Once a prosperous village of bat manufacturers, the demography of south Kashmir’s Sangam is undergoing a monumental change. While the government claims the new infrastructure was in the interest of locals, the displacement and silent death of the profitable bat industry has left many people hopeless, Shams Irfan reports.
It is 6:30 in the evening and the entire village wears a ghostly look. Large industrial machines including earthmovers, dumper trucks, road rollers, tractors and cranes lie silent on the under-construction, dusty highway. The work on the new highway, which passes through Sangam, a small industrial village some 4o kilometres south of Srinagar, is fast by local standards.
Workers, mostly non-Kashmiris, whose skin bear visible marks of day’s laborious work, rest under the April bloom. In the distance, near a half razed structure, a large bulldozer rests casually after completing the day’s work. Kids from the village are already out playing cricket near the rubbles. They have marked the rear portion of the bulldozer with white chalk using the markings as wickets.
Once a must-stop place for tourists on Srinagar-Jammu highway, Sangam is fast turning into a ghost village after most of the bat manufactures got displaced in the ongoing highway widening project. Sangam was known for the bat manufacturing units that used to line the narrow highway that cuts the village into two.
According to legends, local willow or Kashmir willow which is one of the primary sources of raw material for bat manufacturing industry, and highly prized too, grows best in marshes around River Jhelum. With availability of Kashmir willow near the banks of Jhelum, people associated with the industry settled near Sangam. In local parlance, Sangam means confluence, and in this town different tributaries of Jhelum merge to form a single river.
Amid stiff competition from Jalandhar and Meerut in north India, and shortage of raw material locally, people associated with bat manufacturing find it hard to survive. And places like Sangam, Bijbehara and other areas which are dependent on bat manufacturing for their livelihood, are fast fading from public memory.
“If government doesn’t act soon, the once flourishing bat industry will vanish completely from Kashmir by 2015,” said Nazir Ahmad Salroo, President, Cricket Bat Manufacturers Association Kashmir (CBMAK) and owner of Salroo Syndicates Bijbehara.
Besides displacement of 99 units caused by the widening of National Highway 1A which passes through major bat manufacturing areas, the remaining 450 registered units also find it hard to cope with the government guidelines which manufactures claim are meant to discourage them.
In 1981, bat manufactures were allotted plots in Sher-e-Kashmir Sports Complex, Bijbehara, against a certain sum, which was supposed to become a single point hub for all sports goods manufacturers. “But concerned officers, despite taking money from manufacturers, took years to actually give possession,” Salroo claims.
Before officials could wake up and act, militancy broke out in Kashmir and Sports Complex Bijbehara was turned into a CRPF garrison. “We lost our money and land too,” said Fayaz Ahmad Dar, owner of Alfa Sports, Sangam. “That place is a no-go zone for us now. Taking possession of the land is impossible now as they won’t vacate,” Fayaz says.
“In fact it is the government (officials) who are anti-progress and anti-people,” said Zahoor, an agitated manufacturer from Sangam whose unit was demolished for construction of highway. “Where should we go? Government should have given us any replacement. We cannot just shift everything and start anew,” demands Zahoor.
With most of the units getting displaced from Sangam, bat manufacturing in Kashmir is a hopeless business venture for people like Salroo and Zahoor.
Smuggling Raw Material
According to data compiled by the J&K’s Social Forestry department, there are around 1.04 crore Kashmir willow trees in Kashmir valley. But with 40 to 45 years of time period required for these trees to attain perfect girth (between 48 to 60 inches as per international standards), these trees need another 10 years before they could be used for cleft manufacturing.
“People are least interested in planting Kashmir willow as it is a long term investment,” said Salroo. Industry experts feel that without free flow of raw material, Kashmir bat industry cannot survive even a single day.
Salroo feels the state government should invest in development of hybrid varieties of Kashmir willow which will take less time to grow and restore farmer’s confidence in this crop. “Why can’t government dedicate a piece of land/forest for willow plantation,” asks Salroo.
In an attempt to save Kashmir’s bat manufacturing industry, the state government has banned supply of willow clefts to others states, especially UP and Punjab. But Salroo believes that such a ban was only hurting the local bat industry rather than doing any good for its much needed revival. “The ban has only encouraged smuggling of willow cleft,” blames Salroo.
In March 2013, industrialists from Jalandhar and Meerut lobbied for removal of ban on sale of cleft outside the state. They demanded a fixed quota of willow clefts grown in Kashmir in order to discourage illegal trade which they blamed was hurting their business. “We are helpless. Our business is dependent on Kashmir willow clefts. The ban is eating on our profits and hampers delivery of big international orders on time,” said a dealer from Punjab who camps in Kashmir for raw material every year.
According to estimates, graded clefts worth Rs 10 crore are smuggled outside the state. “If the state government helps us to upgrade our units to international standards, then there is no need to supply willow cleft outside,” feels Shakeel Ahmad Dar, owner of Frontlines Sports at Sangam.
According to industry experts, graded Kashmir willow has the potential to compete with famed English willow in terms of weight and quality. “We have the best raw material in the world. We just need latest machines,” Dar believes.
Local manufacturers feel that the involvement of Kashmiri investors in this sector is important for bat industries’ survival. “We don’t expect anything from state government which, in fact, is responsible for all our miseries,” said Saleem, an angry manufacturer who is using a portion of his house as makeshift factory. “If government can procure large hillocks for CRPF and police colonies, why can’t they provide us some space as well,” he said.
In a memorandum presented to the state government, CBMAK pointed out the presence of dummy factories, mostly located near Punjab-Kashmir border, used to procure graded cleft from Kashmir. These factories are registered under fake names. From there, Kashmir willow cleft is smuggled outside the state.
“What is left here is B-grade raw material which nobody is interested in buying. We used to do considerable business during peak tourist season. But after the displacement of units from Sangam, we are selling our bats in roadside tents,” said Sajid Ahmad Dar, owner of Paradise Bats.
A Matter of Survival
Kashmir bat industry, which once flourished along River Jhelum currently provides direct livelihood to around 8000 people. As the demand for Kashmiri bat diminished in Indian market and among tourists, manufacturers were forced to lay-off skilled and unskilled labourers in large number. “I am yet to find a new place to operate from. How can I afford workers right now,” said Abdul Majid Dar, whose unit was demolished during highway widening.
“In last one year, we have registered a steep growth in number of patients from Sangam,” said Ms Mudassir Aziz, clinical psychologist and in-charge Drug De addiction Centre (DDC), Islamabad. Most of the drug/substance abuse cases received at DDC Islamabad from Sangam, are related to bat manufacturing industry. “These people turned to drugs in order to cope with the stress of being jobless,” said Ms Aziz.
Once a prosperous village, Sangam is going though change which government claims is in the interest of the locals, but displacements and the death of a profitable industry has left people hopeless.