Facing financial problems, health issues, Kani Pashmina shawl weavers of Doodkuthu say the back-breaking work has little rewards for them
Farooz Ahmad Lone
Charisharief: Surrounded by deep gorges and slanting meadows, Doodkuthu is a lush green hamlet nestling in the Charisharief Tehsil of central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The mesmerising beauty beholds the eye as soon as one approaches the downhill road to set foot in the village.
However, it is not just the landscape of Doodkuthu that enthrals a visitor, but the people living there have got the golden hands. They toil day and night to create pieces of art, which adorn the rich and famous of the world.
With more than 90% of households associated with handicrafts, the village is a hub for the production of Kashmir’s famous designed pashmina shawls. The young artisans and craftsmen of this beautiful place weave traditional Kani shawls with the help of wooden looms and Kanis (sticks) to make ends meet. Even the school and college-going boys and girls do the craftwork alongside their studies to support their families and own education.
However, the conditions of houses and the living standard of most of the inhabitants suggest that they are not rewarded back for their efforts and hard work. When the artisans of this craft village are asked about the reason, the stark reality of their poor economic condition come out more vividly.
These highly skilled artisans say that despite working for about 12 hours a day, they do not even earn the wages of an unskilled labourer. And that too when their shawls get a good price in local, as well as, international markets.
“It takes two of us more than four months to finish weaving a normal size (42 inches by 81 inches) Kani Pashmina shawl on a loom. For which a Bapari (middleman or trader) pays an amount between Rs 15,000 to Rs 70,000 in a lump sum depending on the size of a shawl and the quality of work,” says 24-year-old artisan Gulzar Ahmad.
“We work about 10-12 hours a day and get only about Rs150 to Rs200 if we divide the amount we receive for a shawl on day to day basis. On the other hand, an unskilled daily labourer, who works for eight hours a day earns Rs 500 minimum.”
Ahmad says even after completing day’s work, artisans cannot take the rest in the evening. They keep loading the pashmina yarn on the Kanis or tujis till they go to bed so that they can have another uninterrupted day of work tomorrow.
In the international market, the price of a regular size cashmere shawl varies depending on the quality of work and size of a shawl besides some other factors. Starting from US$1,200 the price could go up to a whopping $3,500, which equals more than Rs 2.5 lakh in Indian currency.
“But the major chunk of the profit is retained by the middlemen and exporters for whom we work. They provide us with warp and thread, and advance money whenever we need it. In short, we work, and they earn,” says Ahmad.
“So, the insufficient earning and higher basic expenses consequently lead us to fall in the debt trap of Baparis.”
Despite having the facility of artisan credit card (ACC), which provides low-interest loans up to Rs 2 lakh to handicraft and handloom artisans, they prefer to take debt from a Bapari.
A teenage artisan Mohammad Asif says most villagers fear taking credit from the banks even when the interest is low. They think these loans will pile up, as they have observed with some of the people in the village who have earlier availed the facility.
“If you fail to pay back to a bank, the interest gets compounded, and one must have to use all means, even sell his property, to service the debt. But that is not the case with a Bapari. The money borrowed from a Bapari, can be compensated with the work you do for him,” says Asif.
About a quarter of the artisans in Doodkuthu have availed the ACC facility, and a good number of them have already defaulted, adds Asif.
All the artisans in the village are of the view that the back-breaking work is not rewarding. They face financial hardship as well as other issues despite putting in their best efforts.
Fahmeeda Jan (name changed on request), a young woman in her thirties, says: “Comparing to the daily needs, the earning we make is very little. We are unable to provide for our children and other family members with all the required basic needs and facilities in terms of clothing, educational facilities, medicine etc. Not only that, but you can also see the condition of our houses yourselves. We don’t have even sufficient space for all our family members.”
The Kani shawl weaving is taxing both physically and mentally, she adds.
“Besides various physical problems, the work causes mental stress also. Due to the nature of our work, we are confined to a room for long hours. We cannot roam around much like others. We spend all day working but, in the end, we are unable to meet our expenses. This causes anxiety,” says Jan. “As we are skilled in this, we have to do it anyway. And then there any no other options available.”
Apart from the financial problems, health issues is another measure problem faced by the artisans in the village. Headache, backache, eyesight issues, swelling of feet and legs and stress, to count a few, are commonly found among the artisans.
Another artisan from the village, Fayaz Ahmad, chose the profession a decade ago after completing his BA and BEd degrees from Kashmir University when he could not find a government job. He and his three siblings, two brothers and a sister, work on a loom in a dimly lit room on the ground floor of their house.
With eyeglasses on – as almost everyone engaged with the profession wears, the 33-years old stays falcon-focused as he crosses the yarn loaded wooden needles through the 12-micron thin thread spread or warp of Pashmina shawl to avoid a manufacturing error while weaving.
Ahmad says the long hours’ pinpointed focus causes eye strain and eyesight problems. In some cases, he says, one cannot even see distant objects.
Kani shawl weaving needs a highly concentrated mind with a complete focus on the work one is doing. A small mistake of an interchange of a thread colour can ruin the whole design.
“Shawl weaving needs highly skilled craftsmen, for a small mistake can cause cutting of thousands of rupees on Bapari’s part. To weave a shawl, besides being highly skilled, plenty of patience is required. An impatient one can spoil the whole thing no matter how much skilled he may be,” adds Ahmad.
Though, the village has never seen economic prosperity. But the consecutive lockdowns due to the COVID19 pandemic have affected the livelihood of people severely. As the COVID19 spread throughout the globe – particularly in the prosperous West and the Middle East as-well-as within the country, the demand for handicraft exports fell, and the tourism activities in Kashmir stopped. The pandemic has proved a double-edged sword for the artisans and other people associated with Kashmir arts, particularly luxury items like Kani pashmina shawls.
“From the last two years, the demand for handicraft goods in the international markets is down. The frequent lockdowns and travel bans by most countries lead to the fall in exports,” says a shawl exporter and trader, Ishtiyaq Ahmad. “Our stocks have piled up, causing a shortage of money. Nowadays, we (exporters and traders) are surviving wholly on bank loans. The shawl industry is hit badly due to the situation we have been going through since COVID19 caused havoc in the world.”
Ishtiyaq Ahmad says that as the money is not changing hands, even the exporters are unable to provide much help to the artisans.
Visibly cut off from the rest of the world, this far-off Kashmir hamlet is severely hit by the disruption in the global supply chain. The lockdown in an American or a European city or travel ban to a Middle Eastern country has directly impacted the livelihood of a Doodkuthu artisan.
The livelihood of people in Doodkuthu, like many other craft villages of Kashmir, is mainly dependent on handicrafts. In this village of 300 households, about 90% are associated with Kani pashmina shawls making. It is the youngsters of the village who form the majority of the artisans. “About 80% of the artisans are below 30 years of age with about 60:40 ratio of men to women, says Fayaz Ahmad.
Given the small landholding size, the agriculture activities in the village remain confined to subsistence farming of vegetables and paddy. Only few families in the village, who own relatively bigger land plots, are associated with remunerative horticulture activities. While the elders occupied themselves with the farming activities, youngsters had to look for other jobs to sustain their families. Kani shawl weaving was probably the only available option for them.
Fayaz and other artisans say Doodkuthu qualifies to be developed as a model handloom village for Kani Pashmina shawls weaving. However, lament that Handicrafts and Handloom Department has hardly turned its attention towards this craft village.
“Government wears an apathetic attitude toward the village which can be seen through the lack of availability of basic facilities here. The dilapidated roads, lack of healthcare and other facilities you can see for yourself,” says Fayaz Ahmad.
Gulzar pitches in to add that besides the ACCs, the artisans are not aware of any other government scheme, which can benefit them. If any such schemes are available, there must be awareness about them.
“Some of the artisans in the village who cannot afford to buy looms must be provided by the government. We also need to be trained in the new designs, which are relevant in the present-day market,” he says.
For an artisan who does not own a handloom, which costs around Rs 10,000, the returns further diminish as he has to work with another person, who takes a cut from his earnings.
Talking about the Pashmina shawl making process, Gulzar says, after acquiring a handloom, the warp or the thread spread made of the Pashmina yarn extracted out of the Changthhangi goats reared in the cold desert the Ladakh region is dressed to handloom and commenced to weave.
Cashmere Kani shawls are woven using the Kashmiri twill-tapestry technique locally known as Kani Keam (work done by wooden needles).
In this technique, Kani or tujj – eyeless wooden bobbins loaded with yarn of different colours. And a weaver weaves following the ‘Taleem’, a design written and made on sheets of paper, drawn by a person locally called Naquash in Kashmir. The weavers are the craftsmen who bring the design, following the code or Tealeem, into life using the different colour yarn loaded Kanis.
Kani pashmina shawls are woven with different designs, and unlike other shawls, it does not require embroidery work, as the designs are woven on the texture of the shawls, which is the exclusiveness of it.
The centuries-old cashmere shawl making craft dates back to 1300 AD. It has carved out and occupied a unique place in the scrolls of the history of Kashmir itself. In the late 18th century, it made its way to Britain and France, where its use by Queen Victoria and Empress Josephine, wife of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, further popularised it. The cashmere shawl is known beyond the horizon. It has become a toponym for Kashmir- as the word cashmere is derived from Kashmir. Therefore, it has become the Glory of Kashmir.
PHD Chamber holds capacity-building workshop for crewel embroidery artisans
Srinagar, Sept 13: PHD Chamber Kashmir chapter conducted a two-day capacity-building workshop for the crewel embroidery artisans here at Kashmir Haat.
The workshop was organised in association with the Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom Kashmir and with the support of the Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce & Industry Government of India in an effort to bring the business of weavers, craftsmen, artisans, and designers into the mainstream.
Director Handicrafts Mehmood Ahmad Shah inaugurated the workshop.
“Even though handicrafts is the second-largest industry after agriculture, they do not receive the attention they deserve. Weaved and handmade objects are regarded as art by foreigners, but because they are indigenous to us, they don’t seem to have the same value,” said Mehmood Shah, according to a statement issued by PHD Chamber.
These kinds of workshops serve as a platform for bringing together artisans, craftsmen, and designers, allowing them to connect and generate fresh ideas in response to changing consumer demands.
Mehmood Shah interacted with craftsmen working with crewel and chain stitches and gave them instructions for registering as artisans and providing them with a platform for marketing. In order to expand the scope of marketing for handicraft and handloom items, the director handicrafts emphasised to artisans the importance of incorporating the most recent technological developments and innovations in accordance with current market trends. This includes proper e-marketing of the products.
The programme was attended by 49-artisans of crewel embroidery work and craft clusters from various areas.
On the occasion, Riyaz Ahmed Kawoosa, Assistant Director Publicity and Exhibitions, Handicrafts and Handloom Department, was also present. The resource person, Mushtaq Ahamd, Designer School of Designs, focused on topics including the value of design in crafts, how to create refined designs for export, new and innovative designs development and quality improvement.
“The Indian handicraft industry needs to embrace technology across the value chain, from production to the final sale of goods,” said Dr Asif Naqeshbandi, assistant professor department of management studies.
The use of technology, whether it be to increase production yield or give artisans access to direct digital marketplaces, needs to be taught at the grassroots level in addition to this. The long-term survival and expansion of the sector depend on Indian artists having a bigger presence in these virtual platforms, where young customers are increasingly choosing to purchase.
Dr Mohd Sayyed Bhat from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai made artisans aware of the importance of packaging for handicrafts, especially for crewel and chain stitch.
Later artisans visited the school of designs where they saw a live demonstration of the chain stitch and the crewel stitch. The tour was organised by Shahena Bhat, a designer at the school.
The artisans thanked the Handicraft Department and PHD Chamber for organising such awareness workshops. They also stated that they would use the techniques they learned to improve the packaging, design, and marketing of their products.
When machines shadow hand skills
Standing near a windowsill in a two-room structure, Zahida, in her early 30s is calling out her children for breakfast at 9 o’clock in the morning to complete the unfinished work and tend to her kitchen garden along with her mother-in-law.
But this is not the routine Zahida had thought of when she arrived as a newlywed bride back in 2009. She is well trained in the art of embroidery, having taught many girls in the Magam area of Handwara to become self-reliant.
“I taught girls handicrafts here, especially during winters. Some came to learn out of curiosity and others to become financially independent,” says Zahida partly circled by children with mobile phones.
During the 90s, when Kashmir was facing an untoward situation, Zahida’s father, the breadwinner of the family, was injured in a cross-firing. It was right after that incident, that she decided to switch from studies and focused on a skill that would add some bucks to the family income.
“At the time of training and even after that, we were paid just Rs 100 on monthly basis at a centre, ” recalls Zahida.
When the work had gathered some pace and she was making a good sum using the gold and silver thread to beautify the traditional pherans of women in the village, machines arrived to snatch the livelihood of many like hers.
“For the first two years after marriage, work was good, and one was able to earn. But the sudden arrival of machine-embroidered work halted the business of hand-embroidered pherans,” says Zahida.
Since then the decline began and women, according to her, prefer machine-made even though the hand-embroidered are stronger and long-lasting.
Zahida is not the only one trained, her younger sister, Rifat is also well versed with knitting and could pass on her skill to those willing to learn. “For that, we should have a centre where we can teach girls and earn for ourselves as well,” said 23-year-old Rifat folding her hand-knitted sweater.
The changes from the last few years have made much wind up the work because the ROI (return on investment) is negligible.
“It takes us around a week if done continuously from morning to evening, but due to other important chores at home, we take around a month to finish one pheran,” says Zahida who is set to go for work in a lawn cum kitchen garden.
As of now, according to her, two pherans are still kept unattended in a tin box. “Knowing the return and time required, I don’t feel like working anymore,” says a visible dejected Zahida.
Many in the area believe if they are given the attention they deserve from the government, they could teach others, especially girls from financially weaker sections of the society.
For 34-year-old Parveena though, discontinuing is not an option. She gets some work from the shopkeepers in Hindwara and helps her husband who is a daily wage labourer.
Whenever in the market, the sight of machine-embroidered pherans hanging outside shops brings back the dreams Zahida had woven in her mind before marriage: “Besides becoming a helping hand of my family, I would buy a bicycle and many other things for my son out of my own earnings.” But that remains a plan buried in the heart of a skilled woman.
KCCI seeks freight subsidy for Kashmir exporters
Discusses issues faced by craft exporters, artisans with Parliamentary Standing Committees
Srinagar, Aug 24: Kashmir Chamber of Commerce & Industry delegation led by Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad and Farooq Amin had an interaction with Parliamentary Standing Committee for Development of Handlooms, Handicrafts and welfare Measures for the Weavers and Artisans in the Union territory of Jammu & Kashmir on Monday and Parliamentary Standing Committee on “Augmenting Infrastructure Facilities to Boost Exports from J&K on Tuesday here at SKICC.
According to KCCI statement, the delegation discussed the following points with these committees:
- Exporters are facing a lot of challenges and difficulties as regard exports from the Kashmir region is concerned. As we are at the fag end of India without logistic support as still, we have no dry port with the result export goods reach Delhi with higher fare rates resulting in losing the competition at international level. So freight subsidies are given to exporters from Jammu & Kashmir as they can’t compete with others who are close to ports. Kashmir has a geographical disadvantage in logistics in respect of road transport. In order to increase export and make our products competitive in the international market, there is a need to subsidize freight both air and road.
- State and Centre Government must come up with attractive schemes so that entrepreneurs/educated unemployed youth will attract towards this Export Industry.
- All handmade items should be exempted from taxes like GST. To preserve the livelihood of Weavers, Artisans, Traders, Exporters who are involved in handmade Handicraft and also the famous art of Cottage Industry, the GST must be waived off on Pashmina Shawls, Carpets, Papier Mache, Crewel, Chain Stitch, Wood Carving.
- Union Territory Government must come up with Special Schemes for Exporters based on their performance/turnover basis. Government should declare Special Scheme in which 10% incentives be given to the exporter yearly on a performance/turnover basic to encourage the exporters and boost Kashmir.
- Those Silk Carpets which contains more than 60% silk should be given 7% incentives in RODTEP Scheme to encourage and boost Silk Handmade Carpets in Kashmir.
- There should be a separate ITC (HS) code for Pashmina Shawls and verified by the competent testing laboratory. No capping should be placed on Pashmina Shawls or other value-added handicraft items under RODTEP Scheme.
- Government should give all the benefits to Kashmir Handicrafts and declare it as Special Economic Zone.
- Warehousing Facility at International Airport.
- The Department connected with the Exporters such as Banks, ECGC, DGFT does not provide the required awareness to the exporters.
- Government must promote Carpet Village/City in Sumbal, Sonawari, where we have more than 20,000 Artisans / Weavers available be identified as Modal Carpet Village which is already existing as per Industrial land bank availability. 200 Kanals of land should be initially provided to manufacturers/exporters in an organized way and Stake Holders should be asked to apply online and submit relevant DPR as per their
- Infrastructure with this Carpet Village/ City should be fully supported and incent-wise in the form of 90:10 due to the present situation of carpet business in Kashmir. This Carpet Village should be installed with all Common Facility Centers wherein Design Development, Dying, Washing, Bank Facilities, Packing. To promote this Carpet Village wherein Carpet Manufacturers/ Exporters will come out with new innovations and designs to cater for the International Market.
- To give incentives like Export Subsidy to Silk Handmade Carpets which are exported at a 10% from Jammu & Kashmir region as per Government Order No: 54-IND of 2020 Dated: 10-03-2020(Jammu and Kashmir Wool Processing, Handloom, Handicraft, Policy-2020). As the decline of exports is worsening every year. It is requested to issue a Public Notice for the above-said Incentive given in the Policy so that manufacturers and exporters get encouraged.
- Government must give support to the present manufacturer/exporter to sustain in this present turmoil as most of the accounts are either stressed or turned NPAs.
- 100% Freight Subsidy from Jammu & Kashmir to the relevant ports should be reimbursed as we are at the fag end of India.
- Office of the Jt. Director (DGFT):- Till a few years back the office at Srinagar was being manned and managed by Joint Director (DGFT) and our problems and needs were being well attended thereby solving the said problems expeditiously. Unfortunately, now the office is being held by a junior officer which results in undue delay in solving the problems. It is requested that a Joint Director General be posted at Srinagar permanently.
- The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry has felt the need of having Expo Marts for Handicrafts products and Carpets where we can Exhibit our products to International Buyers.
- Inland Container Depo in Kashmir will be created which will help our exporters to export directly from Srinagar and increase the products which we are exporting not only but also the volume of present export.
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