Breaking Solina’s Silence

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For the last many years, a process was set in motion to convert the heritage filatures in the sprawling Solina into a developmental graveyard with museums, entertainment spots or housing slots. With World Bank help and a pro-active decision-making, the silk reeling has resumed in the haunted buildings, reports Durdana Bhat

On a sun-drenched path strewn with reeked cocoons, the 121-year-old three abandoned massive filatures of Silk factory make Srinagar’s Solina appear some medieval industrial town. The yesteryears’ buzz has long fizzled out of the industry once known for its political din and economic growth.

But lately, the rusty machines have shown some signs of revival after years of enforced jamming. The new spur at a task is trying to achieve the bygone glory lost in an overwhelming situation some thirty years ago.

The first discoloured structure under lock and key reads NO 1 Filature 1916. That’s the date of its inception. At the third filature, established in 1939, two painters are busy applying an orange coat over a rusty surface. The makeover is perhaps an overt sign of Kashmir’s new silken days.

Part of the late 19th Century Silk factory, which started in Srinagar in 1897, under the patronage of British, the three filatures used to be different universe under Dogra regime. Around 2,000 workers would follow a regimental routine by daily turning up for the work with a professional knack.

Even after the post-1947 power-shift in Kashmir, the factory maintained its work culture, before the political situation in the late eighties forced it to shut.

But now, after 30 years, it’s coming back to life. The efforts of the revival are aimed at increasing the quantity and improving the quality of the cocoons produced and to enhance the post rearing activities: reeling and weaving. In absence of a complete eco-system, most of the cocoon produce in the state is being sold outside the state, leading to loss of revenue and livelihood opportunities for thousands.

Inside the Filature No 3, the carpenters are busy fixing the building, covering the walls and floor with wood. And towards the end, it leads to the main part of the building where the walls are still damp because of the newly-coated yellow paint. The windows and doors appear creaky and the cobwebs are still resting on the high ceilings.

The first silk-weaving machines in the factory, imported from Europe, remain covered in dust in two huge filature buildings while the third contains the new set of machines provided by the World Bank in 1999.

In 2001, the factory was closed for the final time due to falling levels of silk production.

Recalling the old constructs and ruptures, the factory’s old hand Abdul Majeed Bhat turns mawkish. He was only 11-year-old when he found himself rubbing shoulders with his colleagues in the factory. Most of them were of his grandfather’s age.

Back in the time, both his grandfather as well as his father was Takashi [silk weaver]in the factory. His father’s ill health had sent him as his permanent replacement. Gradually, he started learning the skill from the other workers and became an expert in sorting.

“Then, the factory was bustling with around 2000 workers coming from all different part of the state,” Majeed recalls. “Occupied with multiple happenings and created a chain of work, those workers would produce the finest silk in the world.”

But when the factory was shut in 1989, he says, the life was drawn out from it.

Since 1989, the silk reeling machines in the three filatures and their 580 basins in which cocoons used to be processed have remained defunct after the factory was shut down owing to plunged production and huge loses. The production of raw silk at the filatures which stood at 57,000 kg in 1980-81 had gone down to 16,000 kg in 1989-90, registering a decrease of 72%.

After the fall of the factory, Majeed was given a job of a caretaker of the building. But all these years, he rose to become an expert in one of the processes and is now part of the new workforce.

With the factory’s sudden rebirth, there is no distraction for the workers boiling cocoons and reeling silk on five machines with 30 basins which were installed in one of the filatures in 1999.

Since 2016-17, Industries and Commerce Department has embarked on a plan for the revival of reeling and post reeling activities in the state, the revival of the Kashmir and Jammu filatures, Silk weaving unit to give a new direction and impetus to the silk sector.

“I am confident that given the rich background, tremendous potential and opportunities which the sector offers, the state can reclaim and resurrect its past glory and establish itself as champion of the silk sector both at national and international level,” says Shailendra Kumar, IAS, state’s Principal Secretary (Industries), who is personally involved in the revival process. “ The Jammu and Kashmir Industries Limited, (JKI) would take a lead in this endeavour and become a role model to attract private investment from local entrepreneurs so as to utilize most of the cocoons grown in the state itself to achieve the ultimate goal of producing 20 lakh metres of silk fabric by 2023.”

At the same time, the Sericulture department has formulated a plan envisaging taking an annual production of cocoons to reach 1500MT by the year 2020.

“We have hired workers from outside who know the trade,” says GM Khanday, the in-charge of the Filature. “They are mostly from Bengal. But we don’t want to employ people permanently. All the local workers have been taken in. They have legally signed a contract before joining.”

These workers operate in three shifts from 4:30 am to 8:30 pm. For the past four weeks, the 10-odd workers, from West Bengal, produced some 170 kg of silk from cocoons. They are also training some 50 local Kashmiris, Khanday says. “Girls and boys are approaching us and are showing a willingness to learn the skill. We want local workers to get acquainted with the production process so that we can indigenize the process.”

The industries department has been planning to bring three more machines with 30 basins at a cost of Rs 5.67 crores to increase the production. The entire process is funded by the World Bank, a team of which visited Srinagar, last week.

“I am happy that they have started the factory again,” says Abdul Rehman, an elderly worker who used to work as a cook in the past before the political vacuum created a worker’s slot for him in the factory. “I hope that it will get back to life again the same way it used to be before.”

Silk apart, wool is also witnessing some revival attempts.

At Solina’s Government Woollen Spinning Plant, the suspended operations stand resumed after three decades. The machines came alive following the government’s decision to provide suitable financial assistance for revival and re-commissioning of a special Rs 5.56 crore project.

Along with 15 outside workers, five Kashmiris are currently picking up the skills.

From 1985 to 1989, the state had installed the machines brought from Poland at the Woollen Spinning plant. Sheikh Mukhtar was then newly appointed as a machine mechanic in the plant.

“The plant used to employ around 150 people at that time,” Mukhtar says. “But when the ground situation got worse day by day, it was forced to shut.”

Sudden snapping of machine activities rendered scores jobless. They were mostly Kashmiris. Later, they were transferred to different other units, where many of them attained superannuation.

But now as the two working units are currently producing the woollen thread, the situation for the spinning plant is getting better.

At Solina, the spur might have returned, but it is likely to take its own time to recreate the yesteryears’ industrial aura. But one thing seems stirring for sure — both silk and wool have finally come out of the enforced demise.

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