In the winter of 1999, Mir Showkat Ahmad, aged 17, passed the high school exam. A week later, his father got a heart stroke. The incident left Ahmad’s father, a pashmina weaver by profession, half-impaired. Being the only son and eldest of siblings, the responsibility to take care of the family fell upon Ahmad.
“I wanted to study computer sciences at the university but after my father’s stroke, he couldn’t work much,” said Ahmad in an interview with Hyperallergic. “Having no other way out, I decided to quit my education and become a pashmina weaver so that I could feed my family.”
“It was the only job I thought I could do because pashmina weaving was already in the family,” he continued, explaining that his grandfather and two of his uncles were also weavers.
Kashmir’s Pashmina, a premium form of Cashmere, is regarded worldwide as a sign of an elite lifestyle. From royal princesses to Hollywood actors, pashmina has decorated the wardrobes of some of the most influential people in history. Known for its softness, warmth, lightweight, and luxurious feel, the entire production process of making Pashmina is done by hand.
In the Western market, Pashmina shawls or scarves are highly expensive ranging from $200 to $1,600. However, the weavers who actually make the pashmina products live in poverty. There are two chief reasons for that, says Ahmad: “The first is that the wages of the weavers are inadequate; the second is the infiltration of powerloom in the handmade pashmina market.”
As a result of the mechanization of the craft, the demand for handmade pashmina has narrowed as cheap, imitative shawls flooded the market. But, as the number of weavers has fallen, the volume of shawls being made has increased, meaning that many of the products labeled as handmade are actually being churned along with harmful chemicals in powerloom factories. In the international market, they are passed off as handcrafted ones, and as a result, it has perforated the reputation of the 600-year-old brand “Kashmir Pashmina.”
In order to raise the grievances of pashmina weavers and chart out ways to revive the heritage craft of pashmina weaving, Ahmad along with his other colleagues formed the Kashmir Pashmina Karigar Union in 2013. Years later, in 2018, the group merged with other unions from different districts of Kashmir and was renamed Genuine Kashmir Cottage Handicraft Protection Forum. The forum has 12,000 registered members in Kashmir.
Ahmad, who currently serves as General Secretary of the forum, voiced his concern that the wages of weavers are not adjusted to current market prices.
“In the early nineties, the pashmina craft was so respected and lucrative that people used to leave government jobs just to weave pashmina,” he told Hyperallergic. “But now this craft is on the verge of extinction because of the stagnant wages. In the year 2000s, when I weaved the first pashmina shawl, the wage was Rs 1,250 [$15.17] per shawl and at present, the latest wage issued by the government is just Rs 2500 [$30.34]. It’s a joke on us. The market is so expensive that the minimum wage for a shawl should be at least Rs 5000.”
“While drafting the Minimum Support Prices (MSP), the government did not even check if the rates are feasible enough for a person to feed his family,” Ahmad added. “A laborer earns more than we do. We are stripped of our dignity.”
Ahmad added that for the past five months, Ahmad has been saving a small amount of money from his monthly wages to buy a bicycle for his 9-year-old son, but now he lost hope of affording this gift. “The bicycle costs Rs 6000 [$72.82] and my wages for one month do not go beyond Rs 10,000 [$121.36], which is not sufficient even to meet the daily needs of my family. Sometimes I even buy groceries on credit.”
Apart from the wages, the mechanization of pashmina products has crippled the weavers and as a result, there is an erosion of the traditional craft. It started in late 2006 when the spinning looms and powerlooms started functioning in Kashmir. Prior to that, machine-made pashmina shawls were manufactured only in the Indian state of Amritsar. Since the arrival of powerloom industries in Kashmir, the production of handmade pashmina shawls has significantly declined.
Ahmad believes that there are a handful of wealthy capitalist powerloom owners who run the show and their only motive is to generate profit as much as they can. “They don’t care about heritage or craft,” he said. “Even the government officials are aware that pashmina is being churned on powerlooms. Pashmina in organic form can only be made by hand spinning and hand weaving. Powerloom owners make counterfeit pashmina and sell them as handmade. They just do not care about us because they do not want us to get out of poverty and live on par with other members of the society.”
Younis Farooq, manager at the Pashmina Testing and Quality Certification Centre in Srinagar, speaking on behalf of the Director of the Handicrafts regrets that there is no state legislation that prohibits the weaving of pashmina on powerlooms. “The Handicraft Quality Control Act 1978 mentions four protected classes, one of them is shawls but the rules are not defined, meaning what to call pashmina and what should not be referred to as pashmina. There are no bylaws. Pashmina could have been protected in the shawls category if someone had made any effort to work on it but, to be honest, this is what the Handicrafts department should have done but didn’t do.”
Farooq, however, says that Kashmir Pashmina’s Geographical Indication (GI) mark, which the Government of Jammu and Kashmir secured through the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in order to protect and preserve the distinct identity of Kashmir Pashmina is the only tool at present to protect and safeguard the pashmina craft and recognize the superiority of the handmade pashmina. “The GI mark is a tool to protect the rights of the artisans. We test, certify and hallmark the genuine pashmina,” Farooq said. “It means that in the entire world, the Kashmir Pashmina mark cannot be labeled on any pashmina manufactured in any other part of the world. Only those articles qualify as genuine Kashmir Pashmina which has a GI mark on it.”
The weavers’ community also believes that the Geographic Indication mark on Kashmir’s Pashmina could be a game changer. However, as Ahmad said, “Customers are not aware of this.”
“They do not have any information about what the GI mark means,” he continued. “The reason is that the government bodies do not market it or advertise it properly so that people would be aware.”