The traditional Pheran and Kangri may still be the most sought allies to beat the severe cold, but rising incomes and access to modern heating gadgets and apparel is changing the way Kashmir used to live its winters. Inam ul Haq reports about the emerging market
Harsh winter has been an age-old reality of Kashmir and accordingly, indigenous cold protection mechanisms were adopted to brave the chill. Though conventional methods needed little resources and were less market-oriented, the changing lifestyle and rising middle class has created a huge winter economy worth billions of rupees.
The continuously rising demand for central heating systems, fuel heaters, electric heating appliances, electric blankets, woollens, generators and battery storage invertors has given rise to an increasing breed of innovators and traders. However, the traditional pheran and kangri, (the traditional Kashmiri gown, and firepot used inside it) still rule the roost.
“A majority of people especially in the rural areas still wear pheran and use kangri,” said writer and poet Zarief Ahmad Zarief. “But this is changing. Majority of urban people have shunned the kangri now as they have many options available mostly electric and gas-fired heating appliances.”
Due to the impact of globalisation, the change is natural, said Zarief. Kashmiris now travel to many places in the world, which are even colder than Kashmir. They see life more comfortable due to the evolution of technology there and when these things become accessible, their adoption became inevitable.
One of the fascinating stories is the evolution of the heat radiator – the Bukhari, in Kashmir. A tin box with a long exhaust pipe mainly comes in four variants which run on different fuels – firewood, sawdust, coal and kerosene oil. The Bukharis are manufactured across all the towns and cities in Kashmir.
The firewood-based is the most common and the coal-fed used to be popular with the government offices until gas heaters replaced it. The kerosene fed has been found by the army to be more suited to its needs. Though it devours one litre every two hours, the improvisation helped the army to reduce its dependence on more hazardous coal by around half in the last ten years.
1988 proved a watershed year when a local entrepreneur started manufacturing HeatKing, a Kerosene-fed heater with components imported from Germany. After this technology had been in use in Germany for quite some time, famed orthopaedic of Kashmir, late Dr Farooq Ashai purchased its patent from Wamsler. After he was assassinated during the early nineties, his engineer son, Zia Ashai, an M.Tech (Mechanical) from Wisconsin (USA), took over. But it was not so easy for Zia to find the market for his kerosene heaters. It took him a while. But when the efficiency of this German technology was proven, the product demand rose suddenly, particularly among army personnel stationed in cold and arid Ladakh. Priced at Rs15000, HeatKing has a market share of Rs 3.8 crore a year.
When HeatKing was gaining ground in the army bases stationed in mountains, it was the Turkish room heaters, Gazal and Aygaz, which were making inroads in urban houses and offices of Kashmir. These fully imported gas heaters consume 200 grams of LPG an hour with an output equivalent to 250 kW of heat. These gas heaters are priced between Rs 7000 to Rs 10000. Harry Singh Oberoi, who is the main distributor for both Aygaz and Gazal said, more than 40000 pieces have been sold since 2000. The current yearly demand of 5000 pieces would have been much higher but for the cheaper and readily available Chinese ones, which have garnered a good market share, he said.
Priced double than the Turkish gas heaters, HeatKing was remodelled with LPG component to retain the earned market share, said Ashai.
Low and middle ranged Chinese and local room heaters, blowers and radiators running on electricity take a big chunk of the market. Rouf Ahmad Misgar, a shop owner in Pladium Gali of city centre Lal Chowk, which has more than 10 shops selling heating appliances said, he sells around 2000 pieces ranging from Rs500 to Rs3500 in a season. Though the market value of such merchandise is not assessed, Yasin Khan, president Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Association put the value of winter sales of electric appliances at Rs1000 crore. However, it is the entry of thermostat, which may excel in providing heating on the lines of the West. Central heating and floor heating is an emerging phenomenon, though fewer families can afford it as it is very costly, nevertheless an increasing trend among the affluent.
“Almost 30 per cent of the new constructions are kept with the option and feasibility for central heating system,” said Urfi Mustafa Shuntho, who introduced the central heating system for homes in the valley back in 1996. Shuntho, also a mechanical engineer resigned from the government job and started his own business after studying the winter-management of European countries. He presently deals in central heating, floor-heating – a different technique envisaging using microscopic filament wiring to keep room warm, and pump heating. Shuntho also introduced cast-iron heaters that would consume locally available raw material, the firewood. He customized the technology in cast iron heaters to use briquettes as fuel. Now he sells around 100 units a year costing up to Rs70,000 and the numbers are gradually increasing.
Shuntho said that a lot of changes are taking place in the way people manage their winters. “Aped concretization has given way to a well-thought architecture based on the local weather conditions,” Shuntho said. “Presently there are around 200 houses and 100 office building with a central heating system in Kashmir. Most of them are diesel and kerosene run but we have also installed a localised design where firewood can be used as fuel.”
Shuntho said, “It is a continuous process. I traced a masonry stove in vogue in Austria, Russia, Canada and Norway and on the experimental basis I installed a few in this past year. Let me get the feedback and then we can formally sell the product.”
The entrepreneur said Kashmir needs not to reinvent the wheel but explore other areas having similar climate so that we chose the best one and indigenize the particular technology.
“In countries like Russia, China and Europe, winters are harsher than Kashmir but they have district heating system, which provides heating as well as hot water from a single heater to a cluster of houses,” Shuntho said. “Only public funding can make such kind of a project possible, which is a one-time investment. Gulmarg is an ideal place for such a project to start with. Besides saving a lot of money in the long run, it can also protect the environment there.”
Shuntho installs around six central heating projects a year and has a round the clock repairing van to cater to his clients. For installing a heating system, Shuntho said, an average Kashmiri house of four rooms will cost around Rs2 to 2.5 lakh, and the entire fuel cost will go around Rs30000 to Rs40000 for 100 days of winter.
Central heating may be an ideal solution for protection from winter chill but for an ordinary Kashmiri family that may not be an option as the installation cost, as well as fuel charges, are many times higher than Kashmir’s traditional house heating system, Hamam. The Hamam is a room with a stone slab flooring which is hollow beneath so that firewood can be burnt under the stone slabs warming the room for long hours. Hamam provides hot water as well if a copper tank is installing along with it. Off late, Hamams had gone out of fashion with only urban and sub-urban mosques retaining it but the traditional heating system is seeing a revival.
Kashmir’s jump to modernisation has changed many things including the architecture. “Concrete cemented buildings which have become a norm now, can not protect from severe cold as they are not insulated like our traditional buildings used to be,” said Omar Qadri, an engineering consultant with an architectural firm. “Unreliability of services including electricity has forced people to adopt some traditional methods including wood panelling of floors and walls, and construction of Hamams.”
Qadri says that Hamams are built in 25 to 30 per cent of newly constructed houses. Qadri’s firm operates in Srinagar city. Hamam is picking up fast among the well-to-do families of rural Kashmir as well.
“It is within the budget and firewood is readily available,” said Fayaz Ahmad Ahangar, a mason from south Kashmir’s Shopian district, who specialises in the construction of Hamams. “Depending on the type of stone, a Hamam for a room of 12 by 12 feet costs from Rs35000 to Rs75000 and needs 15kgs to 20kgs of firewood a day.”
“At one point of time, we were rationing around 50 thousand tons of fuel-wood through ration depots but it was stopped in the eighties when LPG was introduced,” says Conservator Forests, Kashmir Province, Nisar Ahmad.
“But we still supply 10 thousand tons of fuel-wood at Rs1900 per ton to mosques of which 4200 tons are consumed by 1150 mosques in Srinagar alone.” All the Hamams in commercial and private sector manage their fuel requirement from open market as part of the government supplies manage its way into the expensive Khatamband – Kashmir’s traditional wooden ceiling with intricate designs and patterns – sector where it generates huge money. A square feet of khatamband is sold at Rs1000.
Though the power crisis is a perennial problem in Kashmir, it is accentuated in winters with 14 to 16 hours of load shedding a day. The scarcity of electricity during winters has created a massive demand for gensets, battery storage inventors, and other small Chinese and local power storage products.
Kashmir Motors, a motorcycle and agro-farming equipment distributor, shifts its business to power products and heating appliances, in winter. “Eighty per cent of our gensets sell in winters,” said Aijaz Ahmad, general manager of Kashmir Motors group, distributor for Honda Generators. “We alone sell 3000 gensets in a season, but there are other players as well.”
Abdul Hamid Bhat, chief executive officer of Rahim Group, which consists of three companies including Rahim Gensets, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and distributor of Mahindra and Mahindra Gensets in Kashmir, said the market potential for power generators is enormous.
“We had 300 per cent increase in the sale of gensets this year. Last year we sold 97 gensets but this year we have already sold more than 350,” said Bhat, whose company is into manufacturing 10KVA to 320KVA heavy diesel gensets supplied to private offices and institutions.
Cashing in on the growing small gensets market, Bhat has started importing power generators of 1KVA to 10KVA for home and small businesses. “These Japanese and Taiwanese gensets are of better quality than the Indian ones. We have already received first shipment and sales would start within next few days,” said Bhat.
The apparel business is another sector cashing in the winter market. Winter wardrobe is an expensive affair – sweaters, jackets, coats, overcoats, pherans, caps, gloves, mufflers, warm innerwear, shoes and socks are a must.
A survey conducted in 2011 by Handloom Development Corporation (HDC) revealed that Kashmir on an average consumed 30 lakh meters of tweeds worth Rs200 crore, a year for pherans, coats, jackets and long coats only.
However, the state-run HDC which manufactures tweed under the brand name of Poshish, a handmade tweed as good as the Scottish Harris tweed but at a fraction of its cost, has a sales turnover of just Rs 2 crore which includes proceeds from selling stitched coats, pherans and jackets.
For generations, Vinod Malhotra has been at the centre of the textile business in Maharaj Bazar, in the heart of Srinagar city. “This market has totally been taken over by Amritsar and Ludhiana,” Malhotra told Kashmir Life. “This is all shoddy based and lucrative. Now even Digjam, OCM, Reid & Taylor, and Donier are all trying to get their bit.” Malhotra said it is a huge business because everybody wants to have a couple of coats, a few jackets and Pherans and things go out of fashion so fast! This is in addition to the special winter line clothing that goes into pants and shirts – millions of meters a month.
The hosiery part of the winter attire is equally huge. For almost three months, no one can live in Kashmir without using warm innerwear. It is also super-soft and does not last beyond a season. “For the last couple of years, the stitched slax kurti and skin-tight trousers are in vogue and it has spread like a virus especially among students and teenage girls,” Malhotra said. “I am told the demand is so huge that the manufacturers in Ludhiana and Amritsar have started sourcing yarn bases from Ahmadabad, Mumbai and even Surat.” There are quite a few units that are into the hosiery part of the winter wardrobe.
For ages, Kashmiris have been weaving Chadder (blankets) from the fine yarn spun from the lamb-wool. A bit of apple-driven prosperity created a situation that the hand-woven chadder became rare. Now Kashmir sells around seven million kilograms of wool at throwaway prices that feeds industries in Punjab. It purchases blankets in bulk, which has the lowest wool content and more synthetic yarn from petroleum residues.
Over the years, Kashmir has created its own mark for blankets. From Chinese to Taiwanese and Korean mink blankets to Punjab’s shoddy and reconstituted fibre blankets, Kashmir consumes everything. Now Kashmir uses millions of meters of Ludhiana manufactured ‘blanket cloth’ to insulate the windows and add up a coat on the flooring.
“Just the government purchases around 150 thousand blankets a year,” Rafiq Ahmad Baba, promoter of valley’s lone cloth manufacturing unit told Kashmir Life. “I got a police blanket and got it analyzed and it had less than 30 per cent wool. I took the result to the police higher-ups who had approved the tender for purchasing virgin-wool blankets and you know what they told me – ‘how did you get the blanket for testing?” The police and many other institutions are purchasing many inferior blankets at the cost they would get much superior stuff.
“This season we manufactured some blankets using local wool and it was a hit,” Baba said. “We are planning the manufacturing of 50,000 meters in 2012.” His factory intends to manufacture a machine-made carpet based on local wool that would be as cheap as the jute matting that government purchases for schools. However, the electric blanket manufactured locally has created its own niche.
Consuming a minimum of 80 watts, the electric blanket has moved out of the bride’s bedroom and is emerging as every individual’s requirement. “Against half a million pieces a season, we produce only 100 thousand,” says Qadri. “Thirty per cent each goes to the plains and the army and forty per cent is consumed by the civilian market.” Assembled locally from a filament imported from Delhi and the raw blanket manufactured in Punjab, an electric blanket cost starts at Rs 800. It is being widely recommended by orthopaedics in north India for people with joint problems.
Winters throw up challenges and opportunities and these are the surprises of the season. This season when the temperature plummeted to an all-time low in 16 years, even water supply lines to households froze. Barring insulation, there is no option for keeping the water pipes from freezing. But it did trigger massive demand for blue-lamps, which actually is a denting requirement. “We had a few hundred pieces gathering dust for decades and we sold them overnight,” said Abdul Rashid, one of the major dealers in uptown Aftab Market. “Demand is unprecedented but all the supplies are stuck up because of the (closed Srinagar-Jammu) road.”
Or for that matter, the diesel tanks of vehicles started getting frozen. It triggered a massive appetite for anti-freeze oil additives. “Almost every diesel vehicle uses it but it is out of stock,” said driver Abdul Majeed Khan.
Winter hosts a complete economy. So while visiting Lal Chowk if one finds an ice cream store selling woollens don’t be surprised. There are cases where people shift their businesses as per the weather. Then there are certain peculiarities, which are winter-specific. Harissa is a winter speciality in Kashmir and scores of experts make huge money during a few hours in the morning.
Off late, Kashmir had given up consuming dried vegetables. But now it is back in vogue. There are dozens of shops who exclusively sell these items. Local Hakims prescribe dried vegetables as part of their treatment.