Kashmir’s famous ‘Pencil Village’ that exports the raw material called ‘slats’ to more than 100 countries is in distress due to the unrepentant Covid-19 pandemic and a fresh government move that cuts a major chunk of land around for building a security fortification. The land adjacent to the factories and neighbourhood grows excellent soft poplars that end up as pencils in the hands of schoolkids. Two punishing years of the pandemic forcing the shutdown of schools has cut the demand of the pencils by more than half, owners of the various factories in Okhwoo, or Pencil Village as it is now famously called, told News18.
With sparsely built houses lining either side of the road that runs parallel to the Srinagar-Jammu highway, this Pulwama village can be easily placed by a number of poplars used to make slats. The neighbouring villages of Mawran, Niihama and Wundakpora grow huge poplars that feed the machines at Okhwoo. The poplars and pencil raw material have shot the village to fame.
The village’s success story featured in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio programme where he is often heard sharing stories of budding entrepreneurs who set out to go on their own and ideally from scratch to spin a tale of fortune.
“Our production has fallen by more than 50 per cent. The Covid lockdowns have had a telling effect on the industry," said Fayaz Ahmad, a manager at a local factory.
Ahmad said the village with more than a dozen pencil slat manufacturing units has been forced to retrench employees, both locals and non-locals, by more than half as orders to export raw material started to squeeze.
“The pandemic has hit our business badly. Since schools are shut and demand decreased significantly, we had to lay off labourers. From 250 last year, we are down to only 120," he lamented, while showing a pile of poplar logs stacked irregularly around the 17 kanal or roughly two-acre unit.
The logs were being sized up and chopped in bandsaw while the obtaining clefts were sliced to small slats in smaller machines and bunched in polymer bags. “The next process is to dry the slats under the sun or by using mechanical devices. These days we take the bags to Lassipora industrial estates for drying," Abrar Allahie, Ahmad’s colleague, chipped in. Running his hand over his greyish beard, Ahmad seemed hopeful that business will look up next year as Covid is being conquered, but the optimism is not shared by others in the village who are facing a new set of problems.
The village that has been basking in fame all of last year and apparently hoping to add new machines that would chisel pencils as a final product is a bit cold with the latest decision of the government to part away with a portion of land that it has been using to grow grains, oil and cattle fodder. Ever since the lieutenant governor-led administration decided to transfer chunks of land to paramilitary forces for setting up a camp in the village, the residents, most of them farmers, say this will hit their livelihood badly as they have been tilling it for generations.
With a hunched back, Abdul Ghani, 85, could barely walk as he showed us the portion of the land he and his forefathers had been farming for the last several decades. He said the two kanal land is his only sustenance for a family of 10. “None of my family members are employed in government or private services. They cultivate paddy, mustard, cattle fodder throughout the year to make ends meet. If this land is snatched from us, we will starve," he rued.
He said his father used to irrigate the land that CRPF plans to use for building a camp. “Now if the land is taken away, we have nothing to depend upon."
Abdul Rashid, Ghani’s nephew, said several families in Okhwoo and neighbouring Sathergund village who are dependent upon subsistence farming will be jobless if the camp comes up on the land they have been using for decades together. Manager Ahmad said instead of setting up more pencil manufacturing units and plyboard factories, the government was taking away employment opportunities for the youth. “More than 3,000 families earn from the pencil slat units only; a good half of them are people from Bengal, Assam and Bihar," he said.
Fayaz Ahmad Allahei, 55, said he is able to afford the education of his three daughters because of the small portion of land he has been cultivating and partly because his wife works in the factory. “I used to slog in the agricultural field but I have grown weak. I was operated on twice for tumours in 2015. I cannot toil hard but friends and relatives ensure I get some paddy and fodder for my three cows," he said. “We sell milk to the dairy owners to run the household but if there is no piece of land, I will have no option but to beg."
Pulwama district magistrate Basheer Ul Haq Chowdhary said the villagers have been cultivating on government land and that was illegal.
There is no record to suggest the land was owned by them. The latest revenue record collected in 2017 too clearly shows it as state land, he said.
Chowdhary said the government has only notified 80 kanals of land to security forces and the rest of the 300 odd kanals are there around the pencil factories.
“Even if the people used to till the land, they might have been doing that illegally. There was never government permission. I think they were trespassing," he said.
The elderly Ghani said they have been paying abiyana or water tax for several years. “How can the administration dismiss us from these lands where our generations have earned their living. This is injustice," he said. The villagers have sent representations to officers and politicians to intervene and stop “the move to snatch their lands."