A 56-year-old Kashmiri artisan, Mohammad Yusuf, has been weaving carpets for the last forty years. He was just a 12-year-old when he started learning the craft of making the exquisite Kashmir carpets and now he is a master craftsman. But the Covid-19 pandemic, that has drastically impacted the economy, has also changed Yusuf’s life.
Carpets woven by Yusuf usually fetch a decent value when sold in the Gulf and European markets, which form an extensive client base for Kashmiri carpet merchants. But, the stack of carpet lying at his workshop in Eidgah area of the Srinagar tells an unusual story; “there are no takers for the carpets and demand has dropped. I have not earned a single penny for last one year,” he told NewsClick.
For carpet weavers like Yusuf, survival amid COVID-19 pandemic has been painful as the fractured supply chains and crippled markets have cut their earnings and slipped them into the quagmire of despondency. For these weavers, work from home is common as most of them are based in their native places creating hand-knotted rugs. The worry, however, has been about the slump in sales and demand. “The pandemic sounded a death knell to our business as no new orders are coming. It is becoming tough for us to make ends meet,” he said.
The situation that evolved because of the pandemic came as a double whammy for the weavers as they did not get time to recover from the jolt of the prolonged lockdown imposed in lieu of the Centre’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and revoke Kashmir’s special status on August 5 last year. The lockdown came with unprecedented communication blockade and it cut off the craftsmen from their wholesalers in and outside the country and led to huge losses. The pandemic-induced lockdown, however, has taken place in most countries affecting markets around the world and hence, the demand for carpets has dropped.
According to estimates of the Department of Handicrafts in Kashmir, there are 2.5 lakh artisans in the region who are reliant upon handicrafts for their sustenance, with returns of around Rs 1,700 crore as foreign exchange every year. Over a dozen crafts comprising aari work, shawl making, carpet weaving and paper-mache, which these artisans practice, need special skills. The back-to-back lockdowns in the past year and a half has forced some of these skilled people to take up meagre jobs while pushing others to unemployment. As per the data of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, nearly 70,000-80,000 people have lost their jobs, with 50% of them being women.
Farooq Ahmad has been promoting the aari embroidery work for last several years and majority of his employees are women. “I support around 20 female artisans in villages who make a living through aari work,” he told NewsClick.
With the drop in demand, Ahmad said, the workers are out of work and finding it arduous to run their homes. “Bulk of my workforce is from low-income groups with wages being their sole source of income. The situation has disempowered the women in a big way,” he said.
Sajjad Ahmad, whose family has been involved in the delicate Pashmina shawl craft for seven generations, highlights another challenge for the craftsmen. With the drop in demand, the labor costs have dwindled. He explained, last year he earned Rs 40,000 for making one shawl which took him around six months. “The same shawl gets me only 20,000-25,000 these days. How can a person survive in that amount for six months?” he asked. He is not out of work but still underpaid. “I have been working on a piece for last three months, but the labor costs are too low for me,” he said.
With the situation deteriorating with each passing day, some workers are switching professions to feed their families. “I am losing the artisans with each passing day. Out of an over dozen workers I am left with two. I have not sold a single piece in the pandemic. We have lost all hopes,” said Umar Jan, a Padmashree-awardee craftsman.
He added that the artists used to earn around Rs 5,000-7,000 per month, but now they have no work at all. “The community is taking care of them. Some are selling vegetables while others are working as laborers,” Jan said.
President Kashmir Chamber of Industries and Commerce, Sheikh Ashiq told NewsClick that although the government announced post-COVID packages, it excluded artisans. “It is an export-oriented industry. Exporters are crying about piling inventory. The government must intervene and buy the material itself,” he said, adding that the revenue losses for handicraft industry across Kashmir have already touched Rs 100 crores.
Over 27.19 million people have been infected by the novel Coronavirus globally, and 888,326 have died since the first cases were identified in China in December 2019. In India, 4,280,422 cases and 72,816 deaths were reported till Tuesday. Likewise, Kashmir has also been affected by the virus, with 43,557 positive cases and 784 deaths recorded so far.