Awfully underpaid

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With reduced wages Kashmiri artisans are getting poorer with each passing day, pushing them into despair and keeping away others from joining the crafts. Syed Asma  reports

Artisans at work. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Around 30 artisans are attending a cluster meeting in a garden under a tent set on the lawns of the house of a handicrafts department employee. Apart from the artisans, there are government officials; some from school of design, Department of Handicrafts, some from Weaver Training Center and some from Handloom Corporation.

Officials claim that these clusters (groups) are formed and cluster meetings held to spread awareness about artisan rights and the facilities the government is providing them.

But none of the artisans in the meeting seems to be hopeful of knowing something new. The frowns on their foreheads clearly describe their moods and lack of interest.

“Another day of our work is wasted and for what? Absolutely nothing!” says an elderly bearded artisan attending the meeting. “These officers will praise our skills and leave.”

Another person among them added in a higher tone, “And will say all of you sitting here, have golden hands. Your hands are priceless.” On hearing this all of them burst into a laugh.

They have assembled there at 11 a.m.

“The work we are associated with is time-based and if we do not work in the first half of the day, whole of our day is wasted. We complete most of our work in the first half of the day only,” says an elderly artisan. “Precisely, first half of the day is blessed for us”.

They say they earn only when they work and “are not paid like government employees who receive their salaries every month whether they work or not.”

Most of these artisans work from their homes. Some of these artisans attending this cluster meet are weaving Kani Jamawars.

An artisan earns as much as he produces and his or her income is directly related to the time spent on the loom or working.

The artisans usually work for the dealers who provide them the raw material and place the orders which are to be completed within specified time period. The dealers either pay them monthly or after the completion of the handicraft say a shawl.

“We earn a maximum of Rs 4000 a month if everything goes well,” says shawl weaver Nazir Ahmed Bhat, who has been associated with the craft for past 22 years.

In 1990’s the financial as well as the political conditions did not allow him to continue with his studies, he says. He was then in 10th standard.

Nazir’s father a tailor had to feed a family of five – himself, his wife and his three sons.

Nazir and his two brothers, not wishing to go into tailoring like their father, chose to follow their maternal grandfather. He was a Kani Jamawar weaver, one of the most respected and famous man in his locality, says Nazir.

He taught many young boys his art (of weaving Kani shawl), says Nazir.

Nazir owns a loom, locally known as waan, the loom actually belongs to his grandfather. In most of the cases, like Nazir’s, the looms are passed on to the next generation of artisans from their forefathers along with the skill. “When he stopped working, he handed over his loom to us,” says Nazir, “Otherwise, we couldn’t afford a loom of our own”.

Nazir like other artisans work at home only.

The looms are made up of wood and last for years. These looms are either made of Kayur or Budul. It costs about Rs 16,000, the artisans say. Deodar can also be used but is a bit heavy to handle, they add.

Suddenly, a high pitched noise emanated from the megaphone – hello, hello, hello, 1, 2, 3 testing.

“Now the sahibs (officers) will come and deliver lecturers and appreciate our golden hands worth dust,” someone shouts from the crowd sarcastically, “after wasting our whole day”.

The meeting ended in a heated discussion between the artisans and officials. Later the officers left to have a lunch in a nearby restaurant.

“They will spend all our money on their lunches and tours,” says Ajaz Ahmed.

Ajaz Ahmed, a kani shawl artisan who was married recently says he wants to send his children to a private school for getting better education. His fellow artisans, however, laugh over it.

They say none of them have till now afforded to send their children to private schools, not even the local ones.

“Yes he dreams, but he can’t do it. Even if he gives his 100% he will earn only Rs 4000 a month. A private school will ask for a good share of money and it is not only the school fees that he has to look after. He has his mother, father and wife to feed as well,” says Nazir.

One of the  artisans, who lives in a joint family tried to send his children to a nearby private school but they were rejected because the parents were not read enough.

“We are being thrown out at every point of our life. I don’t think we are being accepted with any respect in the society,” says artisan Nazir.

Apart from living in poverty the artisans have to face many social problems. They find problem in finding a match.

“Earlier it was a craze to marry your daughter to an artisan but now it is considered to be a disgrace,” they say.

Farooq Ahmed Mir, an artisan wearing a neck collar, is suffering from slipped spinal disc. He says that his father-in-law is looking for a match for his younger daughter and he rejected all the choices that he had among artisans.

“He told me he will marry her to a laborer or even a beggar but won’t allow another artisan son-in-law in his home,” says Farooq.

Farooq supports his father-in-law’s decision. “Knowing the condition of his elder daughter (who is married to Farooq) and seeing her suffering, he will obviously resist from marrying his other daughter in a similar setup,” he says.

They say over the years the respect, as well as the income of a kani shawl artisan, has immensely reduced.

After the year 2000, they say, the labour remunerations were reduced by more than half. “For Shahtosh it reduced from Rs 90,000 to Rs 45,000 and for Pashmina it reduced from Rs 65,000 to Rs 28,000,” says Bashir Ahmed Darof Batapora, Kanihama who owns a Kani shawl karkhana (workshop), where he employs 22 weavers.

Most of the times they work on the orders placed by the dealers, mostly from the city, and very rarely are able to produce their own pieces.

The ratio is 60:40 and it is only for Bashir, other 22 are just the labours, they do not afford to have their own Kani products.

“It is nothing but absolute exploitation. We are never being appreciated for our work but for a small defect at least Rs 5000 are reduced from our labour costs,” says Shabir Ahmed Dar from Kanihama.

Shabir says before the year 2000, they had to weave shawls with simple designs but now they are asked to do complex designs and are paid less – “less than the half of what we were paid earlier”.

“A shawl which used to take four months now takes eight months because of the complex designs that the dealer demands.”

Kanihama village in Budgam is named after the famous shawls kani shawl produced there. Most of the kani shawls produced in Kashmir come from Kanihama.

Bashir says, about 90% of the households in Kanihama and adjoining Batapora village live on the income of Kani shawl production. “Each year at least 200-250 boys used to join this craft but now, from last two to three years, no new boy seems to be interested. The reason is the little earnings”.

Weaver Shabir says it is more production, both handmade and mechanical, which reduced their eanings.

Mubeen Shah, President J&K Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry, supports the view. “Surplus stocks are responsible for keeping the labour wages low,” says Shah who is an international retailer of handicrafts as well.

The other thing that these artisans blame for making them poorer is the “retailers keeping a very large profit margin” for these products.

“I cannot sell my own product with such huge margin. Like big businessman, I cannot keep shawls produced by us for years just because I am not getting a good price. At times I sell shawls for a profit of just Rs 5000,” says Farooq Ahmed Dar, Bashir’s brother who looks after the marketing of his own shawls.

However, Shah says that retailers do not keep such huge margins and if at all there is a margin that is decided keeping in view the international rentals where they have set up their business. International rentals are quite expensive, he adds.

The artisans say they are reluctant to pass the craft to their next generation.

Bashir says, “In my childhood, the kani artisans were among the most respected section of the society but today our children are reluctant to disclose their parents’ occupation in public.”

Artisans also allege that the government is least bothered about reviving these arts and crafts.

“The intentions of government may be good but their policies are not very impressive,” says Mubeen Shah.

The state government in collaboration with J&K Bank has made available a loan facility of Rs 50,000 for these artisans for setting up their own looms.

The artisans say, “These policies are of no use to us; they offer us a loan but ask for getting two government employees as guarantors. Tell me where will we arrange government employees from? We are craftsmen, having meagre incomes, why will any government employee trust us?”

The Amritsar made shawls, sold as Kashmir brand have also been a factor in reducing labour wages of Kashmiri artisans.

Director Craft Development Institute, M S Farooqui says, “We will soon develop the mechanism of Geographical Indications (GI) which will help to make the conditions better.”

The GI is an Act under TRIPS (Trade Related to Intellectual Properties) agreement. This act helps to protect traditional practices and help a product to have an identification of its own.

Farooqui says the Act will help the artisans as it will make them part of the deciding committee which besides standardizing the wages of artisans, will take decisions for the betterment of the industry keeping in view the interest of an artisan.

“It will be partnership between the business community and our artisans,” he says. “In two months a laboratory will be established where the authenticity of the products will be checked and will get a proper mark which will give it a GI protection status in the market.”

2 Comments

  1. am interested in the promotion of handcrafted textiles and found your article on kani jamavars very interesting. It was also sad to see that the artisans are being exploited and that the interest in kani weaving on their part is dying out for lack of support a/o respect for their work. Do you have any suggestions for how interested people like myself could realistically and honorably support the livlihoods of the weavers?

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