Kashmir's cricket bat makers suffer amid violence

In Kashmir, few businesses have been spared in three months of violence, with region's famed cricket bat makers especially hard hit.

Updated: September 15, 2014 23:32 IST
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Halmulla: In Kashmir, few businesses have been spared in three months of violence and curfews, with the region's famed cricket bat manufacturers especially hard hit.

Until recently, droves of Indian tourists would stop by shops in Halmulla, one of 10 villages and hamlets where skilled craftsmen carve out bats of all sizes from locally grown willow.

Almost every family in the riverside district has a stake in the local industry, which began during British colonial rule on the subcontinent after willow was introduced to the Himalayan region.

Today, factory owners say daily anti-India protests that erupted on June 11 and have claimed 69 lives have been catastrophic for their businesses.

"We are still exporting bats to cities like Mumbai and New Delhi but the overall business has taken a nosedive due to the unrest," said Mohammed Amin, who owns Good Luck Sports.

"Before the trouble, Indian traders used to visit us and order in bulk, but now no one comes," said Amin, as he supervised his workers loading a consignment into a waiting truck.

"Some orders are made through telephone, but even if there are orders, we are finding it difficult to transport the goods outside as a majority of Indian truckers are avoiding Kashmir," he said.

Inside his factory, a few workers add the finishing touches to the latest products, but huge piles of unfinished bat-sized blocks point to the collapse in sales.

"This village used to be abuzz with activities, but see what it looks like now," said Amin, pointing to streets devoid of residents.

Kashmir's divided and violent modern history, like its cricket bat industry, has its roots in colonial rule on the subcontinent.

"Before the protests started we used to manufacture about 200 bats daily but the output has now fallen to 50 pieces," said 60-year-old Abdul Ahad Dar, owner of New Sports Works, as he pointed to a huge stock of bats in his warehouse.

Even during the peak of the insurgency, the workers in Halmulla, 37 kilometres (23 miles) south of Kashmir's biggest town Srinagar, would work quietly at their craft using wood dried for seven months in local warehouses.

"Our villages were never affected by strikes and protests but this time the agitation is severe and our own sons and grandsons don't allow us to open the shops and factories," added Dar.

The industry employs around 10,000 people and collectively manufactures nearly a million bats a year at prices ranging from 100 to 1,000 rupees (two to 20 dollars).

Most are sold to visiting Indian tourists, with the rest going directly to shops in the main cities of the cricket-obsessed country.

Willow arrived in Kashmir courtesy of the British, who imported the fast-growing tree to use as firewood and a material for bat manufacturing during colonial times.

The products today are widely used across the subcontinent by children and amateur players, though English willow remains the wood of choice for international big-hitters.

Public opinion in Kashmir is divided between a hardline faction who seek a merger of Kashmir with Pakistan, others who want independence and a moderate group who seek meaningful autonomy.

One daily Indian newspaper reported Monday that the Indian government was considering partly repealing draconian laws that give security forces impunity in Kashmir, which would be a victory of sorts.

"If this agitation brings us permanent peace and resolution, it is worth it," Dar said. "It is better to agitate than to live in a stalemate."

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