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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hands that make masterpieces, fail to earn decent living

Ahsana describes how poverty plagues handicraft artisans as middlemen grow rich-n-fat

The tragic story of Kashmiri artisans

Ahsana Rashid (Kashmir Images)

Srinagar: Government’s loud rhetoric about the potential of handicrafts sector as viable economic activity aside, the unfortunate reality is that poor artisans who carve out masterpieces of Kashmir art are unable to earn a square meal for them and their families.

Despite toiling for hours together, these artisans yearn for a rewarding treatment and a single moment of anxiety–free environment while the real rewards of their workmanship are reaped by top businessmen and middle-men. Dejected by the profession, Mahnaz, a young weaver looks at the contemporary state of the profession as unrewarding.Gloomily, Mahnaz sums up her agonies: “Sometimes I feel like giving up this work but then looking at the requirements of the family, I change the idea. Definitely, this is an artistic job but the benefits are always reaped by those placed towards the apex of the industry.”And Mehnaz obviously regrets that despite putting in hard labour, the poor artisans fails to reap the appropriate benefits “which I believe are due to them”.

Lack of proper infrastructure results in the insufficient growth of the sector, believes Bashir Ahmad, a businessman. Infrastructure circle includes problems in procurement of proper raw materials, lack of publicity, lack of literacy and marketing skills, he informs, adding no attempts have so far been taken to introduce innovations and improvements in traditional designs “that have led to monotony in the quality of products”.

This fact needs to be seriously looked into and use of outdated tools needs to be minimized, he suggests. Although the artisans could be better off if they could somehow manage to bypass the middle-men and touts, but lack of capital to go about their business on their own is a big hurdle.

Lack of capital and lack of marketing strategy often leads to dumping of goods in one area while they are unavailable in another. Artisans simply go on producing goods on the demands of merchants who then decide where to sell these products.

Here come the middlemen into picture, who thrive at the expense of both the consumers and the artisans.They not only artificially hike the prices but also sell fake products in the name of originals. The artisans normally lack the avenues to directly approach the customers.

Obviously here, the self-employment schemes could be of great help, for it will not only provide employment to unemployed youth but also boost the handicraft sector in the broader terms. If the facilities are created whereby the producers (artisans) can have direct access to the market, it will not only benefit artisans but also make available the genuine and cheaper products to the customers.

Government needs to intervene for the betterment of the local artisans and the crafts people so that the sector flourishes in a better way. Even non-governmental organizations can play their role provided they are sincere in this regard, suggests Amir, a businessman. Biggest problem staring Kashmiri artisans right in their faces is that machine-made goods are being faked and sold as a hand-made ones.

Mohammed Amin of Hawal in Srinagar, who has been in the profession for the past over 50 years says, “Right from my childhood I have been embroidering shawls but I don’t think a person in contemporary times can earn his living by doing this work.”

Comparing his hand-embroidered products with the machine–made ones, Mohammed Amin says the advent of machine-made products as replacement for handmade ones have made going tough for the artisans like hum. Though there is fairly good number of customers for genuine products as well, but Mohammed Amin and many like him say the lack of direct link between artisans and buyers makes the role of middlemen more vital.“It de-links us from our potential customers,” he says to sums up the plight of artisans associated with Kashmir handicraft business.

Meanwhile, an editorial highlights the broader issue (but why blame the central government - should not the blame fall squarely on the state government?) .......

Why this apathy?

(Greater Kashmir)

The handicrafts sector of the state that once upon a time supported and sustained about two million artisans and made a significant contribution to the state’s Gross Domestic Product is today on cross roads if the recent revelations are to be believed.

The decline in the number of artisans involved in handicrafts production has plummeted over the years is only due to the official apathy the handicrafts sector has faced. Today their numbers are said to be around three lac compared to 15 lac in early seventies of the last century should not surprise any one who is well versed with the sector. The poor artisans have been all through the past sixty-one years of so called democratic rule in the state suffering from abject neglect, exploitation by various forces and patently wrong policies of the government.

Irony of the fate is that the government of India has claimed the earnings from the Kashmir handicrafts sector to the tune of Rs1500 crores. This is despite the fact that the government of India fully knows the fact that there has been a subtle intrusion in to the sector. Had the figure been based on facts the plight of the artisans would not have been as sad as it is today. The flight of human resource from the sector would not have been there at all had the fortune reached the artisans.

It is unfortunate that the state government is doing nothing to have a solid and concrete industrial policy in place that would prevent sale of the Kashmir brand name by others. It is an admitted fact that over the centuries Kashmiri artisans and craftsmen because of their hard work, instincts and intelligence could produce world’s best of the handicrafts that earned a name to the place and its people.

Today Kashmir sells world over because of the fair amount of good will and fame earned by the artisans with magical touch. However the sharks in the trade at home and elsewhere exploited these poor artisans to the hilt. Today a shawl produced in Amritsar and elsewhere is sold in the name of Kashmir shawl. There are similar intrusions in other handicrafts as well. The state government knows it full well yet it has failed to take note of the situation.

The Federation Chamber of Industry, Kashmir is justified to criticize the government. Its accusation that the production in all handicraft segments has reduced from previous figures if the inflation was taken into account is not for heresy. It is substantiated fully by the ground situation. More than 70% of the artisans in making or even fully skilled craftsmen were forced to look for alternate jobs, as they no more could eke out a living out of the handicrafts production. And the FCIK is within its rights to attribute the decrease in employment and production in the handicraft sector to ‘non-serious and half-hearted government policies, which had failed to support and encourage artisans in order to make them comfortable’.

The government that has been making tall claims on working with all seriousness to address the growing un-employment problem, is seen ignoring the sector that offers more than a million jobs at a time when other sources are drying or have come to the saturation level.

To make a beginning the government could think of setting up of temporary crafts bazaars across India with facilities for the artisans and craftsmen to demonstrate their skills, empower them to sell their produce directly to the potential consumers and help them get the brands registered. The government’s efforts to organize the craftsmen and artisans in to cooperatives have been meek and lacked determination. The Induscos as these cooperatives were known did make some gains but then were dumped as non-entities.

The FCIK can also contribute its mite in organizing the artisans and craftsmen in to cooperatives or self-help groups to empower them. However the success of every such effort will depend on a sound and vibrant industrial policy. If we can not have heavy, large and medium industries we certainly can have small industries which offer a vast potential of jobs.

Another editorial takes the high road and looks for optimism .......

Entrepreneurs and artisans need to develop connections with markets across the globe

(Rising Kashmir)

The 54th Industrial and Handicrafts Exhibition has begun at Kashmir Haat. The exhibition is organised by Kashmir Department of Industries and Directorate Industries and Commerce, in collaboration with the Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir (FCIK) and the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI). The idea of providing the local artisans a chance to showcase their products is commendable.

It will enable them to introduce their craft to the larger market. It is a known fact that unless artisans and entrepreneurs are well connected with the market, these activities never prove economically viable. All those government departments and independent association that are concerned with industries and handicrafts need to maximise their efforts to open up market avenues for entrepreneurs and artisans.

In Kashmir the Industrial sector has always remained a non starter. Among many other reasons disconnect between industrial activity and market has largely contributed to that. Since there have been no consistent efforts, on part of the state government, to provide newer markets to our state based Industries, it has made our industrial sector inward looking. Our Industries in most of the cases totally rely on the local market which in no way is as big as could sustain the economic viability of our industries.

Keeping this thing in view an element of urgency needs to be infused in the attempts to explore and expand the market for our industries. If activities like Industrial and Handicraft Exhibition can prove a step in that direction, it will end up as a successful event. If it fails to bring our industries closer to market then all the pomp and show that surrounds it is absolutely of no benefit. Like industries, our handicrafts are also in need of bigger market opportunities.

Although individual efforts by the big handicraft houses of Kashmir have already introduced the creative work of our artisans to the big markets, not just in India but globally, but there is a need of making it more organised. Pertinent to underline is the fact that the hands that create beautiful pieces of art are the last beneficiaries.

By bringing the market closer to their doors, artisans can be made the first line beneficiaries of their craft. By giving them a chance to showcase their own products, authorities have done a commendable job. But it must not stop here only.

There is a world beyond Exhibition. Concerned agencies need to guide them in the bigger markets around the world. Moreover, both industries and handicrafts need governmental support to provide them chances to showcase their products at the exhibitions at national and international level. Once this sector gets introduced to markets at global level, the economic spin off will set in, giving industries and handicrafts the required boost.

So the need of the hour is that government and trade associations make this exhibition an opportunity to step into the larger world of business and trade.

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