Oukhoo, Pulwama, Dec 15: Oukhoo village in south Kashmir's Pulwama district, popularly known as ‘Pencil Village of India’ is waiting to rewrite its growth story as the sector has faced immense losses due to COVID-19 pandemic and switching of education sector to online medium.
According to stakeholders, the 'pencil village' is bearing the cost of school closure due to COVID pandemic and as a result scores of youth are losing job opportunities. However, they say that there was a lot of scope to redesign their growth story.
“Due to a shift in education toward online learning, we have been witnessing tremendous losses in our business. Many of our youth are losing job opportunities and avenues to work in their own vicinity,” Manzoor Ahmad Allie, Owner of Jhelum Agro Industries, told Greater Kashmir.
“We had started the production of the slates massively since 2010 and then there was no looking back because there was a tremendous demand of supply world over,” he said, adding “We did our best to cater to the demand and supply. This not only helped us but a lot of local youth benefited from this. Now the story has many twists and turns. We are struggling to retain our technical staff even.”
He said that earlier there used to be a massive demand of the production world over and with the onset of the global pandemic, this business has massively hit which has not only affected our production but it has also left many jobless here.
Allie said that 70 per cent of the production had gone down. “We just retained the technical labour and only do few dedicated orders,” he said.
Similar views were expressed by the other stakeholders including, owners of Friends Industries and Barkat Saw Mills of Oukhoo village. They said that with the slump in production and demand, they were expecting that Jammu and Kashmir government’s handholding could save their businesses and also ensure that not many would lose the job in these units.
“We also know that when any natural calamity hits, no government can withstand it in any part of the world and same was the story with this global pandemic which affected everyone, equally,” they said.
According to officials, Oukhoo village, located along the bank of river Jhelum, in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, exports the raw material called ‘slats’ to more than 100 countries and 90 per-cent of pencils made in India are manufactured in this village.
Pertinently, the village came into prominence after Prime Minister, Narendra Modi highlighted its success story in his monthly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’, where he spoke at length about “Pencil Village of India”. "Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-reliant in the field of pencil making." Modi said.
After the PM's praise of the village, there was a lot of enthusiasm among these businessmen and they started feeling proud and wanted to accelerate their work so that the name of their village and Pulwama would be illuminated.
Officials maintain that Kashmir region has over 18 slat factories and 17 of them are in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district. However they said a lot of licences are yet to be given away as they are undergoing the forest clearances.
“Most of the people from this village work in these pencil factories and that's why it's called the Pencil Village of India. There are around eight units running in this area,” said Farooq Ahmad, who works as a manager in one of the slat factories. He said that the slats manufactured in Pulwama district are sent to various parts across the globe.
According to factory unit holders, before Covid, the industry used to employ more than 4,000 people. However, now, the outlets are employing at around 30 per cent of its original workforce. As the schools were shut during the pandemic, the demand for pencils in the market dwindled drastically. Eventually, the production went down, and a lot of people associated with the industry lost their jobs.
‘Ray of Hope’
Now, with Covid waning throughout the globe, the factory owners are hoping that the demand picks up again, as they have started to re-employ more and more people.
“Before Covid, our unit had around 150 people working in one unit, but now we are working with only 30 per cent of the original workforce. I am hoping we start producing more and all the people are hired back to work,'' said Manzoor, a unit holder.
The industry has been generating employment opportunities for the youth, especially for women in the Pulwama district. Every family had members working in these factories.
“I have been working in this unit for over 8 years now, but we had stopped coming due to Covid. We are starting afresh now. We are hoping that once the Covid situation ends, more and more workforce will turn up to revamp the sector,'' said Hajira Bano, a worker.
Another worker said that there is a slight increase in the production and more and more workers are being recalled to the factory.
Importantly earlier, India used to import wooden supplies from countries like China. But everything changed in 2010 when the local entrepreneurs decided to make use of Kashmir's famous poplar trees—a peculiarly supple wood which makes it best suited for manufacturing pencils.
The poplar wood grows best in the valleys of Kashmir where the moisture content is ideal, and the weather conditions allow the wood to remain soft during the tree’s growth.
Allie said that before the covid epidemic, in the Pulwama district, 17 pencil factories were employing more than 4000 people and the industry was supporting around 300 families. But the drastic drop in raw metrical demand which is about 70% drop. and factory owners were too forced to reduce their workforce by more than half, which had devastating effects on business and employment.
“Covid created big problems and affected our business badly, suppose we had one crore turnover before covid, today we have 30 lakhs turnover we lost 70% of orders. Schools were closed all over the world, because of that, our business changed a lot.”
Owners of Friends Industries and Barkat Saw Mills said that “90 per cent of the raw material goes from Kashmir, which is considered to be top-class and is used by the top brand of pencil makers like Apsara, Natraj, it goes from here and then our companies make pencils and go to all over India and 83 countries of the world. Earlier it used to come from China but now it all comes from here.”
A recent report by the Ministry of Home Affairs had said that the village would be developed as a "special village" for production.
"Now the entire country will be supplied with ready-made pencils, which will be completely manufactured in Pulwama," the report said. But due to the pandemic, a product that could have made the country self-sufficient in pencil is facing a storm of problems. Now this village and its people are eagerly waiting for the schools and market to resume.
‘Ensure growth of Industry’
Director, Industries and Commerce, Kashmir, Mehmood A Shah, told Greater Kashmir that the government was taking all possible measures to ensure growth of the industry. He said that the industry is to be exempted from the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and made their processes hassle free.
“Popular and Kashmiri willow is not a forest produce. It is purely an agricultural product and therefore needs to be exempted from the FCA,” Shah maintained. "We have been receiving the same pleas from the unit holders who not only want it to be exempted but also want to have a dedicated line of services to their units."
“The government watchdog agencies can always monitor and inspect the units whenever it is needed.” He said that the life and process of the unit holder need to be made comfortable.
“I have already taken up with the government to take certain measures with regard to the Bat cluster and the proposal is under consideration,” he added.