SRINAGAR: Added generosity of Kashmiri Muslims in holy Ramadan appears to the backbone of the lucrative imitation jewelry business run from central India.
As the number of beggars arriving from Indian plains to Kashmir is growing by the day, giving a beggar a coin appears no big deal to a common Kashmiri. And in the month of Ramadan, when charity is believed to fetch Muslims more rewards, the practice becomes all the more prominent, visible at every bus stop or traffic signal flocked by the beggars.
The beggars’ demand for coins is, however, a practice aimed at taking coins from the Valley, through a vast conduit of intermediaries, to central India’s businessmen who churn artificial jewelry out of them.
The process begins with laying a network of non-local beggars whose task is to collect coins from Kashmiris. For the purpose, thousands of beggars are transported into the Valley every year by contractors, and Ramadan is just about the right time for them to collect a maximum number of coins.
“You have to look after your group,” Babu Bhai, who is an associate of one of the beggars’ contractors, told Kashmir Reader. “Running begging business is not an easy job. It is they (beggars) who work for hours together in the streets to collect coins. And we send these coins to outside Kashmir where they are converted into artificial jewelry,” he added.
Bhai’s job is to manage the beggars working with his contractor. He provides them with shelter and food, and ensures they do their assigned work of collection. There is a chain of men working between Bhai and the contractor whom he calls his boss.
“The collected amount comes to me, and I handover it to my immediate higher up. Through this chain, the coins reach the boss,” Bhai explained, rather reluctantly.
The coins, according to him, are then collected by another group that is close to the artificial jewelry industry based mostly in Madhya Pradesh.
“The group (that receives the coins) transfers them to the industrial units that first derive metal from them that is them utilized in making artificial jewelry,” Bhai said.
“We only collect the coin to pass them on to our higher ups who are capable enough to transport them, without any hassle, to dealers of artificial jewelry.”
A recent study by the industry body Assocham said that imitation jewelry business has surged by more than 85 per cent in the last one year on account of sharp rise in gold and silver prices. The imitation jewelry market in India, estimated worth Rs 8,000 crore, is expected to touch Rs 15,000 crore by 2015 owing to growing demand and popularity of the imitation ornaments.
In this lucrative exchange of coins, the beggars only get a small percentage of their daily collection, said Bhai.
“They are paid a small share of their collection. So more coins means added benefit for them. Plus, we provide them with food and other facilities,” he said.
Yet, the number of beggars looking for coins seems to be rising in the Valley. And the practice of donating to them coins, mostly one or two rupee ones, is also growing.
Faisal Ahmad, a shopkeeper from downtown Srinagar, said he donated to beggars coins worth Rs 20, 000 in last one year.
“Last year, I exchanged Rs 20,000 for Rs 2 coins at a local bank. All of it got exhausted this Ramadan,” he said. “More than two thousand beggars visit my shop in Ramadan alone.”
A top official in a local branch of the State Bank of India confirmed that demand for coins increases in the Valley during Ramadan.
“During Ramadan, there is an added market demand for coins and we do try to make them available freely. We always keep pushing coins into the system to keep up with the demand,” he told Kashmir Reader.
Syed Ahsan-ul-Haq, in-charge Cash Management at RBI’s Chest at JK Bank Residency Road here too agreed that the demand for coins in Ramadan is highest.
“We along with the other Chest facilities across the Valley routinely feed the banks with coins, and the banks pass them on to the customers. Besides, there are vending machines at several locations that dole out coins,” he said, adding that return of coins from the customers is almost negligible.
The highest demand, according to Haq, is for Rs 5 coin.
If the numismatist and antiquarian Ghazanfar Mohamad Ali is to be believed, melting coins in bulk is not a new phenomenon.
“But melting coins to make artificial jewelry is a new experiment,” he said.
The history, said Ali, has several instances of rulers or regimes melting the old currency to produce new one bearing their identity marks. To meet the copper demand during World War-II, the US melted its copper coins to use the melt in ammunition manufacture, he said.
“Over the years some of the coins have become almost ‘valueless’. That is why we part with them with ease. The problem is that the vanishing coins don’t hit the business. Some of the coins have no use now even though in some other states in India smaller denomination coins are still relevant,” Ali said.
For Bhai and his business associates, the currency notes too come in handy.
“We exchange them for the new notes, which are used for making garlands of currency notes used in weddings in north India and Kashmir,” he said.