Pampore is usually associated with the costly spice Saffron. But it is rare public knowledge that a vibrant apparel cluster is fighting odds to survive and make an impact. Shams Irfan offers a keyhole view of an anonymous industry that lacks systemic support, acknowledgement and any guide to modern forward and backward linkages.
With a callous system on one side and hostile traders on another, the hosiery manufacturers in Kashmir are fighting various odds to survive in a market that is obsessed with products brought from outside the state. Lost in the bylanes of Kashmir’s famous saffron town, Pampore, Frestabal is a hub of hosiery manufacturing in Kashmir.
Located just off the Srinagar-Jammu highway, Frestabal looks like an extension of the main town of Pampore. As you walk through the narrow streets, the rapid unplanned construction that has come up in the area in the last few years is hard to overlook. You can easily pass the old structures housing small manufacturing units without even noticing the freshly dyed sweaters hung along their outer walls. There are no signboards, no receptionists and no big iron gates in sight to set these small factories apart from the big residential houses surrounding them.
“It is all unorganized,” said Bilal Ahmad Malik, the young owner of Alpine Hosiery Products. Bilal started his firm in 2003 with a small investment of Rs 10 lakh by turning a small portion of his house into a makeshift factory. A small wooden gate between a kiryana store and a tailor’s shop opens into Bilal’s small kitchen garden. The noise of machines from the makeshift tin shed that Bilal has carved out of his garden is the only sign of activity in the house. “I am a small businessman. I can’t afford to invest in big infrastructures,” he says.
With around 6,000 kg of wool consumed yearly, Alpine makes 4,000 sweaters and 3,000 woollen inner pants (locally known as daraaz) using hand-operated machines. Alpine has a permanent staff of ten people including four local girls who are employed for stitching and finishing work. “Each year I have to employ two people from Ludhiana as skilled labour is unavailable in Kashmir,” Bilal says.
“Almost all units in Frestabal use hand-operated manual weaving machines which need no electricity to run,” he says. However, he quickly adds that the hand-operated machines which need manual power to run are obsolete and non-competitive in terms of output.
A standard quality computer-based machine costs somewhere between Rs 80 lakh and Rs 1 crore, which is far too much for a small manufacturer like Bilal. “Even Chinese low-quality machines cost around Rs 20 lakh nowadays. And it also needs a big space for installation,” said Bilal.
On the other hand, Ghulam Ahmad Bhat, 65, who owns Pamposh Hosiery Mills, Kashmir’s first hosiery manufacturing unit, feels there is enough potential in the business to work wonders for Kashmir’s economy. Despite the state government policies which are in place to help traders like Bhat to sustain and flourish their trades, low-rung officials in concerned government offices grind them to a point that they have given up expansion plans.
Bhat has not taken any financial assistance from the government despite a number of loan schemes available to help the owner of small-scale industrial units like his expand. “It takes ages to get clearances and get the money sanctioned. I have a business to take care of. I cannot run after officials for clearances and bribe people every now and then,” he said, sarcastically.
“They even don’t allow us to get our machines repaired from outside,” said Bhat.
Bhat employs eight local girls for stitching and tailoring purposes. Operating from his three-storey ancestral house, Bhat has been in the business since 1970. He started with just two hand-operated machines to make woollen waistcoats, sweaters and inner pants for the local market.
With the introduction of computer-based machines in Ludhiana and other parts of India, the sales of Bhat nosedived as he could not match their quality and output. “I finally invested in five basic computer-operated machines replacing all the old ones,” said Bhat.
Bhat says that if there was proper infrastructure in place using new electric machines which cost him Rs 7.5 lakh a piece, it would increase the output by many volumes. Interestingly, Bhat paid sales tax in full to get these machines into Kashmir, despite the government offering full waiver on such items used in Small Scale Industrial (SSI) units. “I had two options; either I had to wait endlessly for permissions from government officials and get tax exemption, or I had to purchase machines by paying full sales tax.” He took the shortest route like all other manufacturers who do not want to suffer official apathy by tracking their files endlessly. Last year, Bhat’s firm consumed 8,000 kg of finished yarn from Ludhiana while he sold the finished products worth Rs 15 lakh during the same period.
Adjacent to Bhat’s factory is Good Luck Hosiery Mills, owned by Bhat’s cousin, Mohammad Sultan Bhat, who is the biggest manufacturer of winter wear in Kashmir. Sultan feels the callous attitude adopted by the government officials is pushing the traders towards a position where they think twice before planning any expansion or upgradation. Sultan was once denied permission to get his hand-operated machines repaired from Ludhiana as nobody in Kashmir had the expertise to repair them.
He was asked to produce a certificate signed by a government-assigned mechanic certifying that his machines really need to be repaired. “When I got the certificate they told me to prove that the machines are not transported to Punjab for sale,” said Sultan. “It doesn’t make any sense to send machines to Punjab for sale as everything is manufactured there only.”
Good Luck is perhaps the only end-to-end winter products manufacturer in Kashmir. The firm manufactures socks, winter inner pants, sweaters, mufflers, caps and waistcoats which are sold to retailers through an organized distribution network spread across ten districts in Kashmir. In 2011, Good Luck manufactured 30,000 pieces in all at its factory using two-decade-old machines Sultan Bhat bought in 1984 when he started the manufacturing unit.
Since then, he has been visiting Ludhiana to buy yarn and get operators for his machines as nobody stays in Kashmir for more than six months because of the harsh winters. Last year, his firm consumed 12,000 kg of yarn at his factory to meet the growing local demand for his products. “We sold goods worth Rs 50 lakh last year,” said Sultan.
Over the last five years, sales have been constant for Good Luck as all 14 men including two machine operators from Ludhiana work round the year and still could not deliver the orders on time.
“I have to turn down orders because I don’t have workforce, machines or enough capital to back my business,” said Sultan. When asked why he didn’t shift to computer-operated machines like his cousin Bhat, he said, “I would have upgraded machinery long back but without uninterrupted power available it’s a wastage of money.”
Sultan says the market has changed since he ventured into the business of manufacturing winter products for the local market. According to Sultan, District Industrial Complex (DIC), Pulwama, had two field officers in each area who were assigned to visit manufacturing units to inspect and advice owners regarding improvement in quality and output. “Since the last two decades, nobody has shown up,” said Sultan.
Despite having the potential to meet local demand for winter hosiery products, the manufacturers in Kashmir are struggling to even recover their investments. Farooq Ahmad Mir, 42, who worked as a machine operator at Pamposh Hosiery Product since his childhood started Diamond Hosiery Products in 2006. He struggles to keep pace with the fast-changing world around him.
“I have worked on these hand-operated looms since I was a kid. I cannot do anything else now otherwise I would have quit this field a long time back,” said Mir. Operating from a small room in his two-story modest house in Frestabal, Mir’s firm consumes 4,000 kg Cashmilon and 300 kg wool annually. With a workforce of just four people including Mir who takes care of all the stitching work himself besides working on one of the machines, the firm manufactured 6,000 winter inner pants and 3,000 school uniform sweaters last year.
“I don’t have any fixed buyers. Last year I sold my product in small lots of 50 pieces to one shopkeeper, and 100 pieces to another in order to prevent losses,” said Mir. Whatever is left unsold, Mir sells through a makeshift stall leased at the Sunday market in Srinagar. “I have a family to feed. I cannot afford to sit idle and wait for buyers,” said Mir.
There is a huge demand for winter clothing in Kashmir but small manufacturers like Mir who operate in an unorganized manner from their houses fail to connect with the buyers. Mir feels the lack of exposure to the latest technological innovations and designs affects their products in the competitive market. “How can you expect us to compete with Ludhiana-based manufacturers who invest crores in machines, research and design?” he asks.
“We still work on hand-operated machines as there is no electricity available. There is no competition between developed industrial people and those living in dark ages like us,” said Mir sarcastically. He says that a hand-operated machine produces only 5 pieces a day against 50 pieces a day by a basic electricity-run machine.
“Manual machines add to the manufacturing costs, thus making our products uncompetitive even in the local market,” said Bilal. “It is no way going to pay us back unless we don’t use modern machines,” feels Bhat.
Bilal who took a loan of Rs 15 lakh from a local bank to support his business says every machine used in making hosiery is brought from Ludhiana as they are not available locally. “Even for minor repairs, we have to send them back to Ludhiana or call a mechanic from there. We buy yarn from Ludhiana as it is not available locally. Now, most of my profits go into repaying the loan.”
Ludhiana-based traders buy raw unfinished wool from breeders in Kashmir and after processing it, they sell the same to the local traders at high rates. Unlike the handloom sector which depends on Punjab-based spinning mills for processing raw wool, these small hosiery manufacturing units depend entirely on Ludhiana-based traders for raw materials. “Our livelihood is entirely dependent on Punjabi trader’s mood. They buy unprocessed wool at a flat rate of Rs 120 and sell the same in the Kashmir market after turning it into yarn for Rs 500 per kg,” said Bilal.
Most hosiery manufacturers who use manually operated machines want to upgrade to computer-based machines but it needs capital. “I want to upgrade to new machines but it needs large capital support which I don’t have. Then the labour cost is high in Kashmir as the skilled labour is bought from outside on high remuneration,” said Bilal.
Manzoor Ahmad Bhat, who owns Gousia Hosiery Mills in Pampore, specializes in manufacturing fancy winter wear products, started his manufacturing unit with just four manually operated machines. Despite converting his entire house into a factory in 1999, Manzoor consumes only 7,000 kg of yarn annually. “When I had only four machines I was permitted to consume 7,000 kg yarn annually. But now I have 10 machines. I am still not allowed to consume more,” said Manzoor.
Manzoor sees no reason in upgrading his machines as it will take ages to get the official nod to reinstall desired machines. “I have to go through the entire process of seeking permissions, getting NOCs and signatures from all concerned offices all over again to install new machines. I am better off with whatever I have,” he said with a smiling face. “And where is the electricity to run those machines?” he asks. “Without electricity, those machines are like costly junks. And I don’t believe in collecting junk,” he adds.
Although Manzoor is reluctant to change over from manual to electric machines, but he dreams of buying a fully computerized machine someday and exporting his products to Europe and America. “But such a machine costs around Rs 1 crore. Besides, there is no local skilled labour available to sustain this industry while outsiders are highly unreliable as they leave en masse in winter without even informing.”
“If local unemployed youth take up this as a career, then it will help us in a big way. Right now we are dependent of outside skilled workers,” feels Sultan. In 2011, Manzoor sold finished goods worth Rs 30 lakh. “There is a huge demand for sweaters, fancy tops, school uniforms etc. But we don’t have enough resources to feed the local market,” said Manzoor.
The government could rescue a flourishing trade which has the potential to create employment opportunities on a large scale and support the state’s stagnant economy. But with rampant red tapism and official apathy, it seems the dreams of people like Bhat and Manzoor will not be realised very soon.