Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Forget missiles and tanks; the new "Great Game" in the region involves an ancient craft

The new "war theatre" invoves handicrafts and an endangered species of mountain goats.

Indo-Pak ‘handicrafts war' threatens pashmina trade

Srinagar, March 8: Ghulam Muhammad Malla is busy weaving through the 1,500 minute strands of pashmina wool at his handloom in old Srinagar. Malla, an old hand at the trade with 40 years of experience, has to navigate through these delicate threads made up of 12-micron filaments (a human hair is 200 microns wide) by hand as science is yet to evolve a machine that can handle the legendary pashmina wool. With the help of his loom, unchanged for ages, he manages to regulate the weak and extra-weak points of this finest wool and with every calculated stroke gives the cloth a shape to envy.

If everything goes on time, he will help to produce a superfine pashmina shawl within a week— he is 28th in an assembly line of 36 that contributed to its manufacture. While immersed in the intricacies of his craft, Malla is becoming increasingly aware that it is at the center of a cross-border controversy being fought out far from his workplace. India and Pakistan are fighting over who can have the name "Kashmir pashmina" registered at the Geographical Indication (GI) registry. At best, they will jointly file the application and reap the benefits in a mutual way. At worst, they will fight over the issue endlessly - as they have done over the issue of Kashmir itself. To fight is at present in vogue.

"There is a history of hostility between India and Pakistan and anything attached to Kashmir automatically becomes sensitive," says Ashfaq Ahmad Mattoo, spokesperson of Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust (KHPPT) a body of pashmina artisans. New Delhi-backed Craft Development Institute (CDI) at Srinagar filed an application in March 2006 with the Geographical Indications Registry in the Indian city of Chennai to claim the Kashmir pashmina brand.

GI registration is a sort of a patent that is given to a type of trade in a particular region from where it originated and is being practiced. Registration helps prevent unauthorized use of a registered product of one region by others. It can boost the region's exports by providing legal protection, promote the economic prosperity of the producers and supports legal protection in other member countries of the World Trade Organization. As is the normal procedure before granting such a claim, the registry invited objections from all over the world.

Before the CDI could secure the coveted title, the Pakistan-based Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce raised objections, citing the existence of similar shawls in Pakistan's part of Kashmir. "They said Kashmir is also on their side and pashmina products are there too, so argued that Kashmir pashmina belongs to them too," said CDI director Muhammad Shariq Farooqi.

Although the Pakistan side filed its objection after the set expiry date, the registry has so fare not ruled on whether it will entertain or reject its case. Further complicating matters, Kashmir-based KHPPT also objected to the CDI application on the grounds that it overlooked the "exclusivity of handmade process and special wool of Kashmir.” After talks, the CDI agreed to modify the application accordingly. Pashmina is one of the world's most sought-after fabrics in the fashion market and traces its origins to Kashmir. "The elegance, softness, warmth and number of other features make it the numero uno in its class," says Ahmad Fayaz, a handicraft dealer Srinagar.

Handicrafts are a major industry in the region, next only to horticulture, employing millions and making it a major exchange earner, and pashmina products are not the only focus of disputes between the two claimants on the landlocked state. Pakistan has also objected to CDI registration efforts for kani shawls and sozni products, as according to them similar items are present on its side of Kashmir. Sozni is the kind of needlework, while kani shawls are made with the help of needlework over a period of eight months to one year.

"It seems we are witnessing a 'Great Handicrafts War' between India and Pakistan, said Fayaz.

For Malla, the confrontation is the dawn of a dark era for the already struggling industry. "After witnessing unprecedented growth, we are going downhill," Malla said. In the early 1980s, there were just 800 pashmina weavers, Malla says. As the products caught the fancy of the international fashion market, and spurred by exposure to well-heeled tourists, demand for pashmina soared and the number of weavers jumped correspondingly to around 10,000. "But now prices are plummeting due to the influx of machine-made and foreign goods" he adds.

Pashmina wool comes from the mountain goat Capra Hircus, reared by Drokpa nomads in the higher altitudes (5,000 meters above sea level) of the Changthang plateau, spread between the Ladakh region of Kashmir and China. Mattoo of the KHPPT, who last year spearheaded a project on Capra Hircus for the Wildlife Trust of India, agrees. "We now deal with only 0.3 % of the whole pashmina trade and earlier Kashmir was hub of most of it," he says. The products face stiff competition from other countries.

"China is making pashmina, New Zealand is making pashmina, Australia is making pashmina, Nepal and many other countries are making pashmina," said Mattoo. China has an advantage as most of the Changthang plateau, where these goats live, is in its territory. Traders in Srinagar fear that soon China will flood the market with pashmina wool too after increasing the Capra Hircus population and investing heavily in the sector.

Between 200 to 300 grams of wool are used to produce a single shawl. An average pashmina goat in Kashmir yields 300-350 grams fine wool, while in China the goat yields 350 to 400 grams. "China is way ahead of us. They have invested heavily, made new weaving facilities and factories and are breeding pashmina goats on scientific lines," laments one trader.

There is no agreement on naming standard for fabric types. Most traders apply the name cashmere and pashmina loosely. China produces 70 percent of the roughly 20,000 tonnes of cashmere wool made in the world and a large amount of it is also branded as pashmina wool. While describing the difference between the two, Mattoo said, "Cashmere wool is anywhere between 14-19 micron in thickness while the pashmina wool is 12-14 microns thick."

Chinese and other traders are also flooding the market with fake and machine-made shawls in the name of Kashmir pashmina, hurting the reputation of the Kashmir brand. Pure pashmina cannot be woven on machines as it is too delicate for the task. So some manufacturers blend it with other wools or synthetic yarn to make it more durable. Some traders in the Indian state of Punjab have been seen to be using silicon softener on the wool to make it look like the real pashmina. "But that lasts for just one wash," said Mattoo.

Kashmir remains the only place where pashmina is being worked on by hand without any kind of mechanical help beyond the simple loom. It is this elaborate handmade practice of artisans that KHPPT wants CDI to involve in the patent form. "Nobody has the skill possessed by Kashmiris in this regard and if we register this, we will be simply registering the gold mine in our name," said Mattoo. "We have woken up but it is very late,'' said Farooqi. "We could have registered the name pashmina and cashmere in our own name as both have evolved here, but now they have become generic across the entire world and nothing can be done." Trade analysts believe that even now the name ‘Kashmir pashmina’ holds immense business potential, "as it holds a legendary aura around it.” If the title is allotted to Kashmir artisans, then no business or trade organization can use the name. The traders in Srinagar say it will end the practice of others selling the machine-made and fake pashmina products in the name of Kashmir pashmina and the value of such products produced in Kashmir would be immensely increased.

According to one estimate, the annual shawl trade in Kashmir is worth anywhere between 5 billion rupees (US$124 billion) and 5 billion rupees, and involves more than 50,000 people in the business. These include weavers, spinners, embroidery artisans, washermen, dyers and others.

At least 32 Kashmiri handicrafts are exported and the government wants all of them to be patented to preserve them for posterity. CDI has listed seven more handicrafts for filing geographical indication applications. "We are going to apply for seven more handicrafts like the Khatamband lattice work [used in creating ceilings], wood carving, embroidery, crewel [a form of embroidery] and others," said Farooqi.

With Pakistan already having objected to three handicrafts, the country is expected also to raise objections to registration of these. The handicraft war is set to intensify; the losers may be the skilled workers on either side of the Kashmiri divide.

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