Snatching Livelihoods

Craftsmen hit by power looms and spinning machines have recently been up in arms against government apathy, and demand a blanket ban on such machines to save the livelihood of thousands of weavers and spinners. Handicrafts, a traditional vocation supporting lakhs of people in rural and urban Kashmir, is fast losing its artisan base because of official neglect and the onslaught of fakes and machine-made products sold in the name of Kashmir craft. Individuals still battling to keep their exquisite traditions alive have been consigned to despondency as traders rarely accord them a fair share of the benefits their workmanship and toil command at home and abroad.

Despite a government ban, many traders have crossed ethical boundaries by using machines and power looms for spinning and weaving of pashmina, throwing hundreds of female spinners and traditional loom weavers out of work. This machine-made counterfeit, some of it also brought from Amritsar and other places, is then passed off as handmade Kashmir craft.  This is not just plain cheating, but amounts to the killing of the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs – a death knell for Brand Kashmir.

While hundreds of women who used the traditional charkha, or spinning-wheel, have already lost livelihoods due the government ban on shahtoosh, the invasion of machines into pashmina means dependence, indigence and frustration for many times more. These women, mostly without schooling and with no other skills, won’t be able to find any other means of sustenance. Their vocation, now snatched, allowed them to help support families and children without having to leave home for work, and was a source of security.

Despite its tall claims, the J&K government has failed to save the livelihoods of these artisans, whose golden hands bring laurels for Kashmir. Middlemen, moneylenders and big fish grab the lion’s share of the considerable proceeds because artisans do not have direct access to markets, and financial support. Government’s schemes and proposals to empower artisans, including these spinners and weavers, have not reached intended beneficiaries. Looms and artisan credit cards are, for most of this exploited fraternity, still a dream.

Kashmir Arts are renowned the world over for their handmade perfection. Introducing machines may earn some greedy traders a few easy bucks, but the swindle will eventually be exposed, and do irreparable damage to the crafts’ reputation. The government and responsible sections of the business community must ensure strict checks on unscrupulous practices, and give artisans and craftsmen a fair and just deal.