Wicker Worries

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As the new GST regime, brought handicrafts to the lowest five percent slab, the small, export-oriented sector is facing a crippling crisis, reports Ishtiyak Magray

A wicker basket weaver on job in Srinagar outskirts. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Arranging wicker baskets in his modest concrete house, the mud-plastered room looks like a twigs store. Habibullah Lone, 65, calls the room a Karkhaan (Urdu word literally meaning the place where one works). He is among the last generation from his family to carry on the traditional wicker work business.

Every Karkhaan in the Gundi Rehman (Ganderbal) and its adjoining villages are mud plastered. It retains heat so that workers, mostly aged males, can stay working for longer hours. These rooms usually have only one pair of small windows.  Mud plastered rooms are considered better for people with a backache.

“The craft is dying a silent death,” lamented Lone, pointing towards a variety of items made of wicker. “There is no one to look after this traditional work, now.”

The craft, locally know as Kanil Kaem, is believed to have been introduced by Europeans in early nineteenth century. It uses the twigs from willow as the main raw material.

Kashmir has been growing willow traditionally on the river banks, swampy or wastelands and is considered a major intervention to stop soil erosion. Cultivated from saplings, once it sprouts, it is served and sown into the land to harvest its shoots every year. The sapling continues to produce an annual harvest until it is uprooted.

“To plant a willow you simply cut a slip from another plant and stick it into the ground in spring, the willow will take root and grow into a tough little plant, at a rate of about 8 ft a year,” said Riyaz Ahmad, a willow worker.

The subsequent process is prolonged and slightly complicated.

Once the crop is harvested, the withy is grouped into bundles according to length and girth. The industrial processing starts from here and the crop is sold to a contractor. He assigns it to various artisans with the description of products that these are supposed to be used in. These artisans use special apparatus to peel off the bark known as Zelan from boiled withies. “Zelan is the pair of 3 ft long sticks bounded together tightly. Then they are tied into bundles and sold to workers as raw material.”

For us, it was a precious inheritance and we are so keen to carry the art forward but the government interventions are dispiriting.We always saw this craft as an alternative employer but the situation is turning the craft unsustainable.”

Ganderbal is the hub for willow wicker craft. It produces a lot of raw material from locally cultivated willow rushes and reeds. Villages like Harran, Shalla Bug, Tehlipora, Kachan, Gundi Rehman are the main centers for this craft. Wickerwork products include basket ducks, chairs, willow basket trays, baskets and many other things. Some of these items are exported, traditionally.

A cottage industry, thousands of people are directly engaged with willow wicker craft and is their primary income. “We are associated with this craft from decades and it is our only source of income,” said G L Hassan, a willow worker. “It once thrived but for the last few years it has lost momentum, partly because of the pathetic attitude of the government.”

Artisans allege the government is neither providing facilities nor comes to their rescue when they are facing the downslide in the market. They said that while Artisan Credit Card (ACC) is available across India to artisans, it is not for the wicker workers of Kashmir. ACC is a loan facility on which government pays most of the interest, 10 percent of the costs.

Bashir Ahmad Magray is a wicker worker for three decades. He says the government has never fixed the minimum rates for the items they produce. “Intermediaries fix the rates and we get peanuts,” he alleged. “Government never tried even regulating the prices of the raw material.”

This has created a situation that new generation is leaving the craft. They opt for white collar jobs and in most of the cases, simple manual labour.

Mehraj Ahmad Magray completed his masters and is now engaged with this craft. This, he said, is his only source of income. “For us, it was a precious inheritance and we are so keen to carry the art forward but the government interventions are dispiriting,” Mehraj said. “We always saw this craft as an alternative employer but the situation is turning the craft unsustainable.”

The latest decision of bringing handicraft sector under Goods and Services Tax (GST) has hit the already morbid sector hard. Worried artisans and traders insist that the sector has suffered heavily due to the new tax.

Although the sector was exempted from Value Added Tax (VAT), the GST seeks 5 percent tax on every sale of handicraft item. Now the problem is not of five percent but the allied processing of it. They have to get into the system formally, have bank accounts, file returns, list their input costs which is quite laborious to the concerned.

“The middlemen have already started decreasing the bying rates of the products,” Mohammad Maqbool, a willow worker, said. “They tell us buyers are not paying the tax. They want it at old rates .”

Lateef Ahmad Magray, an exporter of wicker products, workers alleged has coerced them to relook the rates. “Ideally it should have been the problem of the buyer but it is tragic that it has become a crisis for the artisan.”

Officials have a different line. “ GST will not directly affect the artisans but yes it will indirectly leave an impact on this cottage industry,” Assistant Director Handicraft Ganderbal, Mushtaq Ahmad, said.

Ahmad said his department has organised several exhibitions recently at Srinagar, Leh, and Jammu but there was not much response from the artisans. “Our main aim is to bring artisans in direct contact with the customers but for that reason they have to come out the shell, they are living in.”

The middlemen have already started decreasing the bying rates of the products. They tell us buyers are not paying the tax. They want it at old rates.

Handicraft department, he said, has already intervened for various benefits to artisans.”Recently World Bank has approved a loan for setting up a project in Ganderbal where artisans will avail the various benefits free,” Ahmad said, insisting there are various schemes already in vogue.

The seasone twigs sorted and graded, ready for sale. It is the basic raw material in wicker works. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Apart from a loan up to one lakh rupees on10 percent interest subsidy, artisans can have life insurance cover at Rs 82 premium. In case of death, the insured person family will get Rs one lakh and if it is an accidental death, the outgo will double. All the registered artisans can avail a scholarship of Rs 1000, a month if their wards are studying in the ninth or tenth standard.

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