Knit-picking threatens Kashmir
trade By Haroon Mirani
Ghulam Mohammed Malla is busy weaving through the
1,500 minute strands of pashmina wool at
his handloom in old Srinagar.
old hand at the trade with 40 years of experience,
has to navigate through these delicate threads
made up of 12-micron filaments (a human hair is
200 microns wide) by hand as science is yet to
evolve a machine that can handle the legendary
With the help of his
loom, unchanged for ages, he manages to regulate
the weak and extra-weak points of this finest wool
and with every calculated stroke gives the cloth a
shape to envy. If everything goes on time, he will
help to produce a superfine pashmina shawl
within a week - he is 28th in an assembly line
36 that contributed to its
While immersed in the
intricacies of his craft, Malla is becoming
increasingly aware that it is at the center of a
cross-border controversy being fought out far from
India and Pakistan are
fighting over who can have the name "Kashmir
pashmina" registered at the Geographical
Indication (GI) registry. At best, they will
jointly file the application and reap the benefits
in a mutual way. At worst, they will fight over
the issue endlessly - as they have done over the
issue of Kashmir itself. To fight is at present in
Kashmir, a Himalayan state divided
between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by
both, has been at the center of two wars between
"There is a history of
hostility between India and Pakistan and anything
attached to Kashmir automatically becomes
sensitive," says Ashfaq Ahmad Mattoo, spokesperson
of Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust
(KHPPT) a body of pashmina artisans.
New Delhi-backed Craft Development
Institute (CDI) at Srinagar filed an application
in March 2006 with the Geographical Indications
Registry in the Indian city of Chennai to claim
the Kashmir pashmina brand.
registration is a sort of a patent that is given
to a type of trade in a particular region from
where it originated and is being practiced.
Registration helps prevent unauthorized use of a
registered product of one region by others. It can
boost the region's exports by providing legal
protection, promote the economic prosperity of the
producers and supports legal protection in other
member countries of the World Trade Organization.
As is the normal procedure before granting
such a claim, the registry invited objections from
all over the world.
Before the CDI could
secure the coveted title, the Pakistan-based
Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce raised objections,
citing the existence of similar shawls in
Pakistan's part of Kashmir.
Kashmir is also on their side and pashmina
products are there too, so argued that Kashmir
pashmina belongs to them too," said CDI
director Muhammad Shariq Farooqi.
the Pakistan side filed its objection after the
set expiry date, the registry has so fare not
ruled on whether it will entertain or reject its
Further complicating matters, Indian
Kashmir-based KHPPT also objected to the CDI
application on the grounds that it overlooked the
"exclusivity of handmade process and special wool
of Kashmir". After talks, the CDI agreed to modify
the application accordingly.
Pashmina is one of the world's most
sought-after fabrics in the fashion market and
traces its origins to Kashmir. "The elegance,
softness, warmth and number of other features make
it the numero uno in its class," says Ahmad Fayaz,
a handicraft dealer Srinagar.
are a major industry in the region, next only to
horticulture, employing millions and making it a
major exchange earner, and pashmina
products are not the only focus of disputes
between the two claimants on the landlocked state.
Pakistan has also objected to CDI
registration efforts for kani shawls and
sozni products, as according to them
similar items are present on its side of Kashmir.
Sozni is the kind of needlework, while
kani shawls are made with the help of
needlework over a period of eight months to one
"It seems we are witnessing a 'Great
Handicrafts War' between India and Pakistan, said
For Malla, the confrontation is the
dawn of a dark era for the already struggling
industry. "After witnessing unprecedented growth,
we are going downhill," Malla said.
early 1980s, there were just 800 pashmina
weavers, Malla says. As the products caught the
fancy of the international fashion market, and
spurred by exposure to well-heeled tourists,
demand for pashmina soared and the number
of weavers jumped correspondingly to around
10,000. "But now prices are plummeting due to the
influx of machine-made and foreign goods" he adds.
Pashmina wool comes from the
mountain goat Capra Hircus, reared by Drokpa
nomads in the higher altitudes (5,000 meters above
sea level) of the Changthang plateau, spread
between the Ladakh region of Kashmir and China.
Mattoo of the KHPPT, who last year
spearheaded a project on Capra Hircus for the
Wildlife Trust of India, agrees. "We now deal with
only 0.3 % of the whole pashmina trade and
earlier Kashmir was hub of most of it," he says.
The products face stiff competition from
other countries. "China is making pashmina,
New Zealand is making pashmina, Australia
is making pashmina, Nepal and many other
countries are making pashmina," said
China has an advantage as most of
the Changthang plateau, where these goats live, is
in its territory. Traders in Srinagar fear that
soon China will flood the market with
pashmina wool too after increasing the
Capra Hircus population and investing heavily in
Between 200 to 300 grams of
wool are used to produce a single shawl. An
average pashmina goat in Kashmir yields
300-350 grams fine wool, while in China the goat
yields 350 to 400 grams. "China is way ahead of
us. They have invested heavily, made new weaving
facilities and factories and are breeding
pashmina goats on scientific lines,"
laments one trader.
There is no agreed-on
naming standard for fabric types. Most traders
apply the name cashmere and pashmina
loosely. China produces 70% of the roughly 20,000
tonnes of cashmere wool made in the world and a
large amount of it is also branded as
While describing the
difference between the two, Mattoo said, "Cashmere
wool is anywhere between 14-19 micron in thickness
while the pashmina wool is 12-14 microns
Chinese and other traders are also
flooding the market with fake and machine-made
shawls in the name of Kashmir pashmina,
hurting the reputation of the Kashmir brand.
Pure pashmina cannot be woven on
machines as it is too delicate for the task. So
some manufacturers blend it with other wools or
synthetic yarn to make it more durable. Some
traders in the Indian state of Punjab have been
seen to be using silicon softener on the wool to
make it look like the real pashmina. "But
that lasts for just one wash," said Mattoo.
Kashmir remains the only place where
pashmina is being worked on by hand without
any kind of mechanical help beyond the simple
loom. It is this elaborate handmade practice of
artisans that KHPPT wants CDI to involve in the
"Nobody has the skill
possessed by Kashmiris in this regard and if we
register this, we will be simply registering the
gold mine in our name," said Mattoo.
have woken up but it is very late,'' said Farooqi.
"We could have registered the name pashmina
and cashmere in our own name as both have evolved
here, but now they have become generic across the
entire world and nothing can be done."
Trade analysts believe that even now the
name Kashmir pashmina holds immense
business potential, "as it holds a legendary aura
around it". If the title is allotted to Kashmir
artisans, then no business or trade organization
can use the name. The traders in Srinagar say it
will end the practice of others selling the
machine-made and fake pashmina products in
the name of Kashmir pashmina and the value
of such products produced in Kashmir would be
According to one
estimate, the annual shawl trade in Kashmir is
worth anywhere between 5 billion rupees (US$124
billion) and 5 billion rupees, and involves more
than 50,000 people in the business. These include
weavers, spinners, embroidery artisans, washermen,
dyers and others.
At least 32 Kashmiri
handicrafts are exported and the government wants
all of them to be patented to preserve them for
posterity. CDI has listed seven more handicrafts
for filing geographical indication applications.
"We are going to apply for seven more handicrafts
like the Khatamband lattice work [used in creating
ceilings], wood carving, embroidery, crewel
[a form of embroidery] and others," said Farooqi.
With Pakistan already having objected to
three handicrafts, the country is expected also to
raise objections to registration of these. The
handicraft war is set to intensify; the losers may
be the skilled workers on either side of the