Silky Way

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Once a thriving industry Kashmir was known for across continents, silk yarn production has been on a steady decline. But an engineer, undeterred by its falling graph quit his comfortable government job to set up a successfully run, perhaps the only, silk yarn production unit in the valley. Arifa Gani reports from Islamabad. silk-yarn-production

Mohammed Yousuf was never happy with his government job. He always wanted to be an entrepreneur. The ‘unsatisfactory’ work culture in the government and the behavior of his seniors as well as his sub-ordinates egged him to do something else.

“In government offices, we don’t work hard. Once we get a government job, we strive hard to get one in the first place, we grow very lazy. Rather than working as public servants, we think and work as bosses and that (work culture) compelled me to reconsider what I was doing,” Yousuf says. “I didn’t feel people in the department were honest.”

One of the few engineers from his area, Yousuf, after serving in the government for more than twenty years took voluntary premature retirement as in-charge Assistant Executive Engineer. He wanted to pursue his dream of setting up his own business.

And he did not imitate other successful entrepreneurs or move on the beaten track. Yousuf chose to start a silk yarn unit – a dying industry, though once a major contributor to state’s economy.

Shying away from the fad to set up an industry in a town or city, Yousuf established his Raja Silk Industry at the small Imoh village, in Islamabad district. Away from the dusty, crowded life and honking vehicles, the factory is surrounded by mustard fields, willows and freshwater streams. Raja Silk Industry is Kashmir’s only silk yarn unit. Yosouf, who is now in his 50’s, lives a few miles away from his factory.

In Kashmir, holding a government job brings one respect among family and friends. And, resigning from one means a lot of uneasy questions. Yousuf took the plunge.

“I told my family that I will start a business, put in lot of hard work into it and work more efficiently without pressures from various quarters. My mother and my wife supported me at every point of time. They believed in me,” says Yousuf.

After leaving the job, Yousuf could not start any business immediately. The “stress of doing nothing” and sitting idle “started burdening” him. “I was thinking of starting something which incorporated the local community especially the downtrodden sections –orphans and widows – victims of the turmoil, who were willing to work hard,” he says.

He had to face a lot of difficulties in his journey. “In Kashmir people are not used to working hard. Over the years we have seen local people working on very low posts, which are rather comfortable, and giving a go by to the highly skilled professions that their ancestors were masters of. They would rather take a lowly government job. People want to earn big and quick bucks,” says Yousuf.

Choosing to start an industry which was almost dying did not help much. The absence of trained people in his locality was a major obstacle. However, he didn’t allow it to be an impediment in the way of his dream.

Yousuf started his unit with 30 people including 10 boys trained from CBS lab Jammu. He had paid them a stipend during their two-month training. Workers in the factory earn Rs 4000 to 6000 a month.

 “It wasn’t easy to gain the trust of the workers and the cocoon raisers who were indecisive over associating with a declining industry,” Yusuf says.

He admits that he didn’t fear losses. “I knew local (cocoon) producers were exploited,” says Yousuf. When, in 2006, the rates fixed by the government for the locally produced A-grade cocoons were Rs 150 a kilogram and the B-Grade at Rs 80 a kg, he bought top quality cocoons at Rs 300 to 360 a kg.

However, there was a worry. The produce from these local cocoon producers was just 7000 kgs and it wasn’t sufficient to keep the industry running for the whole year. He still insisted on maintaining quality.

Yousuf put in his savings of 20 years – his salary, GP fund and commutation pay to start the factory. “Banks don’t finance on time and ministers don’t help. I didn’t want to waste my time in these things,” he says.

In the beginning the unit will produce nine to 10 kgs of yarn in a day, which was doubled after the installation of four more separate basins and other machinery bought from Jammu.

There isn’t enough cultivation of mulberry trees in the valley, limiting the scope for rearing cocoon on a large scale. In Kashmir there is just one crop while those who rear cocoon outside, like in Bangalore, have five crops in a single year. This makes the silk production business less appealing for the locals, says Yousuf. Till date, Yousuf’s unit has been using the local produce which is procured from almost all the districts of Jammu and Kashmir. In Jammu division the major part of the cocoon supplies is managed from Udhampur, Sundarbhani, Nowshera and Dangura (Kathua) areas and from Kashmir it comes from Islamabad, Srinagar, Baramulla, Kupwara and Pulwama districts.

The silk produced at the unit is mostly consumed in Kashmir though sometimes the product is exported to Bangalore as well. However, from last November, the industry hasn’t been able to sell all its produce as the rate has gone down, which nowadays, people associated with the industry say, areis less than the production costs.  The slashing of import duty on raw silk from 30 percent to five per cent has badly affected Yousuf’s silk yarn production unit.

“Local (cocoon) producers and (silk) manufacturers are making huge losses as Chinese silk has flooded the market. In fact we are not running three (of our) units to avoid losses,” says Yousuf.

However, he is happy to have ventured into a business where he indirectly benefits about 1200 people and other 100 people directly by employing them in fabric weaving, printing, dying and other processes.

Though the factory from outside appears to be devoid of any activity, inside it is buzzing with life. People can be seen busy working on machines and few small smiling girls spreading out the wet yarn in the sunshine. The factory employs mostly local girls and boys. Yousuf says that there is a problem with employing girls as after getting trained and earning for few years, they get married, leaving the factory in “deficiency of workers”. In order to stop it from affecting the output, the owner employs people from other states also. Yousuf has even built a residential quarter for the workers he has employed from outside the valley.

Though the money has a big role in establishing a business, Yousuf believes, to sustain it, hard work, planning, a keen eye, and an uncompromising attitude are a must.

“It shouldn’t be that somebody has made great money and fame by starting something, and other people will start copying and following in his steps. It may work or it can turn out to be a complete disaster,” he says. “More importantly, maintaining the quality will help create a long term influence among the buyers. Don’t cheat them, they won’t cheat you.”

Once Kashmir’s flagship industry, the silk industry has been on decline as the number of farmers allied with cocoon rearing has shrunk by more than 80 per cent, officials say.

A century ago Kashmir had a bustling silk trade and historians also recorded its rise. “In 1940s, the silk yarn produced in Kashmir was exported to entire Europe.”

Official records suggest that when the silk industry in France was almost wiped out by a disease to the silkworm seed, the country imported material from Kashmir to revive its own silk industry. According to official data during its heydays in 1980s the cocoon production in Kashmir had reached more than 15 lakh kilograms. “The cocoon production dropped to 60,000 kgs in late 90s,” officials said.

 While officials blame its decline on the lack of skilled labour, the people associated with the trade say, “new technology invented in any area can be learned. In every field, employee skills are upgraded with training.”

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