correct handicrafts from around the world, often backed up by photographs and reportage, to Net-savvy, credit card-wielding Americans and Europeans. And often, it is small, rural communities in countries like Nepal, and grassroots NGOs that benefit.
For centuries, these Bishwokarma coppersmiths of Palpa survived by their craft-hammering sheets of copper into water basins, pitchers and trays. Then, some 30 years ago, Indian mass-produced aluminium and then plastic containers began making inroads into the Nepali hinterland, and unable to compete, the Bishwokarmas were forced to abandon their trade and migrate to India in search of menial jobs.
A year ago, decorative items made by the coppersmiths of Palpa started appearing on the Internet. Socially conscious on-line companies, like www.viatru.com (formerly world2market.com, a business-to-consumer website) started taking the copper items they produced and supplied them to retailers like Pottery Barn or mail-order and online companies like the Sundance Catalog. The Bishwokarmas of Palpa don't know what the Internet is-most have not even seen a computer, but e-commerce has changed their lives and fortunes, and is helping to bring others back home.
The patio of a stone hut in the sleepy hills of Palpa is buzzing with activity. As modern Nepali music blares from a cassette player, scores of artisans sit in a circle, beating and burnishing water pitchers, basins and trays.
Bal Bahadur Bishwokarma joined the circle of artisans seven months ago during a visit from India where he worked as a cook in Kurukshetra, Haryana. "I thought I would earn a lot in India," says Bal Bahadur. "But I didn't. I used to earn Rs 3500 but I had a lot of expenses too. I had no savings! This is my place, my village. I can be with my family here." Bal Bahadur has no plans of going back.
Bal Bahadur asked a lot of questions before joining the local cooperative, says Bir Bahadur Bishwokarma, the nominal leader of the coppersmiths, "He compared his income with ours and realised he had no savings, whereas a person here saves Rs 25-30,000 a year."
The copper pot industry was started by Bir Bahadur after he returned from a training programme at Balaju Technical Institute 14 years ago. Today, the industry employs 35 coppersmiths who earn Rs 3500-7000 a month. Many of the once-landless Bishwokarmas are buying land and all of them are sending their children to school. That is saying a lot for a community that has traditionally been backward due to their marginalisation by other groups that consider them 'untouchable'.
Every two weeks, group leader Bir Bahadur Bishwokarma travels to Kathmandu with as much as 320 kgs of copper items. They go to the Association for Craft Producers (ACP), a fair trade group in Kathmandu that checks the quality of the products and supplies Internet companies with copper goods. The association also sells the Bishwokarmas' work at their Kupondole outlet, Dhukuti. The ACP sold $40,000 worth of copper items in 1999. Since the pots began appearing on the Net early this year, that figure has doubled.
The ACP helps Nepali artisans market their traditional skills. "Although the association has been exporting products made by its 1000 members for nearly 15 years now, the web has opened up new markets," says Meera Bhattarai, the Association's director.
"People pour into Kathmandu with great expectations hoping they will get better paid jobs," she says, "but it is not true in most cases. The best thing would be for them to live in their own community, their own village and be able to live a decent life." In fact some of the Bishwokarmas working in the patio have seen a computer before but none seemed interested in the new universe of the Internet. But they are grateful it has given
them enough work to continue doing what they are most familiar with and stay on in their own village.