Locally known as 'Sheher-e-Khas', the downtown area of Srinagar in Kashmir is a wholesale market for local goods. Around one kilometre from here, is a small workshop of Kashmiri rug weavers. But like the entire market, the workshop also awaits the end of the ongoing lockdown due to COVID-19.
The Centre had announced a complete nationwide lockdown on March 25 to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic. The initial 21-day lockdown has been extended twice and is now set to end on May 17.
The daily wage weavers, who used to work at Sheher-e-Khas were left unemployed ever since the lockdown was announced. The handloom owners were forced to ask weavers not to come under further notice. March 24th was the last day when they returned home with some money.
"If the situation continues, we will be compelled to kill ourselves. Earlier also our condition was pathetic. Nobody could even enter our house for its condition is so bad. But now, it's about two meals a day," says Raheem (name changed on request).
One would imagine that the hands entangling beautiful, silk threads and weaving masterpieces out of it, must be getting paid well. But the truth stays with weavers only.
A Kashmiri rug requires four weavers to work on it for at least one year to make it market-ready. Once ready, a carpet is sold in lakhs but rug weavers in the old city, who would work from 9 am to 7 pm, earn meagre ₹150-₹200 per day. But with no "work from the home" possible, they are struggling to make ends meet. The weavers spend about a year to finish weaving one Kashmiri carpet which is further sold in lakhs. But after the lockdown, even this tiny amount to fill their stomachs has stopped.
"I had promised my child to buy them new dress in April for his birthday but now what do I tell my 4-year-old?" Irshad Khan sobbed over the telephone. He used to work at a loom before the national lockdown.
"The wages for the weaving used to be ₹300-₹350 around three years back but now the rates have declined to ₹150-₹200. Why is the government not doing anything? Are we still not visible to them because we are Kashmiri artisans?" Irshad asked.
In the past two to three years, the supply of Irani and Chinese carpets has increased in the market. These carpets are machine-made, without any hand weaving involved. This is the obvious reason why weavers are suffering.
"There are many who sell Irani and Chinese carpets. I would say they fool the customers by selling those on the name of Kashmiri Carpet. Customers won't know the difference either and they buy. This has brought huge loss already in the Kashmiri rug industry," says Firoz Hasan, a Kashmiri rug dealer. Firoz has been into the carpet business for the past four generations.
There are not many weavers left in Srinagar who know the art of weaving carpets, and those who know, have spent more than half of their lives weaving these colourful carpets only. This is the reason they can't switch to any other work for living now.
Nafees, another weaver from the area, somehow managed for 10 to 15 days after the lockdown, but every single day now is a challenge for him. Challenge to not let any of his six family members sleep empty stomach. "Now I have to thin every morning how would the day pass. I have to feed my family. I have taken money from relatives now because there was no other option. These hands which are expert in making beautiful carpets have now become unable to feed the family," he says.
"Only Allah knows how we satisfy our family's hunger in ₹150 per day. And now only Allah would know for how long we are going to survive without any income," Nafees said as he wiped his tears.