No one is batting for them

Get a grip Sales are hit

Kashmir Valley’s cricket bat industry is on the back-foot

Soon after entering the quaint town of Bijbehara, on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway, you can see multiple stacks of willow clefts on either side of the road for kilometres on end. The region’s six small villages — Sangam, Halmullah, Pujteng, Sethar, Mirzapur and Charsoo — together form the nerve centre of Kashmir’s moribund cricket bat industry.

Over the past few years, the industry has steadily lost its lustre. While high-quality Kashmiri willow bats have not yet entered the international market, even in the domestic market they are fast losing share to the English willow bats manufactured elsewhere in the country.

Kashmiri makers offer several reasons for this decline, but the main seems to be governmental apathy. “The government has never tried to promote this industry. We lack modern facilities in our manufacturing and processing units,” said Firdose Ahmad Khan, proprietor of Khan International Sports.

International-level cricketers usually prefer to play with lightweight English willow bats. The Kashmiri bats weigh more due to the high levels of moisture in the willow. Lacking modern wood seasoning facilities, the manufacturers use conventional, time-consuming and ineffective means to reduce the moisture.

“We reduce the moisture levels by air-drying the cleft. The process is not only cumbersome it also fails to season the wood completely” said Khan. In 2008, the government established a seasoning plant in the area, but the manufacturers say they could not afford its high rates. The plant became non-operational barely a year after it was set up.

Vanishing willow

The dwindling production of willow is also taking its toll on the Kashmiri bat industry.

During the past decade, there has been a significant fall in the cultivation of willow trees as most growers prefer poplars, which grow a lot more quickly.

“It takes around 15 years for a willow tree to attain maximum growth, whereas poplars grow within five to seven years. It is the main reason that many farmers now grow poplar,” said Mushtaq Ahmad Dar, owner of Decent Sports Unit.

Moreover, the government’s failure to check smuggling of willow cleft out of the State is also proving detrimental for the bat industry. Each year, a huge cache of high-quality willow clefts is smuggled out and sold in Punjab and Utter Pradesh. These two States are home to several bat manufacturing units.

According to the J&K Willow (Prohibition on Export and Movement) Rules, 2002, there is a ban on the export of willow in any form from the State.

After the flood

The bat industry incurred heavy losses during the devastating deluge of 2014. As floodwater entered the manufacturing units, there was significant damage to the raw material. Some units were totally washed away.

“After the floods, the government promised compensation. The authorities even assessed the loss but we have not been paid anything yet,” said Dar.

Although ₹1,024.07 crore has been released out of the ₹1,200 crore sanctioned under the Prime Minister’s development package for the flood victims of the State, many of those affected say they have not received any compensation so far.

The newly introduced Goods and Services Tax or GST, which was passed by the State assembly amid high-voltage drama on July 7 this year, dealt a fresh blow to the bat industry. Sales were hit and the manufacturers are unclear how to file returns under the new tax regime. “GST has created chaos. Our sales fell by around 30 per cent,” said Dar.

While the Kashmir Valley hardly has a private sector to speak of, the livelihood of 30,000-50,000 people in the declining bat industry is in the crosshairs.

The writer is a Srinagar-based journalist

Published on October 06, 2017

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