Kashmir's carpet industry has been hit very hard by the global economic slowdown, 47-year-old Bashir Ahmad Bhat explained while working on his loom in a run-down hut in downtown Srinagar.
Family pressure is mounting for Bashir to give up this now unproductive job of carpet weaving, which has been for generations the traditional source of income for the Bhat family - along with thousands of other families in Indian-administered Kashmir. Bashir's dilemma is whether to abandon this art "which has remained close to his heart" since childhood.
"I am being forced by my family to give up this art and start some other work which will pay dividends to the family. Many of my fellow artisans have quit and they are now selling goods on road-sides," says Bashir.
The US$50 million handicrafts industry of Kashmir - which employs more than 200,000 artisans - faces a severe threat of extinction as sales of hand-made Kashmiri carpets and shawls, which are the most profitable proportion of the industry, have come down by 80%.
Carpets are primarily exported to the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Economists are apprehensive that the artisans involved in the carpet industry might switch over to some other trade or source of livelihood, given that the economic recession is forecast to continue for at least another year.
"The handicrafts industry is not only a good contributor to the Kashmir's economy, but it is closely linked with the culture of Kashmir; therefore it is mandatory to protect this industry," says Professor Nissar Ali, an economist who teaches at Kashmir University. Ali expressed concern the government has not done more to help the artisans. "A blow to the carpet industry means a blow to the thousands of skilled laborers as well. The government should wake up to this reality as soon as possible," Ali said.
The carpet manufacturers and the dealers consider themselves unfortunate that they have had to suffer economic blow after blow. "Some years back it was the aftermath of 9/11 which hit us hard, and now it is the global economic recession," says carpet dealer Mohammad Rafiq. "Before these setbacks, it was the intense conflict in Kashmir which brought down the number of tourists and in turn affected the sales of carpets."
Kashmir has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan since the two countries achieved freedom from British rule and were divided along religious lines in 1947. One-third of Kashmir's territory is with Pakistan while the rest is under Indian control. An armed rebellion against Indian rule in the Indian part of Kashmir has been going on since 1989 - more than 60,000 people are reported to have died in the conflict as per official estimates.
Recently, the Jammu and Kashmir Bank - the largest financial institution in Kashmir - announced an interest-free and mortgage-free 18-month bailout package for carpet industry artisans.
"Being the state's largest financial institution, we don't want to see a situation arising in Kashmir wherein artisans would commit suicides following utter disappointments in their businesses. We also don't want our artisans to turn to other businesses like driving auto rickshaws. So we have planned to help them tide over the crisis," Jammu and Kashmir Bank chairman Hasseb Drabu told Inter Press Service.
The announcement has not evoked a positive response from the carpet manufacturers. "The carpet manufacturers are not actually keen on producing more carpets at this moment for which they would require bank loans; they actually want to sell off their older stock," says Professor Nissar. "That is why I say that the government should help the carpet manufacturers who are suffering because of the drastic reduction in the sale volume."
"The ideal way to deal with this problem is that the government should buy the carpets through the Arts Emporium. The Emporium can later sell them at highly profitable rates when the world economy recovers," Nissar said. "There are reports that the artisans might give up carpet weaving as manufacturers see no point in producing the carpets under the prevailing economic conditions."
Stocks of carpets now lie with the weavers as they have hardly any buyers. "Though my heart is in this art given that I have inherited it from my ancestors," Bashir said, "domestic pressure might force me to opt out once I finish this carpet on my loom."
Bashir's wife, Halima, who is suffering from several ailments, said: "We shudder to think about my treatment given the present-day cost of living," says Halima. "Sometimes we hardly manage a two square meals." Nor is there sufficient money to buy all the schoolbooks needed by their nine-year-old daughter, Tabinda, who has to borrow those she cannot buy from schoolfriends. That is not her only problem: "My friends get good pocket money, but I don't get it."
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