THE Jammu and Kashmir government has suddenly realised that there exist in the state disgruntled shahtoosh shawl weavers. The timing is perfect. Parliamentary elections are around the corner; weaving families are 50,000 strong. The previous state government rendered them jobless by banning the manufacture of shawls from the fur of the endangered chiru, a Tibetan antelope. The present state government has devised a perfectly feverish ploy to turn this to its advantage.
In a case before the Supreme Court the state government has gone on record, inform sources in the Union ministry of environment and forests (MOEF), saying shawl-making cannot harm the chiru. The wool, it seems, comes from hair caught on bushes the animal sheds. This is a preposterous claim: shawls are made from the fine-haired under-layer hugging the chiru's skin beneath its coarse fur. The animals are skinned and workers pluck the pelts, and then separate the fine hair. But the state government knows such a blatant lie is enough to garner votes. Such equivocation is truly fiendish: it is neither meant to find sustainable livelihoods for weavers nor ensure the antelope is protected.
But the state government is not alone to blame. The MOEF has never tried to ascertain the on-ground modalities of the trade. It has never scientifically validated (or invalidated) the possibility of sustainable farming of chiru, like that of the vicuna in Peru). And the ambiguity of the Indian government on the issue promises to become an embarrassment at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, where China and other numerous other countries promise to force through a resolution against India in the next Conference of Parties in October 2004, condemning its vacillation.
Post-elections, thousands of weavers will still be without jobs. An antelope will still be illegally killed for its wool. India, meanwhile, is sure to defend the indefensible in October: ignominiously, the votes would already have been cast.
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