Pashmina Politics

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Centuries after Kashmir made Cashmere a global fashion statement, the Rs 600 crore heritage Shawl sector feels compelled to use raw material imported from distant lands as machines are gradually replacing the manual processes at artisans cost. Syed Asma offers the new narrative that Pashmina wars offer in a democratic J&K.

Pashmina goats in Ladakh – Photo: Bilal Bahadur

For the grass that you have just eaten, oh goat,
Give us some good pashm.
For the water that you have just drunk, oh goat,
Give us some good pashm.
Sit down on the grass and be still, oh goat,
So that we can take out your pashm

Changpas, a nomadic, schedule tribe which leads a pastoral life in the mountains of the treacherous Ladakh and Tibet regions thus begin the combing of Himalayan goats to obtain Pashmina (Pashm) which is used to manufacture world-class Pashmina products, Monisha Ahmed, an independent scholar writes in her book ‘Pashmina, The Kashmiri Shawls and Beyond’ that she co-authored with Janet Rizvi.

Historically, Changpas have been the principle suppliers of the super-soft wool to Kashmir where it underwent a number of processes before getting on to the loom. The traders in Kashmir region used to procure raw Pashmina produced by Changpas’ herd of Pashmina goats (Capra Hircus Laniger) which was distributed to middlemen in Kashmir. The middlemen had an identified network of women, scattered across Kashmir, who processed the raw Pashmina on spinning wheels to make a fine thread out of the wool. The thread was then sent to manufacturing units where artisans manually weaved it to make fine quality Pashmina products.

Hajra, 70, lives with her children and grand children in Srinagar. Her husband, a businessman, died about 32 years ago, leaving behind three daughters, two sons and very little money for their survival. A desperate Hajra had to look for a source of income and bought a spinning wheel (yandir) in 1995. “Most women in our locality used to earn by processing wool. I can’t imagine how a small wooden wheel helped my children to complete their studies and run the family as well. My children are employed now and independent enough to take care of the entire family,” she says.

Like Hajra, there were thousands of women who used to spin raw Pashmina to earn a living. Although there is no official data on the exact number of women involved in the spinning, their sheer contribution formed the backbone of Pashmina industry in the state before the introduction of mechanical processing units. The Mechanical Intervention

In 2004, a Pashmina dehairing plant worth Rs 8.25 crore was installed in Leh. It was jointly funded by Leh’s Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council, union textile ministry and United Nation Development Program. The government intervention in a trade which formed the backbone of one of most lucrative industries evoked resentment from local traders. As the value addition improved margins, the instant reaction from Srinagar was the artisans would not use the mechanically dehaired wool because it cuts the long fiber and impacts the final product.

As Srinagar stopped Pashmina procurement from the arid desert, it triggered glut in Ladakh. Finally, the LAHDC set up a cooperative that would procure wool from farmers, add value to it and market it. It did improve the margins for the herdsmen. But for the first time in history, it triggered disconnect that is not being talked publicly. Right now, Kashmir does not source even a single kilogram of Cashmere from Ladakh.

Changpas living in close vicinity to the border with Western Tibet in Ladakh produce around 42,000 kgs per year. Presently, around 23,000 weavers, 2, 18,000 auxiliary workers and about 85,000 artisans are associated with Pashmina in J&K.

Information that J&K’s State Wool Board shared with Kashmir Life suggests there is a demand of around one lakh kgs of Pashmina per year in Kashmir region but the traders are able to procure only 15,000-20,000 kg from Ladakh these days.

The market experts and Pashmina dealers blame the introduction of mechanical dehairing units for creating the Pashmina divide. The introduction of mechanical-unit was strongly opposed by the dealers in Kashmir who argued that it reduced the durability and quality of Pashmina. The officials of LAHDC say the strong opposition from the traders in Kashmir forced them to look for a market beyond Kashmir valley.

Gurmet Dojrey, executive counselor LAHDC, who is in-charge of animal and sheep husbandry says, “Since we introduced de-hairing mechanical plant, our market was disturbed due to the opposition by traders in Kashmir. We had to look for an alternative market.” It was only after the introduction of mechanical units that Kashmir stopped procuring Pashmina and Ladakh started supplying Pashmina to Kulu, Dehradun and Amritsar based Oswal group.

“The Pashmina traders in Kashmir are facing a shortage of raw material. They are forced to import Pashmina from foreign countries at much higher prices. Even the raw material is imported from London and Italy,” says Fuzail Farooq, a Pashmina importer and managing partner of Apex Fine Shawls based in Kashmir. “The traders in Ladakh export the best quality Pashmina to Europe. In order to make durable and better product and to live up to the name of ‘Kashmiri Pashmina’ in the world, sometimes we import Pashmina from Europe,” rues Fuzail.

Although the Pashmina dealers claim the quality and the durability of the raw material has not changed since the inception of mechanical units, the working artisans say it has worsened with each passing day. “Around 15 years ago, we used to receive superior quality raw Pashmina from Ladakh which had long and extremely soft fiber. We used to throw this away as leftover. Today we have to make products out of it,” says Nazir Ahmed, pointing to the raw Pashmina lying at his Srinagar unit.

There are two reasons for deterioration in the quality of raw Pashmina. First, the traders in Kashmir, who used to procure Pashmina from Ladakh, are now sourcing the wool in other regions where the quality of wool is not up to the mark. The biggest issue with the Pashmina goat is that it survives in high altitude. The more the cold, the finer the fiber, goes the thumb rule.

The second reason was the mechanical intervention. Nazir has been involved in Pashmina trade from the last 30 years. “The chemicals and machines have reduced the durability and beauty of the real Pashmina. I took out nylon threads from what our dealers call ‘pure’ Pashmina many times,” says Nazir with a touch of sarcasm. “It is painful to see how we are spoiling our own world class product just to make money.”

But the traders disagree with artisans and claim that the mechanical intervention has helped to increase the quantity and has in no way affected the quality of Pashmina. “It is necessary to mix nylon with Pashmina in the ratio of 70:30 to ensure durability during weaving but it is later burnt when the final product is dipped in a particular chemical,” says Abdul Rashid Khan. Most Pashmina dealers say the mechanical intervention was important to meet the increasing market demands which were not sufficed by the handmade products, though the quality and durability of manually manufactured products was superior.

Ironically, most Pashmina dealers of Kashmir who had once opposed the introduction of mechanical dehairing units have set up their own small units, mostly illegal. “We are just trying to cope up with changing times. The traders in Ladakh have ignored the market in Kashmir with some independent (private) societies and agencies influencing the policy of Wool Board of Ladakh,” a trader, who wishes to remain anonymous, said.

Artisans, interestingly do not blame Ladakh for the mess. They accuse their local traders for it. “It is a plain issue of exploitation,” said a weaver, Abdul Gani. “For the last many decades, we work on rates that do not improve while the exporters are selling our products at good prices, internationally. It might be the same relationship they had with goat herders.”

They believe the mechanical interventions in the processing of Pashmina were introduced by the same people who opposed the LAHDC initiative in Leh. “Nobody asked them what they are doing and why?” Gani, an old hand in shawl weaving, said. “Now, the same people are offering more rates to Ladakh per kilogram but are unable to get. And obviously it is the same lobby that sells Amritsari shawls in the name of Kashmir.”

This situation makes the Geographic Indication of Pashmina as a laughing stock. Kashmir weaves mechanized Mongolian raw material and still fights with Pakistan administered Kashmir over the GI at WTO approved Registry in Chennai and bags it!!

Those associated with the cooperatives in Ladakh, however, say about 60 per cent raw Pashmina is still managed by independent dealers and not by the cooperatives. Explains Sonam Tsering, LAHDCs Secretary for Cooperatives: “Last year Cooperatives got 15 tons of Pashmina for farmers but this year it is only 11 tons.” He believes that setting up of the cooperative has helped farmers to get better rate from the open market that is dominated by the traditional traders. “Farmers get Rs 1000 a kilogram more than what we offer them so most of the produce is being marketed through them.” He, however, is not in a position to offer details about where it is consumed because it is informal market. There is possibility of part of portion of this actually coming to Kashmir.

Earlier we used to have an easy access to the raw material produced in Ladakh. We had good contacts and good relationship with the suppliers. But after the private agencies took over, it has become difficult for Kashmiris to approach them,” a Pashmina importer says, “These private agencies want to monopolize the trade. We have no say in their decision making.” Abdul Rashid Khan, a major Pashmina importer and owner of Chinar Kashmir Textile Private Ltd says. He claims he repeatedly approached the government to look into the issue of shortage of material but nothing substantial has been done so far.

Changing Market

But the access to raw material has now taken a different turn. Recently, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council signed an MoU with one of the leading Indian garment companies, Oswal, without taking the state government and the union textile ministry into confidence. The decision upset the ministry which flagged the council for its ‘unwise’ move, saying Ladakh was not in a position to fulfill even its local market needs and signing an MoU with Oswal was not a clever move.

Ever since the Cashmere shawls became a fashion statement, credit goes to the Josephine, the Queen of Napoleon Bonaparte, almost every regime has remained sensitive to the particular craft which is a heritage industry, albeit unorganized. Securing Cashmere supplies to Kashmir and defending the supply track triggered a military confrontation in the 19th century. Most of the income to the treasure of Dogra monarch’s was coming from the handicrafts and agriculture. To keep the artisan mint filling the despot’s kitty, rulers had to secure the supplies. Durbar would spend handsomely to ensure the pony track between Srinagar to Yarkand via Leh and to Tibet remains undisturbed. The situation changed after the partition especially after Beijing started consolidating its grip over Lhasa. It helped goat herders improve the margins as wool was in short supply.

But in the prevailing situation, even people talk in whispers. There has not been a single effort at the official level to mend the fence, if at all it exists. “A buyer and a seller have a constitutional right to choose their trading partner,” Abdul Rahim Rather, state’s Finance Minister who is also Ladakh affairs Minister, told Kashmir Life. “I am not aware that Ladakh Pashmina does not come to Kashmir but I will definitely put a word to the LAHDC officials that they should bridge the gulf.”

But exceptions are there. Take the instance of state run J&K Handloom Development Corporation that is currently on a fast revival track. An insider said they have prevented the mechanization in the sector touch their products. “We do secure our supplies, partly from the farmers directly and partly from the breeding farms of the SKUAST-K,” an official involved in the process said. “We do not use any mechanized process in any of our products and in certain cases where we have apprehensions we deploy our staff till the product is ready.”

The SKUAST Factor

Keeping in view the importance of Pashmina goats for the economy in the region, the centre has taken up many projects with the state government using the expertise of scientists at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Kashmir (SKUAST-K). The main thrust of the research is to develop the profitability which will improve the livelihood of Pashmina herdsmen in Ladakh, says Dr Riyaz Ahmed Shah.

One of the scintillating achievements of the researchers at SKUAST-K was the birth of world’s first cloned Pashmina goat, Noori on March 9. Shah was the head of the cloning team. He has also been associated with the cloning team of the first buffalo, Garima. His team is presently working to produce a herd of Noori which would be later shifted to the higher altitudes of Ladakh.

SKUAST-K has now taken up collaborative research projects with Central Sheep and Wool Research Institute, Jaipur, Agriculture University, Palampur and Sheep Husbandry, Srinagar which are being headed by Prof Sarfaraz Ahmed Wani, Chief Scientist at SKUAST-K. A ‘Value Chain on Enhanced Productivity and Profitability of Pashmina’ is a Rs 943.23 lakh project which is likely to be completed by March 2013. It is a World Bank funded project and it started in February 2009. The target of the project are non-traditional areas which had the potential of rearing Pashmina goats. The researchers have targeted areas like Kargil, Drass and Tur-Tuk under the project and Prof Wani seems content with the progress achieved so far.

“The objective of the project was increasing the productivity and improvement in its utility. Under the project, around 47 families were given at least 10 Pashmina goats. They were properly guided and educated on the rearing of these goats. Presently, each one of them owns at least 30 goats and produce a significant amount of Pashmina,” says Prof Wani.

The SKAUST-K scientists say they used their expertise to tackle the problems of Pashmina goats which will help to increase the wool’s production. One of the problems they say they have tackled was the high kid mortality rate in Pashmina goats in Ladakh. “It was as high as 60% but we have reduced it to 30%,” claims Prof Wani. Wani says if the people in these non-traditional areas are motivated and guided properly, Kashmir will be able to gain its lost glory in Pashmina market again.

Keeping in view the urgency, Wani says he and his team had proposed a new project worth Rs 200 crore for opening up new 100 units in Kargil but the Central wool development Board is not approving it yet.

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