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Communication blockade is breaking down Kashmir's crafts economy: Here's a ground report

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Shabir Ali Beigh is the eighth generation in his family engaged in the exquisite sozni embroidery technique from Kashmir. After several years of practice, the master craftsman has gained the skills to fit 500 stitches per sq cm of a pashmina wool shawl. It takes up to 2 years to embroider a sozni shawl as one craftsman works on a piece at a time. These shawls, sold for Rs 1 lakh or more a piece, are in high demand during the festival season.

Google Arts and Culture is celebrating his craft and the heritage behind it in its online exhibit Crafted in India, held in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and Dastkari Haat Samiti, a nonprofit working for artisans. But Srinagar-based Beigh is distraught. He cannot see the display of his craft, because there has been no internet connection in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5, when Article 370 was revoked by the Centre. J&K has now been given the status of a Union territory.

Landlines were restored in September and post-paid mobile phone connections were restored in mid-October. But pre-paid phones and internet services are still not operational.

“My phone doesn’t stop ringing and orders keep pouring in when I am in Delhi,” he told this writer when he was in the Capital in October. But this situation changes when he goes back to Kashmir, Beigh added.

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According to the directorate of handicrafts in Kashmir, there are nearly 2.5 lakh artisans directly dependent upon handicrafts for their livelihood; with earnings of around Rs 1,700 crore as foreign exchange every year. “There are at least 16 unique crafts which people of Kashmir are engaged in,” says Devika Krishnan, an independent design consultant who works with NGO Commitment to Kashmir. “In the Valley, almost 60% of the households are connected with crafts one way or another.”

Most of these artisans have been hit hard, says Mateen Dijoo, cofounder of Delhi-based Blossoms of Heaven, which sources pashmina products from Kashmir “Banks in Kashmir were closed for several weeks and we were not able to pay many weavers. In fact, many of them are still not reachable because they are located in remote villages and use only prepaid mobile phones. We have missed out a huge opportunity this festival season. My phone is flooded with 100s of messages from disappointed customers,” says Dijoo.

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Another company that has been affected by the lack of telecom and internet connectivity is Baramulla-based Ri-Wayat. Inshada Bashir Mir, the 26-year old who started the venture, has been promoting the aari embroidery work. “I support around 20 artisans in villages who make a living through aari work,” says Bashir Mir. She has been unable to maintain contact with artisans staying in faraway places. “From sourcing raw material such as silk and cotton from across India to accepting orders on WhatsApp and checking out designs on the internet, everything has become a challenge now,” she explains on phone from Baramulla. She can afford a postpaid mobile connection but most artisans use the cheaper prepaid option. Several have not been able to recharge their connections because they have not received payments as banks were closed.

Kashmir Box, a website selling traditional products from the state, has stopped accepting orders since the last two months. Muheet Mehraj, the cofounder of Kashmir Box, refused to speak to ET Magazine. More than 1,000 artisans from Kashmir sell products on Kashmir Box.

The revenue losses for craftspeople across Kashmir this festival season could add up to Rs 300 crore, assesses an expert on the sector connected with the Craft Development Institute in Srinagar, requesting anonymity. “Unsold stocks, which were handcrafted months ahead of the festival season, and advance payments for exhibitions and events in India and overseas, had to be forfeited because of the lockdown,” he says.

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For many craftsmen, a way out has been to visit Delhi and other cities more often than usual. Artisans who can afford it have temporarily shifted their base out of Kashmir. Take the case of Noor Bhat, a master craftsman of kani shawls, who is operating out of an office in Okhla, Delhi, during the festival season. But even he is facing problems. “Products made on our powerloom units are not priced very high. We are finding good demand for them this year too. However, the hand-crafted kani shawls, which my family has specialised in for many generations, are expensive and are customised according to customer needs. But we were not been able to communicate with people outside Kashmir before Diwali and so could not take orders.”

Despite the gloom, the crafts folk of Kashmir are showing signs of resilience. “Most of them have faced such crisis situations several times. They are slowly bouncing back,” says president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, Jaya Jaitly. Many have received help from the Ministry of Textiles, she adds. The ministry has helped the artisans with logistical and travel issues. But communication breakdown is breaking down the crafts economy.
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