Abdul Raheem is sitting with his colleague at the silk filature in Rambagh, Srinagar. He has worked as a silk rearer for the last thirty years in Pampore – a small town situated on the eastern side of river Jhelum. He is invited by the filature to train Kashmiri youth willing to learn the production of silk from Kashmir’s mulberry trees.
Amidst the boisterous streets of Srinagar is the Kashmir’s silk filature in Rambagh. The walls are damp and with sporadic webs on its high ceilings, the filature seems like an extraordinary confluence of the once burgeoning sericulture business and modern industry.
The workers keep their composure as they operate complex machines, draw silk fibers and send them to be designed into authentic silk sarees of Kashmir.
The filature, operating at minimal capacity for almost thirty years since 1990s, was revived amid government’s push in 2018 when it ordered a 63.25 crore rupees financial impetus to revive the silk industry in Kashmir.
The silk filature in Srinagar, first established in 1892, is a vivid industry that has witnessed British imperialism, Afghan’s indifference, transcontinental trade and has left a lasting mark of the Kashmiri sericulture on the world.
The sericulture industry is distributed across 20 districts of Jammu and Kashmir. Anantnag, Baramulla, Udhampur, Rajouri, Reasi, Pulwama and Kathua are some of the major silk production districts.
Raheem says that in 1989, militancy and the decline in silk’s demand led to the closure of the factory.
“It has remained in operation but to a very minimal extent. Also, the raw materials that we purchased turned out to be faulty and of bad quality.” Raheem said.
“It’s sad that the factory was closed for so many years,” he said.
He’s happy that the Government Silk Factory has resumed its operations in Rambagh.
However, its operations are severely impacted by the shutdown in 2019 and Covid-19 restrictions.
Ghulam Mohammad Bhat, the filature in-charge in Rambagh talks about the present state of the Kashmir sericulture factory.
“The work was profitable and the demand was great, not anymore.” Bhat said.
Bhat said that after the public monopoly over the industry was done away with and private players were involved in the silk business, the factory took a hit.
“Most of the materials that the nearby villages cultivated were purchased by private players while we, because of the lack of regulation, were left with materials of lesser quality,” he said.
“It’s time that we realise our true potential again.”
Presently, the filature has close to 22 staff members and one functioning boiler area at present and people from as far as West Bengal come to work in the boiler and sorters division.
Muzamil, a boiler assistant who works on a contract basis said that, “if the filature begins to function at full capacity, we could be easily looking at over 3,000 people working here.”
He further talks about how a full-fledged opening will have multiple benefits to the Kashmiri youth.
“When there’s unemployment, the youth tend to get into drug abuse to overcome the depression that comes with it. In Kashmir, it is very prevalent.” Muzamil said.
Bhat said that the government provides critical infrastructure and financial support to the producers of silk seeds.
“Coal, iron and storage houses are provided to producers to augment the production of seeds in villages,” he said.
According to a government bulletin, ‘Reviving and Reliving: Jammu Kashmir Silk’, “The number of mulberry trees and rearers as well as quantum of seed production and distribution started declining.”
This led to the dismal state of production of 18 MT of raw silk in 1990-91, a sharp contrast to production of 113 MT of raw silk before 1947.
As per the bulletin, there are about 7 lakh mulberry trees in the State out of which 53 percent are in the Jammu division and the rest are in Kashmir division.
Also, there are 2,800 villages and 33,000 households in which sericulture generating income is Rs. 2026 lakh annually and 3.5 lakh man days.
In 2018, according to commissioner secretary, Shailendra Kumar, the government envisaged an annual production of around 10 lakhs metres of silk fabric utilizing around 2.5 lakh kilograms of silk yarn reeled locally.
Talking about the present state of the silk filature, Zameer Allaei, the manager of the government silk factory in Rajbagh, said that the targeted levels of production were disrupted by the shutdown after the revocation of article 370 and the subsequent coronavirus lockdowns.
He further said that the filature received the machines in early 2020 and still continues to receive some of them.
“The 2018 targets were set on the fact that we’ll get the required machines – looms, reeling machines and silk dryers and other parts of boiler machines – but we got them last year and some in April, 2021.” He said.
Presently, as per Allaei, the silk filature produces 6,000 metres of silk every month and the machines have the capacity of rearing and manufacturing 14 metres of silk in each shift.
A shift equals eight hours of work at the filature.
He says that the production is abysmal because the machines are still working on commissioning basis and the filature resumed operations only in April, 2021.
“Our machines will start working full-fledged by the end of this year and we’ll look at much greater numbers,” said Allaei. He talked about the strategies that the administration has used in expanding the silk business.
Allaie said that after the floods of 2014, the World Bank came forward to help a lot of industries in Kashmir under the Jhelum Tawi Flood Recovery Project. “They helped us with an upfront capital of 12 crore rupees which enabled us to get necessary equipment and continue our operations.” he said.
“Because of insurgency and subsequent shutdowns in the past, our revenue took a major hit. Before 1990’s, cocoon production used to be 1.5 million kgs/year. However, after that, it dropped to just 60,000 and remained this much and even lesser year after year.” he said.
Political lobbying also gave an impetus to the re-opening measure.
According to Bhat, Tasaduq Mufti, Mehbooba Mufti’s brother, played a huge role in resuming operations.
“Tasaduq sir helped us in re-starting our operations. He pushed the political establishment to do something about the once bustling filature. Consequently, the World Bank and the government of Jammu & Kashmir worked jointly to revive the silk filature in 2018.” Bhat said.
Bhat said that despite the government’s push, the Kashmiris found it hard to work at the filature.
“The work is challenging and complex. Also, a lot of the young workers who started here went to the private factories.” he added.
“We are slowly getting back up. Since 2018, we have been producing close to 25,000 kgs of cocoons and rearing silk. We’ve optimistic plans of increasing it to at least six times the current production in the coming years,” Allaei said.
After the silk is reared and extracted, it is sent to the processing unit in Rajbagh.
Beside the processing unit, the government of Jammu and Kashmir runs an exclusive store with the finest of silk sarees on display.
Rosy Zan, a saleswoman who has been working at the store in Rajbagh is excited to witness the revival of the Kashmiri silk industry.
“Now that the factory is up and running again, we hope the business will be revived much more. We hope tourists arrive in large numbers and see the beauty of Kashmir’s silk themselves. There is a diversification of the quality and the type of products we provide now.” she said.
The store boasts of a modern infrastructure that directly competes with the customer experience provided by the private ventures. It also sells Pashmina clothing and Men’s coats.
Impressed by the quality of silk products on offer, Bilal Ahmad, a local Kashmiri businessman who sells silk in different markets across India is at the shop as a prospective buyer.
“I’ve been in this business for the last 25 years and it’s the second time I’m here.” Ahmad said.
When asked about his reasons for choosing the store now; He says, “I want to promote Kashmiri silk. We’ve the finest of silk which still has a lot of potential. We are not just selling you a product; we are introducing you to a culture. I think that’s something that’s very rare and beautiful!”
Interestingly, Allaie refuted the media reports of 2018 on the factory that highlighted that the factory had been closed for nearly thirty years until 2018.
He said that the closures were sporadic and production was low but the factory never really halted its operations.
“We’ve tied up with Amazon.com to sell our products. Also, our supply chain runs outside Jammu and Kashmir too with Surat and Delhi being some of the markets that we’ve begun to tap.” Allaie said.