From fifteen lakh kilograms of cocoons produced in 1940 to just three lakh kilograms in 2012, the once profitable silk industry is struggling to keep pace with the modern times. Shams Irfan meets the stakeholders in valley to trace the rise, fall and revival of Kashmir’s silk industry.
In 2011, Mudassir Ahmad Bhat dropped out of the college to fulfil his childhood dream of opening the first bookshop at his village in south Kashmir. But in less than a year’s time, Mudassir realized that his dream venture was failing to take off despite his efforts.
Hailing from the almond rich village of Parigam, a small hamlet located on the northern end of district Pulwama, Mudassir always wanted to be self-dependent. Since 2004, Mudassir has been rearing cocoons from a small shed which was financed by the J&K government’s Department of Sericulture to sustain himself.
Encouraged by his neighbours’ earnings, Mudassir approached the incubation centre at Pahoo and enrolled himself as a cocoon rearer. “While I was in college, my father insisted me to help him to take care of our ancestral almond plantation but I refused,” said Mudassir.
Last year at a Department of Sericulture facilitated market, Mudassir sold his 50 kilograms of cocoons at Rs 671 per kilogram (dry cocoons) to a Bengaluru-based trader.
With a number of incentives offered by the government like subsidised cocoon rearing sheds, hatching trays, health insurance for farmers, compensation in case of loss to the produce, etc. to revive the silk industry in Kashmir, a new generation of cocoon rearers has emerged.
“The reason new people are associating with the industry is that it needs less capital and fetches good money in return,” feels Dr Malik Farooq, Additional Director, Department of Sericulture, Kashmir.
Traditionally, Kashmiri women have also played an important role in cocoon rearing as it is less laborious compared to other agricultural activities. Haleema, a mother of two, has been rearing cocoons since 2007 and plays an important role in financially supporting her husband to run the family. Last year, she produced 51 kilograms of dry cocoons which she sold to a Kerala-based buyer for Rs 660 per kilogram. “I can now afford to send my children to school. Indeed, it is profitable and requires only 40 days of labour,” said Haleema.
But this is one part of Kashmir’s silk story. From 15 lakh kilograms of cocoons produced in 1940 to just 3 lakh kilograms in 2012, Kashmir silk industry struggles to keep pace with the modern times. The shining silk shawls, carpets and rugs which once fascinated travellers, traders, visitors and even ordinary tourists have almost vanished from the display windows of shops in Kashmir.
The once famed silk industry of Kashmir is struggling to survive the competition from outsiders. In 1940’s, silk yarn was exported to the west and within the British Empire. “From early 90’s up to 2004, sericulture was at is decline in Kashmir,” said Zahoor Ahmad Sheikh, a local cocoon rearer in south Kashmir’s Tral town.
However, the cocoon production has slightly gone up over the last few years. In 2012-13, it was 299 metric tons against 262.50 metric tons in 2009-10. “Cocoon rearing nowadays is limited to non-agriculture rural areas only,” said Mohammad Iqbal Wani, Project Executive Officer, Department of Sericulture.
The number of villages involved in sericulture related activity in Kashmir has gone up from 774 in 2009-10 to 1081 in 2012-13. “Sericulture could become an alternative source of income for landless people in rural areas,” feels Mohammad Iqbal Wani, Project Executive Officer, Kashmir.
Silk in Kashmir
How sericulture came to Kashmir is unclear. But the tradition of cocoon rearing in Kashmir dates back to the times of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin who ruled Kashmir from 1420 to 1470. It was under his rule that sericulture industry flourished.
Till the first half of 20th century, sericulture was the only cash crop available to locals. In 1940, around 52,000 families were involved with sericulture related activities. Mirza Haidar, who ruled Kashmir briefly, wrote in his personal memoir Tarikh-i-Rashidi (1536 AD) that mulberry trees are in abundance in Kashmir and Kashmiris would not allow its leaves to be used for any other purpose other than food for silkworms. But, according to data compiled by Kashmir’s Sericulture Department, only 5.25 lakh mulberry trees exist in farms and blocks spread across 83 nurseries in the valley.
The traditional chain of process that kept Kashmir silk industry going since centuries was slowly sliding into oblivion as land under mulberry plantation shrank by around 70 per cent in the last five decades. According to experts, sericulture industry entirely depends on mulberry cultivation. This is the first and the most important step in the silk production chain that actually determines the overall production of silk. The alarming decline in leaf bank (mulberry leaves) has made cocoon rearing difficult in Kashmir. Interestingly, during Dogra rule, cutting a mulberry tree was a punishable offence under law.
It is believed that the silk production in Kashmir flourished under Sultan Zain-ul Abideen’s (locally known as Budshah) reign. During his time, people associated with the silk industry received special attention and he is said to have introduced a number of improved techniques, some of which are used till this day. Budshah’s reign is considered as the golden era of Kashmir silk industry. It was his efforts that helped Kashmir silk industry survive the changing political scenarios and natural disasters alike.
But once Afghan’s took over Kashmir, the once flourishing silk industry got a setback. It is said that the Afghan Governors who largely remained engaged in the loot and plunder of local resources, were completely unconcerned about the development of silk industry. Instead, an Afghan Governor is said to have ordered clearing of large number of mulberry trees from present day Maisuma in Srinagar to make way for horse racing field.
Then in 19th century, under Dogra rulers, the silk industry was revived to the extent that it became a cornerstone of the Kashmir economy. Dogra ruler Ranbir Singh ordered the takeover of dwindling silk industry by the state. Besides providing a financial assistance of £ 30,000, Ranbir Singh set up 127 rearing houses across the valley to boost raw silk production. In order to attract people towards cocoon rearing, Ranbir Singh exempted cocoon rearers from forced labour (Begair).
Riding on the special attention given by Ranbir Singh, Kashmir exported 25,000 ounces of silkworm seeds to Europe in 1855, which instantly brought Kashmir on the world silk map. People associated with the industry still boast of the fact that France imported seed from Kashmir to revive its ailing silk industry.
The next stage in silk rearing is seed production which was traditionally done using indigenous races of silkworm. But without any serious efforts from successive governments to develop indigenous silkworm races, silk industry in Kashmir remained dependent on imported seeds. In 1878, entire silkworm was wiped out from Kashmir in wake of a disease. Later, it was known that the disease was fomented by the seed imported from Europe, China and Japan.
At one point of time, cocoon rearing was done using indigenous Kashmiri seed. But due to lack of any technological intervention in cocoon rearing in Kashmir over the last few decades, the production of raw silk declined drastically.
Interestingly, the decline of Kashmir’s silk industry coincided with the huge demand for quality raw silk in the Indian market. During late eighties, Kashmir’s annual production of raw silk was not even sufficient to feed the local reeling industries. This made people import large quantities of raw silk from China.
“The local carpet weaving units prefer low quality Chinese silk yarn as it is cost effective,” said Mohammad Shabaan Dar, a rearer from Islamabad district.
In order to minimise Chinese influence on silk trade, Indian government set a goal of making the nation self-sufficient in bivoltine silk, a high-grade variety made with silkworms that lay two batches of eggs per year. For this purpose, India requested assistance from Japan in developing the necessary technologies. Since 1991, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is providing technical support to India. “The seed that is currently used in Kashmir for cocoon rearing is developed by JICA,” said Dr Farooq.
“We cannot stop local carpet weavers from using Chinese silk. It is for government to stop it from entering Kashmir market,” he said.
Presently, seed is procured from different places in India including Bengaluru, Mysore, Kerala and Dehradun and it is distributed among rearers through 212 incubation centres spread across Kashmir. In 2012, the J&K’s Department of Sericulture distributed 7964 ounces of seed among 8858 farmers.
While one ounce of traditional Kashmir seed produces around 50 kilograms of cocoons, the seed provided by sericulture department produces 60 kilograms of cocoon per ounce. “If government invests in developing new hybrid varieties of Kashmiri silkworm race, then we could easily increase the per ounce yield,” Abdul Aziz Mir, a Pulwama based silk worm rearer feels.
The alarming decline in the areas under mulberry cultivation is threatening the very existence of Kashmir’s silk industry. The sericulture department, with the help of government of India, is trying hard to woo people to plant mulberry trees in order to strengthen the depleting leaf bank. Under the ambitious Rashtriya Kisan Vikar Yojna launched in 2007 by the Ministry of Agriculture with an aim to achieve 4 per cent annual growth in agriculture and its allied sectors, government of India offers an incentive of Rs 12 for every mulberry sapling planted. “Without mulberry trees, silk industry cannot survive in Kashmir. We provide farmers free saplings along with the incentives,” said Riyaz Ahmad Bhat, In-charge Incubation Centre at Pahoo village in Pulwama.
The two decade long turmoil in Kashmir has also affected the silk industry. At the onset of armed militancy in Kashmir, a number of government buildings were turned into garrisons for forces. At present, there are five prime seed stations currently under the occupation of security forces. Seed station Tral, Basic Seed Station, Waripora (Bangil) Tangmarg, Basic Seed Station, Mirgund, Sericulture Nursery Watlab, Sopore and a Nursery at Vesu have been taken over by forces since 1989.
Seed Organization Tral (SST), which became functional in 1972, was taken over by the Border Security Forces (BSF) on December 28, 1989. According to locals, till 1987, SST which is spread on 18 kanals and 17 marlas of land, out of which 13 kanals were under mulberry plantation, benefitted some 10,000 farmers. But due to lack of funds and its inaccessibility to common people, the facility was closed in 2008. “At present, only 400 people are covered by this centre,” said a local employee.
“Overall, due to occupation of these assets by forces, it has adversely affected the sericulture especially silkworm seed sector,” said Dr Malik Farooq, Additional Director, Department of Sericulture, Kashmir.
Being a labour intensive cottage industry, Sericulture combines both agriculture and industry. One can still find traces of sericulture industry in Kashmiri tradition. The considerable decline in the production of cocoons in Kashmir prompted closure of two important silk reeling units, Government Silk Filature Rambagh (Srinagar) and Government Silk Factory Jammu. This closure directly affected the efficiency of Silk Weaving Factory, Rajbagh (Srinagar). “All it needs to revive the ailing silk industry in Kashmir is to reopen both reeling units and modernization of silk weaving factory,” said an industry expert. “It just needs an investment of Rs 6 crore.”
On the other hand, the closure of local reeling units paved way for silk weaving factories from other places like Mysore, Bengal and Karnataka to buy quality cocoons from Kashmir, leaving little raw material for the Kashmir filatures.
The inability of sericulture department to offer good prices to farmers against graded cocoon forced local producers to sell it to outsiders. While sericulture department offers a minimum support price of Rs 300 per kilogram (dry cocoons), Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, a progressive cocoon rearer from Parigam village in district Pulwama, sold 60 kilograms to a Mysore based buyer for Rs 680 per kilogram. “Last year, sericulture department offered only Rs 200 per kilogram. How can anybody even retrieve his productions costs by selling cocoons to the department?” asks Bhat.
However, the Department of Sericulture claims that the average price per kilogram of cocoon has gone up from Rs 285 in 2009-10 to Rs 451 in 2012-13. “There is need to revive post cocoon sector in Kashmir,” said Dr Farooq.
“The outside traders took advantage of the situation due to the non-increase of cocoon prices. These traders lure cocoon rearers with quite high prices,” said a Department of Sericulture official who wished not to be named.
From a bulk consumer at one point of time, the Department of Sericulture’s role got reduced to that of facilitator only. “Our job ends once cocoons are produced,” said Mohammad Qasim Mallah, In-charge Sericulture Assistant, Kakapora (Pulwama) Zone.
“We organize markets where buyers from different parts of India come to bid for the local cocoons,” Mallah said.
Interestingly, Kashmir is the only state which produces the best quality Bivoltile silk. But less than 30 percent of cocoon produced locally is used for silk production in Kashmir while the remaining is exported to silk weaving factories across India. At present, the demand for the Bivoltile silk in India is above 5000 metric tons. Silk Weaving Factory, Rajbagh, has the potential to manufacture silk products like Chinon, Chiffon, IAL and Charmous which has a huge market base in India and abroad.
But not all are happy with the way the state’s Sericulture Department is functioning. “The control of sericulture department on seed distribution is adversely affecting the production,” said an official who wished not to be named. “A farmer gets disheartened when he could not produce more than once a year. There is scope of at least three crops a year in Kashmir if seed distribution is done properly.”
Farmers who have been associated with cocoon rearing since early eighties said Kashmir had indigenous races of silkworm and produced the best quality cocoons in the world. But the government’s negligence towards protection and development of silk industry and low market prices are discouraging existing farmers, while only a few new farmers associate themselves with the industry. From 2011-12 to 2012-13, only 519 new farmers got associated with the sericulture industry.
Abdul Salam Dar, a retired government employee from Kisargham in Pulwama district, is rearing cocoons since 1969. He first got involved with the industry as a part-timer and then, after retirement, he devoted himself fully to the trade. Dar is also the treasurer of the Silkworm Rearer’s Association (Kashmir).
Dar has gone on a number of tours organized by the Department of Sericulture outside the state. On a recent such tour to Bengaluru, Dar observed that hatching was done manually only in Kashmir while places like Bengaluru, Mysore and Dehradun have all modernized the process. While cocoon rearing is done only twice in Kashmir i.e. spring and summer seasons, Dar claims to have successfully reared 45 kilogram cocoons per ounce in autumn. “I just used my years of experience and observations which I made during my Bengaluru tour to rear cocoons in autumn,” said Dar proudly. “You just need to maintain temperature for cocoon rearing. I did the same by using heat blowers,” said Dar.
But crippled infrastructure in the state irritates Dar. “It is impossible to use technology without proper electricity supply,” said Dar. “Technologically we are far behind then other silk producing states,” he said.