When Ali Mohammad, a Kashmiri shawl weaver and embroider, agreed to join one of the e-commerce websites dealing with Kashmiri art and craft he never knew his business will take such a turn.
Seated in the living room of his house in the Safa-Kadal area of old Srinagar, Mohammad is all praise for the sites that have come up in the recent years and says online business has benefited many artisans like him in the strife-torn state.
“Since the emergence of local online business websites our financial condition has improved,” the 50-year-old artist says.
Established by young entrepreneurs from Jammu and Kashmir, Kashmir Box, Kashmir Villa and Kashmir Market are some of the websites which are helping artisans like Mohammad, who previously relied on middlemen and retailers for their business, expand their horizon.
The increasing use of smartphones and faster internet access have also added to their cause.
“E-commerce firstly eliminates the middleman and secondly we don’t completely rely on local retailers. We would often get less than what we deserved that too in instalments after countless reminders,” he says.
Mohammad claims to have sold products worth Rs 50 lakh since his affiliation with Kashmir Box five years back. He has also hired 10 more artisans at his workshop to meet the increasing demand, especially from foreigners, for his shawls.
“Initially, we would get 10 orders in a month and with the passage of time it has increased to 300 per month,” he says.
Mohammad says he makes his shawls only after receiving orders through the website as he has called off business with middleman and others.
“I don’t want to get exploited anymore. Through e-commerce, I realised the importance of our art and craft.”
For Shahnawaz Jan, who inherited the art of paper-machie from his father, these sites have given him the sense of being ‘properly employed’.
“I had planned to quit the ancestral profession but due to e-commerce my love towards paper-machie has increased because it gives me the sense of employment as I receive payment after every month,” Jan says.
The artisan says there are other benefits as well.
“Working with e-commerce has also enhanced my skills as I have learned new designs following the demands by customers,” he adds.
The official website of Jammu and Kashmir state handicrafts department shows that 2.50 lakh artisans are directly dependent on the handicrafts sector for livelihood and earn around Rs 1700 crore annually.
However, in last decade a number of artisans have been forced to look for other opportunities. They say lesser wages and an increasing number of machine-made duplicate products which are flooding the market have hurt their business.
Kashmir Box, set up by friends-turned-business partners Muheet Mehraj and Kashif Ahmad Khan to improve the state of art and craft in Kashmir, provides a global platform for more than 3000 artisans from the Valley to sell their products.
Twenty seven-year-old Mehraj says there were multiple reasons behind the ‘deprived condition’ of the artisans in the
Valley. He says the basic hindrance was ‘product identification’ because customers didn’t know what brand they were buying.
“We gave artisans brand recognition based on their names so that the customers know what and from whom they are purchasing goods,” he says adding “The idea clicked and today customers call us and ask for their desire brands while placing orders”.
Mehraj, a graduate in computer applications, wishes to put an end to the wage system by providing maximum profit to the artisans. His site is drafting a new policy that aims to improve the financial condition of artisans who are involved in the manufacturing process from the scratch.
“A key button will appear on the side of the product that will enable buyers to view the chain of people involved in the manufacturing of the product. We will ask customers to donate some additional money for them in order to support them if they wish,” he says.
“The additional amount will directly go into the bank accounts of artisans based on the percentage of their contribution towards the making of the product,” he adds.
Inspired by Kashmir Box, Jammu-based entrepreneur Varun Gupta launched Kashmir Market to help Kashmiri artisans counter duplicate products.
“I purchase goods from artisans directly and supply them to the national and international customers,” Varun said.
Kashmir Villa’s co-owner Snkul Gupta says the online platform has also helped those who avoid coming to the Kashmir Valley due to law and order issues.
“We felt [the need] to reach out to people who fear to visit Kashmir Valley owing to stone pelting and curfew-like situation often prevalent here,” Snkul says.