Withering Willow Industry

Col Satish Singh Lalotra
Notice that the stiffest tree is most easily cracked while the willow survives by bending with the wind’—-Bruce Lee’
The Indian sub-continent is perhaps one of the most diversified landscapes available on this earth with its terra firma changing from a snowy white in the Himalayas to a brownish -green in Punjab , a scorching brown in Rajasthan and lush green mangroves to the Far south of Malabar and Coromandel coast along the Arabian and Indian ocean. Equally diverse are the flora, fauna and people inhabiting this land of ours. The diversity is so pronounced in these matters that it is simply unmatchable anywhere in the world. The willow tree is one such variety of tree which is one of the most sought after and abundantly grown in the country ,with its rich economical cost and being a sports material, a cynosure of sports manufacturing and furniture industry. There are varieties of willows being grown the world over, with the ‘English willow’ being the best and the ‘Kashmir willow’ a notch below it, but equally good. Though the Indian willow is grown in places like Pune, Mysore etc, where there is abundance of water but the Kashmir willow takes the cake for its quality which is the best in its own class this side of the Suez Canal.
A peep into history shows us that it was Maharaja Hari Singh who imported the Kashmir willow from Europe when about 12 kgs of willow seeds and some fine artisans were brought during his reign. Before that Kashmir willow was just a rough made willow of wild varieties. In Kashmir the Ganderbal district provides the best land and climatic conditions for this plant to grow. While posted in Kashmir valley during my service years driving along the Srinagar highway used to witness numerous willow shops stacked with semi-finished or finished clefts of this wonderful wood laid down for drying in the sun . Once out of curiosity I ventured into one of the leading willow shops and interacted with the proprietor only to know his sheer frustration and helpless situation in pushing his willow trade to the optimum. Reasons for his acute feeling are explained subsequently in this write up. The willow has been a standard tree grown in the Kashmir valley for ages and is a staple feeder for the indigenous industry of willow furniture making, and the ubiquitous bat made of willow used in the entire cricketing world.
It was only in the latter half of the 19th century with the advent of the British and the game of cricket in India that the item gained its prominence. For several decades now the Kashmir willow has been a household name and a favourite of millions of Indian cricket lovers. From Gully cricket to international tournaments to the home grown Ranjitrophy, players at all levels have been aficionados of the Kashmir willow. But off late the politico-social changes in the UT of J&K, more so with the abrogation of article 370/35A has coincided with a rapid decline of this Kashmir willow. Now the farmers are increasingly taking to growing poplars used to make tennis balls, cricket bats, and matchsticks besides pencils that give quick returns. The problems bedeviling the Kashmir willow are dime a dozen with some of them pointing to the politico-social apathy ,lack of infrastructure facilities, absence of technological know-how ,smuggling of willow clefts to name a few. The indifference of successive governments, both at the center and the state level and the high rate of GST (12% willow bats) plus the floods of September 2014 have caused a deadly blow to the bat industry from which it is yet to recover.
Combined with the above problems is the fact that Kashmir willow is being replaced with the poplar tree which takes 10 years less to mature, is easier to cut and manage and more easy on the pocket of a farmer. The latest to add to the woes of the willow industry is the scrapping of article 370/35A in August 2019 ,since the government of the day instead of putting its all heads and hands together to pull the industry out of the morass is more busy in formulating in new set of rules and regulations of governance . One serious malaise afflicting the willow growth is the short supply of the raw material as is evident from the dwindling revenues generated from the export of willow bats. In each of the last 5years, India’s revenue growth owing to export of willow bats has shrunk by about 12 crores, as per data obtained from SGPEC (Sports goods promotion export council). In 2014-15 the export of bats was to the tune of Rs 74.24 crores and in 2018-19 this figure dipped to 62.01 crores.The willow industry employs about 3 lakhs of local as well as population outside the UT of J&K with about 500 willow industrial units in the Kashmir valley and 600 units in the Jammu province providing livelihood directly to them.
The major willow bat manufacturing units are located in Delhi, Meerut, or Jalandhar in Punjab which are equally a worried lot due to the above developments and want the mandarins of power to tweak their levers to help them out over the present impasse. The willow of Kashmir is further under duress due to changed dynamics and monetary expediency by way of reduced acreage of willow plantation as well as the increase in smuggling of the raw material out of J&K in a brazen manner. According to the J&K willow (prohibition on export and movement) act of 2002 nobody is allowed to export Kashmiri willow clefts (salix alba) ,but the government data shows that a whopping 15 lakhs plus raw material left the UT in an illegal manner in the year 2009 and about 25 lakhs periodically every year thereafter before the erstwhile state became a UT. A flip side of the willow plantation has been that in certain parts of central Kashmir, for example ‘Shala Baugh’ village which has pioneered the art of weaving willow Baskets and furniture there has been a steady decline of agricultural production. This has been the direct result of using agricultural land for willow plantation to cater for increase in demand from various quarters of India.
In fact willow has never been grown in agricultural land, and has always found its pride of place in the waterlogged areas where it is found in abundance. With Kashmir virtually facing militant related disturbances on daily basis, the industry is in dire straits. Notwithstanding the above there are ways and means to take forward this indigenous industry by being closer to the events affecting its growth in more ways than one. Since it is a highly paying business with quick returns on investments, a large body of educated youth have taken to willow industry particularly in the central part of Kashmir. Some of the way points which merit attention for taking this neglected industry forward are put across as follows-
* A sustained campaign ought to be launched across the length &breadth of the UT to educate the masses regarding the benefits of the willow tree over the poplar trees thereby diverting land usage once again in favour of the willow plantations.
* The union government as well as the UT administration should push in more funds for technical know-how/ up gradation of machinery in the willow units of both Jammu province as well as Kashmir division.
* A special incentive in the form of tax holidays ought to be introduced for those who take on the ominous task of spread of willow plantations in the UT as also to bring it under the sun shine sector of industry.
* As a deterrent to unlawful smuggling of the willow clefts, a fool proof method ought to be introduced at the Lakhanpur check point by way of more policing, and stringent checking /meting out of instantaneous punishments to the defaulters.
* More and more marketing and procurement agencies to be roped in under one umbrella to make sure that willow growers are not fleeced by the intermediaries or agents thereby ensuring their rightful remuneration of their product.
* The GST levied at 12% is tad higher on the bat industry i.e both buyers and the manufacturers alike, and the same ought to be aligned to the market dynamics.
* The common facility center (CFC) established by the center at Setharsangam be revived in its full form rather in halfhearted attempts.
* Getting a GI (Geographical indication ) tag for the Kashmir willow bats /wood would go a long way in ameliorating the lost cause of the product in more ways than one. It would help in strategizing the marketing, sales , and unhooking the potential of this wood which was recognized long back by the Maharaja himself in the 20s/30s.
Since the entire region of the UT is still under the shadows of three decades old militancy it would be in the fitness of things if the UT administration takes the above mentioned points to kick start the moribund industry thus breaking the cycle of inertia. Moreover since the erstwhile state is now a UT, things would be much easier to plan, implement and monitor as compared to earlier times. It would be wondrous beginning when we see the youth gone adrift being brought back to the mainstream riding on the crest of an economic boom ushered by the willow industry.
(The writer is a retired army officer)