Pashmina shawls, traditionally woven in the Kashmir region, have become the latest object of a simmering cross-border clash between India and Pakistan.
Both countries have long laid claims to the area where pashmina is made, but India’s move to apply for geographical indication—protecting artisans against cheaper, machine-made fakes flooding the market—is contested by Pakistan. Such indication would define that pashmina exclusively originates in Kashmir.
In March last year, the Srinagar-based Craft Development Institute filed an application with the Geographical Indications Registry in Chennai to protect pashmina weavers from others claiming to be authentic. But the Rawalpindi Chamber of Commerce and Industry challenged the claim on the grounds that pashmina shawls are also woven in Pakistan’s Gilgit Baltistan region and thus, India cannot claim the pashmina trademark in the international market.
The chamber filed a complaint in January with the registry—which oversees geographical trademarks from Alphonso mangoes to Kanchipuram saris—through New Delhi-based lawyer Najmi Waziri.
India’s case became further complicated when another local body, the Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust, also served an opposition notice. But earlier this week, at a meeting here, the two Indian groups tentatively agreed to jointly apply for the Indian registration.
The registry in Chennai declined to comment, saying that the findings will be published in its bi-monthly journal, but didn’t give any time- frame. Pakistani authorities also declined to comment.
“It will not be appropriate to comment on the case as it’s pending before a quasi-judicial forum,” said Fazal Abbas Maken, minister (trade) at the Pakistan embassy in Delhi.
Geographical indications can be filed under the Geographical Indications of Goods Act, 1999, which registers a product as originating from a particular place.
Long cherished for extraordinary suppleness, pashmina shawls, an industry estimated to have annual sales of Rs350-650 crore, have impressed generations of women for their spectacular ability to slip through a ring. Made from the fleece of the Changra goat, found in the higher altitudes of the Ladakh and Tibet regions, the thread of the soft wool is 190 microns thinner than a human hair.
At least eight steps are involved in transforming the wool into fabric, with the finished product fetching a minimum of Rs4,500 and weighing less than 250g. Embellishments and fine embroidery could send prices soaring to as high as Rs2 lakh.
But as global demand rose for the luxury product that became a fashion statement, the pashmina market in Kashmir witnessed a parallel flourishing trade in fakes. Against the backdrop of years of militancy, the local industry in the state suffered an acute shortage of raw material and lack of design innovation in the ever-changing fashion industry.
Most of the fake items, shawl makers in Srinagar say, sell under the “Cashmere Pashmina” or “Kashmir Pashmina” label. They are made with imported synthetic yarn from China in machine looms in Nepal as well as the textiles hubs of Amritsar and Ludhiana in Punjab, creating and catering to a thriving export industry.
To counter the onslaught, some companies, such as Kashmir Loom Co., started by entrepreneur Asaf Ali and art historian Jenny Housego, are attempting to revive pashmina by blending it with unusual materials—zari silk thread and Assam’s eri silk—and using natural dye to appeal to modern customers.
“There are lot of fine weavers in Kashmir and they can weave a piece just like the original. However, nothing much has changed,” said Housego. “We need much more innovation and less of the same stuff.”
Recently, the Rs250 crore company, which retails in several museums across the US, including the Museum of Modern Art, and retail stores such as Browns in London, registered its brand, and its company logo is now woven into each shawl as a safeguard.
“The Western market is still confused about what’s an original pashmina and what’s not,” said Ali. “It took us 11 years to reach where we are today.”
Some 47,121 people in the valley are involved in the making of pashmina, including embroidery, darning and fringe-making, according to a survey conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir state directorate of handicraft in 2003.
The door-to-door survey across 3,088 villages and 36 towns showed that some 18 categories of people are engaged in making the wispy, baby-soft fabric, including raw wool traders, spinners, weavers, washers and dyers.
In contrast to the high prices for the shawls, a weaver or a spinner typically earns a meagre Rs75 a day. Poor wages and the lack of raw material, the study found, had driven most of the menfolk to abandon the craft in search of alternative livelihoods.
Facing stiff competition from the parallel flourishing trade, Sharique Farooqui, director of the Craft Development Institute, has already initiated measures to file geographical indication applications for other handicrafts such as papier mache, walnut woodwork, Kani shawls (where patterns are woven simultaneously with the fabric) and Sozni, a fine needle embroidery dating back to the 17th century.
“There are probably more pashminas in the world today than is produced in Kashmir,” Farooqui said. “The idea is to give something back to the artisans.”
The Craft Development Institute was set up in 2003 as part of the Prime Minister’s development package for the state. It receives support from the textiles ministry and Jammu and Kashmir’s Directorate of Handicrafts.
The institute has set up a society called Tahafuz, which means protection in Urdu, to build awareness among artisans and has requested the government to make quality certification feasible.
After meeting earlier this week, both the Craft Development Institute and Kashmir Handmade Pashmina Promotion Trust have struck an understanding to work together through Tahafuz.