Poor testing of pashmina shawls still pose a problem

Seizures at customs, contamination with banned shahtoosh guard hair at source, poor and delayed testing, and even CBI raids on artisans, are leading to dipping exports

Updated - April 02, 2023 07:39 am IST

Published - April 01, 2023 10:54 pm IST - SRINAGAR

File image for representation.

File image for representation. | Photo Credit: AFP

The Kashmir Chamber of Industries and Commerce (KCCI), a Valley-based traders’ body has raised the issue of confiscation and poor testing of pashmina shawls with the Union Minister for Forest, Environment and Climate Change Bhupender Yadav. According to the body, there has been a growing seizure of shawl consignments by the customs department at international airports in the country.

“Exports of Kashmiri shawls will touch anywhere between ₹1,000 and ₹2,000 crore mark if the hurdles are removed. We apprised the Minister about the centuries old cottage craft that has provided employment to tens of thousands of male and female artisans. We also discussed the product demand within and outside the country,” Javid Ahmad Tenga, president of the KCCI, said.

The hurdles Mr. Tenga talks about begin at the airport. Basic microscopes may detect banned shahtoosh guard hair (wool from the chiru goat or Tibetan antelope) in what are classified as pashmina shawls (wool from the pashmina goat). Pashmina wool has a thread width of 13 to 16 microns, while shahtoosh has a width below 11 microns (the diameter of human hair is 70 micron).

“The shawl is then sent for further testing to laboratories, either in Dehradun or Kolkata. We have to wait for months together to get a report. Many times, the reports are inconclusive. By the time, traders are questioned and even CBI raids are carried out on artisans involved in the weaving of these pashmina shawls,” Tariq Dar, a Kashmiri exporter who owns the label Pashmkaar, said.

Another Kashmiri exporter said that these inconclusive reports come only after consignments worth lakhs of rupees are stuck for around a year. “There are frequent cases of false positives too,” he added.

Mr. Tenga said the Ministry has promised to set up a DNA testing lab in Gurugram. “We are hopeful this will help in the fast processing of consignments at the customs department,” he added. The KCCI also demanded installation of the latest pashmina testing machine in Srinagar as well in Delhi for simplification of the clearance at customs. The KCCI stressed the need for DNA testing and not basic microscopic testing.

According to official figures of the Kashmir handicrafts department, against ₹305 crore of shawl exports in 2018-19, before the Centre ended J&K’s special constitutional position, exports dipped to ₹272 crore in 2019-2020, to ₹172 crore in 2020-2021, to ₹166 crore in 2021-2022.

Kashmiri traders are particularly aghast at the testing process and the results. A case in point is that of the customs at New Delhi confiscating a shawl consignment on October 10, 2021 of a Srinagar-based company on the suspicion of carrying shahtoosh guard hair. In a letter from the Forensic Sciences Lab in Kolkata on September 8, 2022, a scientist observed that the samples did not yield sequence and therefore DNA sequencing could not be done. “The authority is requested to send an authorised person to collect the case material,” it read.

Illegal trade and contamination

However, the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) says that 537 illegal imports of shahtoosh scarves have been spotted by the Switzerland authorities in the past five years, pointing at the continuous illegal trade.

Manufacturing of shahtoosh shawls was stopped in Kashmir since the ban was imposed in 2002 by the J&K government. India being a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has also launched a major crackdown on the manufacturing and sale of shahtoosh shawls.

It comes after the chiru population showed a downward spiral in the 1980s. A senior official of the WTI put the number of chiru in 2003 between 200-500 in the trans-Himalayan deserts of Ladakh. However, the population of chiru has been stabilizing.

The WTI in December last year said the organisation and the Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K, is carrying out a fresh survey of chiru this year. Two teams will trek the high-altitude Chang Chenmo and Daulat Beg Oldi regions to access the survey sites.

Traders are aware that shawls with shahtoosh fibre could be confiscated overseas for being a banned item and attract stricter actions than in India. They say only a miniscule section may be involved in illegal trade. However, contamination is a reality that the government needs to look into. “We have constantly reported about contamination of pashmina wool ahead of its weaving process in the Valley. Since, there are no testing facilities in Kashmir, it does not get detected early,” Mr. Dar said.

Mahmood Shah, director of the Handicrafts and Handloom in Kashmir, said contamination is a “high possibility” and needs to be looked into from a scientific perspective. “Both pashmina goat and chiru are inhabitants of Ladakh’s high-altitude Changthang belt. There is a possibility of herders mixing pashmina and shahtoosh fibre, when these animals shed their coats seasonally. Two, once traders purchase pashmina wool with shahtoosh contamination for spinning, artisans can’t make out the difference. So, contamination at source is a high probability,” Mr. Shah said.

The Department of Handicrafts, for the first time, is installing a machine in Kashmir to detect shahtoosh guard hair. “The machine should be in place soon. It will help in testing and authenticating of the pure pashmina shawls,” Mr. Shah said.

He said there is a need for advocacy to look into the ban from a fresh lens. “If the chiru population is stable and showing an upward trend then the time has come to work on scientific methods to harvest chiru for shahtoosh wool without harming the animal. China is already increasing shahtoosh production and very little is known about how it manages without affecting the chiru population,” Mr. Shah said.

He said attempts at domesticating the chiru goat have failed. “Chiru is a wild and migratory animal. It goes from one altitude to another depending on seasons and sheds its coat. There is a need to devise a non-violent and chiru-friendly mechanism to harvest the animal in a sustainable manner,” Mr. Shah added.

Meanwhile, Kashmir’s handicrafts department has proposed a triangular body to the Centre. This will comprise experts from the Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology’s pashmina department, officials of the handicrafts department and officials of the wildlife department, for the certification of pashmina shawls in Kashmir.

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