New Delhi: As Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti accepted the resignation of two BJP ministers, Lal Singh and Chander Parkash Ganga, following the Kathua rape controversy, the state’s cricket bat industry breathed a sigh of relief.
Local bat manufacturers have alleged that Singh, a BJP MLA from Kathua and forest minister in the Mehbooba government, was trying to create problems for bat manufacturers of the Jammu and Kashmir region that could have led the beleaguered state and industry to another disaster.
“What happened in Kathua is a heinous crime. Everyone should condemn it,” Alim Dar, vice president of the Jammu and Kashmir Bat Manufacturers Association, told The Wire. “But I think the resignation of forest minister Lal Singh is a huge relief for our industry because he was tirelessly pushing for a removal of the ban of Kashmir willow, one of the main sources of our livelihood.”
Following a partial ban on Kashmir willow wood in 1999, Jammu and Kashmir government imposed a complete export ban on willow cleft in 2002. According to the J&K Willow (Prohibition on Export and Movement) Act, 2002, nobody is allowed to export Kashmiri willow cleft, whose scientific name is Salix alba.
Clefts are blocks of willow wood that have been cut and left in stacks to dry under the sun for up to six months. These are then used to make cricket bats.
How does the ban on cleft exports play out for bat manufacturers from outside the state? They are left with three options. They can buy raw bats (which don’t have handles, are unpolished and are generally not ready-to-play) or finished bats from local manufacturers, or resort to smuggling of willow cleft.
An estimate from 2009 claimed that a whopping 15 lakh Kashmir willow clefts illegally leave the state through smugglers and other means. In 2017, Mint reported that over 25 lakh clefts are smuggled out each year, leading to severe losses for the state’s industry.
Kashmir willow wood is a major source of employment for J&K’s local youth and a vital revenue stream for local cricket bat manufacturers.
However, a change in government at the Centre in 2014 appeared to re-activate the financially-strong bat manufacturer lobby from Punjab and Meerut who wanted to overturn the ban on Kashmir willow, with most of them peddling the argument that the restrictions were only benefiting one community.
When this happened, Singh decided to become their flag bearer, according to industry officials.
Last February, Singh informed the bat manufacturers from the state that he was going to lift the ban on export of Kashmir willow. But Singh’s misadventure misfired because Hindu and Muslim bat manufacturers of Jammu and Kashmir got together and opposed an attempt that could have led the Valley to another disaster.
“I told the forest minister on his face that people would kill him if he would take such step,” Bansi Lal Gupta, president of Jammu Bat Manufacturers’ Association, had then told Sports Illustrated.
“I asked him if he wants to kill employments in Jammu and Kashmir. If he was planning to do that, it would be the last nail in the coffin of the PDP-BJP government as it has to face resistance from the bat manufacturers of Jammu and Kashmir. We all are united to protect this ban.”
According to industry sources, J&K produces more than 25 lakh ready-to-play and raw Kashmir willow bats in a year.
“We alerted the chief minister and only then this matter was pushed under the carpet but we were not sure how long we could have protected our wood,’’ said Alim Dar. “It was a conspiracy to finish the bat industry of J&K. We are happy that CM has accepted his resignation.”
According to sources in the PDP government, the chief minister warned Singh that the word ‘willow’ should not leave his mouth again.
About 500 manufacturing units in the Valley and 600 units in Jammu directly provide employment and livelihood to around three lakh people of the state. “Bat manufacturers of Meerut and Jalandhar are rich. Also, they can buy bats from us. About 500 units are dependent on Kashmir willow,” said Nazir Ahmad Salroo, former president of Cricket Bat Manufacturers Association.
However, there are many arguments in favour of removal of the ban.
The Sports Goods Export Promotion Council (SGEPC) has a completely different view on the issue.
“The fact is Kashmir willow grows only in Kashmir and everyone outside have been getting willow because of smuggling,” argued a senior functionary of SGEPC. “Smugglers and pimps have been minting money but what about the government? Also, when we say that J&K is part of India, then why there’s a ban on the export?”
Depending on the quality of the wood, one Kashmir willow cleft costs the bat manufacturers between Rs 150 to 300. A normal Kashmir willow bat costs Rs 2,000-4,000 in the Valley. But it goes up to Rs 5,000-10,000 in other parts of India because of illegal trade of clefts.
Jasvinder Sidhu is a freelance investigative journalist.