Kashmir’s Silk Industry Struggles

Kashmir’s Silk Industry Struggles

Despite recent attempts to revive Kashmir’s silk production, the centuries old industry is slowly dying. Kashmir sericulture, or silkworm farming, is a casualty of changing regulations, regional political tensions and competition with China. Unless Kashmiri silk factories can find a way to produce as cheaply and efficiently as their East Asian competitors, sericulture will lose its role as a major industrial force in Indian Jammu and Kashmir.

During the late 19th century, when Kashmir was a semi-autonomous princely state, efforts to modernise silk production in the region ensured that it became one of the most prominent centers of sericulture. In Indian Kashmir, the silk industry continued to thrive in the first few decades following independence and partition, and through the 1980s, the state produced more than 1.5 million kilograms of silkworm cocoons per year.

However, since the 1980s, production has decreased dramatically. By the late 1990s the state was producing only 60,000 kg of cocoons per year. Furthermore, in the last decades, only about 30% of silkworm cocoons produced in Indian Kashmir have been used locally to produce silk. The rest is exported to other regions in India and neighbouring countries, which convert cocoons into silk more cheaply and efficiently.

This massive decrease in production is partially attributable to the failure of the silk industry to adapt to the reforms and liberalisation of the Indian economic system since the early 1990s. Previously, prices were kept artificially high by the protectionist Indian regime, in an attempt to grow the silk industry in both Kashmir and other Indian states. Increased international competition meant that many Kashmiri silk producers abandoned the industry as the price they received for silk products declined dramatically.

In response to the moribund status of the silk industry, the Kashmiri government in India has recently boosted incentives for silk producers and trainees. While the incentives have attracted some trainees to sericulture programs at colleges and universities in Kashmir, they have largely failed to attract former sericulturists back to the industry. Similarly, output has not yet increased as a result of the incentives.

In May this year, a Delhi-based consulting firm focused on smaller Indian industries, released a report arguing that Kashmiri sericulture would be unable to rebound unless it developed an integrative approach, in which cocoon producers and their silk-weaving counterparts cooperated.

In an attempt to follow this recommendation, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry created a special purpose entity focused on silk development and cross-sectional cooperation programs. The results of this program remain to be seen; however, if the new company cannot successfully attract skilled sericulturists back to the industry or increase cocoon quality to compete with their Chinese neighbours, the industry will continue to falter.

The reason that Indian Kashmiri farmers work with lower quality cocoons than their Chinese counterparts is rooted in the Indian nationalisation and monopolisation of industries prior to the reforms of the 1990s. Even as the Indian trade economy liberalised, meaning that cheaper silk products from China flooded Indian markets, the government maintained a monopoly on the seeds for cocoon production.

This, in turn, has meant that Kashmiri sericulturists are unable to use high quality cocoons without resorting to the black market. In other words, the Kashmiri silk industry has been hampered both by liberalisation, which brought fierce competition, and by a lack of liberalisation, because the government’s monopoly has prevented sericulturists from accessing high quality materials that could lead to increased efficiency.

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