A question of survival

Restrictions on the manufacture and sale of Shahtoosh shawls threaten the livelihood of thousands of people in Kashmir

Published: Friday 31 December 1999

 Bleak future: an artisan weav (Credit: Arshad Mir) the 600-year-old Shahtoosh shawl industry in Kashmir is on its last legs. Although not banned by the Jammu and Kashmir (j&k) government, trade in Shahtoosh was banned by the Indian government in 1991. Instances of Shahtoosh shawls being seized by police outside the state are common.

All this has led to thousands of artisans either abandoning their craft or switching to the less-lucrative Pashmina shawl weaving.

"Nearly 50,000 artisans were involved in this trade. But the ban has forced many traders to either stop its manufacturing or to cut their work force," says Ghulam Mohidin Rather, general secretary, Garib Mazdoor Shatoosh and Pashmina Union.

According to figures released by Kashmir Valley Shahtoosh and Pashmina Shawl Weavers, Manufacturers and Spinners Association, an apex body spearheading the campaign against the ban, nearly 500,000 people comprising 36 sections of artisans, who are mainly women, are associated with the Shahtoosh sector.

A study conducted by the Wildlife Protection Society of India in 1997, states that between 1992-97, there has been extensive poaching of antelopes in many areas of China. The Tibetan antelope ( Pantholops Hodgsoni ) or Chiru is found only in the Chang Tang Reserve in Tibet, the Arjin Shah reserve in Xinjiang and China's Qinghai province where temperatures fall to below -40c. "However, it is difficult to estimate the actual numbers of Chiru that are being slaughtered over such a vast habitat," says the study.

The valley artisans differ with the environmentalists' claim that the Chiru is being hunted for its warm and soft wool. "If that would have been the case, then the animal should have been extinct decades ago. Besides, scientifically, the wool extracted from a dead animal loses its sheen and cannot be used for manufacturing shawls," says G M Dag, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (kcci).

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