KAREWA CRAFTSMEN

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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 keyhole view of an industria anonymous that lacks systemic support, acknowledgment 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 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 big residential houses surrounding them.

“It is all unorganized,” said Bilal Ahmad Malik, 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 make shift factory. A small wooden gate between a kirana 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 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 in 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 costs around Rs 20 lakh nowadays. And it also needs 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 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 government despite a number of loan schemes available to help owner of small scale industrial units like his to 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 purpose. 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

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