At the peak of despair when people were desperately seeking face-masks as the minimal basic defence against the crippling virus, a manufacturer revived his mask stitching activity, years after the state government had forced him and many others to shut shop, reports Masood Hussain
Laced with concertina drop gates and ubiquitous cops with their faces hidden behind masks are the only two conspicuous things on Srinagar roads. Furlongs in between, outside half-opened pharmacies are groups scattered like cards, ensuring they are not ‘dangerously’ close to each other. On the main roads, official vehicles zoom around, and in alleys are aged men and women carrying bags with routine groceries.
In the deserted Rangreth, on the outskirts of the city, not far away from the headquarters of the JAKLI regimental centre is a two-story factory where the noise of machines indicates a rare facet of life at the peak of the Coronavirus dread. Almost a dozen people, mostly tailors, spend almost 10 hours a day on the automatic sewing machines. They are stitching face masks – the only thing the market is exhibiting an appetite for. The demand is as good in Srinagar as it is in Silicon Valley. Face masks are in huge shortage world over and now China has upgraded its facility to manage part of the demand especially in the worst-hit countries in Europe.
It is the main unit of the Bismillah Products that an engineer Javed Ahmad Bhat is running for almost a decade. Bhat has to make an effort to talk to visitors because his phone does not stop ringing. “Yesterday, I might have missed almost 400 calls,” Bhat said. “Everybody from officials to hospitals and the private sector is seeking masks and they need too many, but I do not have that much capacity.”
At the peak of the crisis when desperation for the masks grew, Bhat took a decision to source raw material. “It was a risk but I thought it is worth taking,” Bhat said. “It was only after he revived his activity that he could understand that the decision was good and in the larger interest of the society.”
“I have the raw material – medical non-woven fabric, for around a million triple-layer masks,” Bhat said. “But my problem is that I can take my production from the existing 5000 pieces a day to maybe 15000 in the next couple of days. The market, however, requires more than that on a daily basis.”
Right now, he prioritises the mask supply to healthcare workers and hospitals. During the conversation Bhat had with this reporter, at least two district hospitals picked up part of their supplies from Bhat’s facility.
Bhat is a computer engineer. After completing his BCA, he went to Delhi and worked with IBM for a year. Feeling homesick, he flew back and joined the HDFC Bank for some time. It was later that he decided to start his own manufacturing facility with an emphasis on making disposables and managing certain requirements of the hospitals. He started his unit in Humhama and later in 2013 shifted it to Rangreth Industrial Centre.
“Apart from manufacturing disposable paper glasses, my unit was working with the hospitals. We were supplying face masks and bed-sheets,” Bhat said. “I had the supply orders from the state hospitals for almost five years for these two items.”
After the 2014 assembly elections, Choudhary Lal Singh became the Jammu and Kashmir’s health minister. In order to add another layer of gate-keeping, in 2014, he set up the Jammu and Kashmir Medical Supplies Corporation. This became the bridge between the consumers (read hospitals) and the manufacturers. Supposed to make things hassle-free, it complicated the processes.
“It was a mind-boggling system,” Bhat said. “They made it so complicated by adding a clause over a clause that most of the local manufacturers like us could not even participate in tendering.”
After making representations at various levels, Bhat said they waited for some time hoping the government would reconsider and make the processes suitable for the local manufacturers. “When it did not happen, we stopped,” Bhat said. “We got into making school bags, bedrolls, and sleeping bags for soldiers, giving us a foothold in the market and helping us survive despite initial tensions.”
In the last few years, Bhat’s Bismillah (Arabic word meaning ‘in the name of God’) expanded. Now he has three manufacturing facilities. He stitches all kinds of bags, sleeping bags, manufactures disposable paper glasses, tape rolls and tissue papers. “Face mask stitching is a revived activity though we had been doing it earlier too,” Bhat said.
The revival of the hitherto abandoned activity was not his desire alone. While there were many people who adversely contributed to elbowing out the local manufactures from the competition, this time, it was again an officer behind the revival, undoing of the past.
“I was also concerned over the lack of certain basics and then I heard a conversation between two traders who were planning converting masks from something that was unimaginable. That gave me an idea of the desperation on the ground,” Mehmood Ahmad, the Director Industries said. “I started hunting for the units who could help in the situation and I saw Javid more than willing to revive the process of making masks.”
“He (Mehmood) encouraged me to acquire the raw material and I did it in a jiffy,” Bhat said. By then, he had been promised by the same corporation to supply, an assurance they have withdrawn by now! “There is Arjumand Madam who also wanted me to revive the activity as quickly as possible.”
Now, both Ahmad and Javid are happy that they did it. “We may not be able to manage the entire demand but we are sure that at least one component that people at the frontline need is available,” Ahmad said. “It is a pandemic and demand for all required items is global. We must try and see which items can be managed locally and to what extent.”
Ahmad is visiting the industrial hubs across Kashmir, tracing which unit can do what in the prevailing situation. “I discovered a unit in Rangret that can make the hand sanitizers because he is already into making similar things,” Ahmad said. “We are in the process of issuing him the mandatory licence so that he can manage part of the supply after we ensure it fits the set standards.”
Bhat is flattened by the response he is getting from the governance systems now. He is about to jump into the making of Personal Protection kits. “We have material that is slightly expensive but perfect for medical staff even in operation theatres,” Bhat said. “The SKIMS has sought samples and if approved we will be making around 100 kits every 24 hours.”
The demand surged suddenly at the peak of a lockdown that has sent the skilled workforce to the shell. “For all these days, I have been locating the people who have worked with our unit and am sure I will get the number of people I require,” Bhat said. Right now, he has professional tailors from Bihar, Jharkhand, and UP working on automatic machines for most of the day. Some of them have moved to the premises with their families.
Bhat said he has enough raw material in stock and given his output, he may not be able to utilise the entire raw material on his own. “I usually do not sell raw material but if there are people who have stitching machines, I am willing to provide it,” Bhat said. “Those units will have to see the economics on their own because it requires up-scaling in numbers.”
Bhat’s estimation is that Kashmir’s market alone requires almost three million face masks within and outside hospitals. “I can make one-third of it in three fortnights,” Bhat said. “Even the army requires a good number and those supplying the armed forces have approached me but I do not have it available.”
Every eight hours, Bhat said his unit produces 150 thousand tissue papers. When life is normal, the market consumes many times more than his production. In lockdowns, it is not possible. “Right now, most of the quarantine centres are taking tissue paper supplies from us,” Bhat said. “Recently the NGO Athrout came and I gave it away for free.”
In two 8-hour shifts, Bhat’s disposable paper glass unit produces 100 thousand pieces. Consumption increases during the marriage season. Right now, markets do not have a huge demand for this also though people in isolation and quarantine should ideally use these items. “Our stocks are left for 12 days and then this particular machine will be shut,” Bhat said.
Bhat said that in the given situation, the Jammu and Kashmir government must encourage and facilitate the units to access raw material. The demand for the masks shall remain for some more items than we think. Besides, the costs for the raw material will also go up.
At the society levels, a number of volunteers, tailors and NGOs have jumped into the mask making. This has witnessed the return of the volunteer culture back, added a bit of fashion to the trendy mask and helped people to know basic education about the pandemic.
In Kashmir periphery, volunteers have engaged tailors to stitch face masks. In most of the cases, these masks are being distributed free or on a no-profit basis. Some NGOs like Ehsaas International joined hands with Jammu and Kashmir Skill Development Agency to get into the manufacture of various protective gears for the medical staff. They procured non-woven polypropylene material locally and got into making certain items including the gowns and the masks.
In Srinagar, a fashion designer, Sadia Mufti got her workers to stitch colourful face masks. She told reporters that she is also into making PPEs as well.
Gradually but surely the making of these hugely required items has emerged into a sort of a movement across Kashmir. In Tral, a report said that a group of young girls managing a local boutique have also started sewing the material required for the health staff.