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Policy? What policy?

India’s National Design Policy is little known and even less understood, despite being more than two years old. So what exactly is it meant to achieve and how? Sapna Kulshrestha finds out.

At the recent Italian design show in Mumbai mention was made of a mysterious ‘National Design Policy’ in India. Eyebrows were raised and brows furrowed as attendees at ‘Hospitality, the Versatility of Italian Design’, organized by the International Design Agency (IDA), Milano, tried to recall if they had heard of such a thing, and if they had, what exactly it might be.

It transpires that India has had a National Design policy in place for more than two years, sanctioned by the government in February 2007 to make the discipline of design a national priority. Its focus is to promote products made in India as “branded quality” in the international market to boost exports and raise Indian design education levels “to global standards of excellence.”

It all sounds highly admirable and most worthy of our attention. But what exactly does it entail and what do Indian designers themselves think of it?

One concrete thing to have come out of the policy is the Indian Design Lab, set up in partnership with the Italian Design Foundation and IDA, Milano, at Mumbai’s JJ College of Architecture. Italian architect and professor Alberto Cannetta, part of the project, believes that the policy has enabled Indian industry to prepare for international collaborations.

However, Ratan Batliboi, architect, Marine Drive beautification, remains sceptical about the master plan and brushes off the venture as “maybe one more of those ‘India Shining’ projects which might die out.”

Darlie O. Koshy, director, National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, looks upon the policy as a statement of hope and faith. “It has the makings of a good beginning, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired,” he declares. “The new awareness, while welcome, has come a little late. Other countries are galloping ahead of us in this regard.”

Ironically, many Indian designers, professionals and architects still remain unaware of the National Design Policy and its guidelines; and when they are made aware, most of them appear unenthused about its impact on Indian design. Some of the apparent shortcomings that are generally cited relate to its lack of foresight and scale.

For instance, the Vision statement talks largely of using design as a tool of commerce for the production of new products and outsourcing of design services, but not as a core activity for internal value creation and the development of various sectors.

Prominently listed terms like “Designed in India”, “Made in India” and “Served in India”, all appear to promote marketing and exports rather than building capabilities across all sections of design processes to improve the local resources.

The Action Plan mentions specific areas of focus such as automobiles, jewellery, soft goods, toys and games, but ignores action in sectors such as infrastructure, health, agriculture and rural development – the fundamental needs of our people and economy. The Plan also calls for setting up of more NIDs, design institutes and university departments. However, the focus seems to be to provide more workforces to aid industry rather than to create future generations of accomplished designers who can transform it.

The policy statement does not include fields of designing such as graphic design and architecture, but focuses mainly on textiles, garments and other goods industries.

So although well-intentioned, the policy seems to lack a sustained and integrated plan for design and innovation promotion in all design segments at the macro level.

In terms of implementation, too, the progress is painstakingly slow with very few initiatives since its inception. In his newsletter, John Thackara, director of the design innovation network, Doors of Perception, UK, pointed out the lack of stress on climate change, sustainable development or resource efficiency, which has only a passing reference in the policy.

As put in rather harsh perspective by veteran architect and landscape designer Kishore Pradhan: “This policy document is pretentious and unimplementable, as the government has neither the sensitivity nor the sensibility to understand design – especially in context with architecture. While they talk of promoting the Indian design industry and international collaborations, they themselves invite foreign architects to design buildings in India. The Design Policy does not have substance and is doomed from the start.”

The private as well as the public sectors in India typically under-invest in research, development and design. Presently, India comprises less than 1% of the global industrial design industry.

As Indian designers increasingly display global aspirations, they come upon the realisation that only innovation and design can make them competitive in the international arena, and they seek assistance through both patronage and financial support from the government and its agencies.

M.P Ranjan, Professor of Design, NID, Ahmedabad, says: “The Design Policy needs to be beefed out with structured guidelines that can be actioned by the government, administration, businesses along with the participation of the design community and the Indian public –if the efforts are to achieve desired results in a reasonable period of time.” 

India has been slow to make design a priority and is still a long way away from equalling international design standards and systems.

As Asia is increasingly becoming the hotbed of design, we seem to be lagging far behind on the scene without a strong unanimous policy for Indian industry. As observed from our National Design Policy guidelines, it manages to just touch upon the concerns of the design community, offering only proposals rather than an action plan.

Undeniably, the Indian Design Policy should have a global outlook, but it also needs to take into account local needs and opportunities.

No doubt, in its present form, the policy is driven by market economics and needs to include social, environmental and sustainability objectives. Nonetheless, interior designer Mohan Bhopatkar remains optimistic and feels it’s a reasonable beginning that, if appropriately implemented, should steer the Indian design industry along the right path.  

So the National Design Policy, cleared by the Union Cabinet, does offer hope with its declared objective to “position India as an original ‘design provider’ and ‘creative manufacturer’ in the world markets”. But what needs to be monitored is how far this policy succeeds in guiding the entire design process in the country.

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