SRINAGAR, May 15: For Kashmirs’ famed handicrafts, it is celebration time. There are sixty buyers from across 20 countries currently negotiating deals with handicraft exporters in Srinagar, thanks to the fourth Kashmir Expo, a yearly buyer and seller meeting that Union Textile Ministry has been sponsoring, every summer.
“We have buyers worldwide and we supply them whatever they require,” said Nazir Ahmad, an exporter. “But this exercise helps us to get the buyer here to see the complicated processes involved and understand how this heritage industry is an inseparable part of our history.”
This time, said Abdul Hamid Punjabi, the president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the nodal agency for the Expo Buyers, the buyers are more enthusiastic. “Last year we had only 30 buyers but I see a renewed interest of the international buyer in Kashmir crafts.” Punjabi said a number of buyers have already indicated they will be placing orders. “The most important thing is that new networks between the buyers are sellers are emerging,” he said.
Officially, the exercise is aimed at undoing the trend that two decades of turmoil dictate on Kashmir’ handicrafts sector. As militancy kept away visitors from Kashmir, most of around 350 exporters migrated leaving behind skeleton staff, cooks and clerks hiding behind the closed shutters. In certain cases, some of the artisans with assured job works also migrated with looms and needles. As violence ebbed, the reversal started but Kashmir Expo is aimed at accelerating the process.
The temporary migration proved blessing in disguise for a number of exporters. “You name a country and I will tell you how many exporters have their showrooms,” said a senior executive of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the nodal agency for the Expo. “There are individuals who now own chains in Middle East, Europe and America.” Encouraging them to re-link their businesses with Kashmir is also aimed at preventing them from encouraging products from other places and packaging them as Kashmir crafts.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah who threw the Expo-2012 open in the Sher-e-Kashmir International Conventional Complex (SKICC) was also critical of the fake and mechanical art replacing the manual handicrafts. “Most of our traders are honest but there are black sheep who sell staple in the name of silk and market machine made Nepalese in the name of Kashmir shawls,” Omar said in his speech. “But these people should know that they are axing their own legs.”
Incidence of machine made products being sold and packaged in the name of Kashmir handicrafts has already forced the tourism and handicrafts departments to launch a campaign as gullible tourists have started petitioning to the authorities. “We are acting tough against these black sheep because it could impact the overall market of our handicrafts,” said Farooq Ahmad, Director Tourism.
With an estimated Rs 1500 crores turnover, the handicrafts are a complete basket comprising carpet, shawls, paper machie, embroidered crewel and other items. Like the apple – the main engine behind the rural growth, it has a wide dispersal as around half a million artisans are linked directly to it. Officials said the overall production of handicrafts was at Rs 1650 crores in 2011-12 of which Rs 1004 crores was the net overseas export. “The sector is gradually coming out of the mess as the Western markets are improving,” said a Industries Ministry official. “If the artisans take care of the new trends in designing, dying and finishing, it will double within next few years.”
However, the scene at ground zero is not so encouraging. As weaving carpets or stitching shawls is becoming increasingly non-remunerative, most of the artisans are gradually jumping to other jobs. Economist Haseeb Drabu, the former Economic Adviser to J&K government, believes that the situation in which Kashmir is rich in crafts but has craftsmen living in poverty like marginalized wage labourers is an “indictment of the perversity of the economic policy pursued over the years.” Chief Minister referred to this crisis in his speech. “Unless the artisan is not incentivised, we are heading towards a crisis,” he said. “Handicrafts will become totally mechanized and it will not survive.” (The Economic Times)