India's 'Pencil Village' in Kashmir goes back to the land for survival

While the village was noticed after the Prime Minister mentioned it in his radio talk, falling demand for pencils in the wake of the lockdown and closure of schools, half the workers have lost jobs

A pencil manufacturing unit in Pulwama
A pencil manufacturing unit in Pulwama

Mudassir Kuloo

On the banks of Jehlum in Pulwama, Ukhoo is called the ‘Pencil Village of India’. Out of 18 pencil manufacturing units in Kashmir, 17 are located in this village.

Before 2010, India would import wood but when local entrepreneurs decided to make use of the poplar trees available in Kashmir, it gave a fillip to the pencil making. The village supplies ‘wooden slates’ to some of the biggest pencil brands including Apsara, Nataraj and Hindustan for the final finishing and distribution.

The Pencil Wala Gaon drew attention last year when Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his radio programme mentioned the role of the village in reducing imports. But the demand for pencils slumped after lockdown as schools were shut down. Production has been cut down and people have been laid off.

“Pencils manufactured in Kashmir are exported to over 100 countries,” says Farooq Ahmad, manager at Jehlum Agro Industries in Pulwama. There is a 70% decline in sales after the lockdown, he claims.

“We had around 180 employees but now fewer than 50 are working. Among them some are locals while others are from West Bengal, Assam and Bihar,” he added.

India's 'Pencil Village' in Kashmir goes back to the land for survival

Another unit, Barkat Agro Industries, used to employ 110 people but only 40 are working now. Kavin Dianary from Assam, who is working in one of the pencil manufacturing units for the last seven years, and other workers are worried about the future. A recent move by the J&K administration to transfer a chunk of land adjacent to these industries to paramilitary forces for setting up a camp has also added to their anxiety.

The government order issued in October notified 10 sites across three districts--Pulwama, Shopian and Anantnag-- where the administration has transferred more than 65 acres of “state land” and “grazing land” to the CRPF to set up their camps. Under the Roshni Act 2001, the government had given the ownership rights to people cultivating state land in J&K. However, the Act was scrapped during the Governor’s rule in 2018 after it was called a “land scam”.

“We and our forefathers have been using this land for agriculture purposes for the last over 100 years. We are entirely dependent on this land for our livelihood. We are regularly paying fees to the government for using this land. If this land is snatched from us, we won’t be able to feed our families,” says Abdul Qayoom Allai, a resident of Okhoo. Kashmiri wood carvers are also facing the heat. Carving walnut wood for bed stands, tables, mirror frames, jewellery boxes has also been hit. The availability of walnut wood has been affected and since craftsmen earn barely a few hundred rupees a day, fewer people are now keen to take it up, explains Ghulam Mohammad.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 18 Dec 2021, 10:22 AM