The closing of school during the Covid 19 pandemic has left its mark on more than the children who have witnessed delays to their learning. In one village of Kashmir, the effect has been immense on employment.
Most of the pencils that we see across the nation are likely to come from the popular trees of Ukhoo.
The village has a lot of trees. The village is about 10 miles south of Srinagar city in Pulwama district of Kashmir that supplies more than 90% of the wood that is used by India’s pencil manufacturers that export to almost more than 150 nations.
More than almost 2,500 people worked in the villages before Covid in 17 pencil factories in the village and the industry approximately supported almost 250 families.
But after almost two years of school closures and a drop in the demand for the products of the village, the owners of the factories reduced their workforce by more than half almost.
Workers were asked to leave without pay, while many of those who kept their jobs had come from other parts of the nation, and were relatively cheaper to employ. Now both the village and its workforce are waiting eagerly for the market to reopen.
Rajesh Kumar who is 26 years old from Bihar, has worked in Ukhoo for 7 years. Like other various migrant workers, he stays in a room on the factory premises and works almost 10- to 12-hour shifts. During lockdown last year, the factory owner provided him with food and accommodation when production was shut down for almost three months. He is one of the luckier people to be back working now again.
“I hope the pencil demand increases and these factories are full of workers again, as many of our friends and people from our villages find work [here] and are able to make a living,” states Kumar.
Farooq Ahmed Wani who is 27 years old from the city of Jammu, has worked as a machine operator in Ukhoo for the last five years.
“We are hoping that schools reopen throughout the country so that there is more demand for pencils in the market,” he states in an optimistic tone. “Then these factories can employ more young people and more migrants can also get some work here.”
Pencil wala Gaon, or “pencil village”, got the attention of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In his monthly radio program, Mann Ki Baat, the previous year he stated that the district was an example of how to reduce the nation’s dependency on imports. “Once upon a time we used to import wood for pencils from abroad but now our Pulwama is making the country self-sufficient in the field of pencil making,” Modi stated.
The latest ministry of home affairs report stated that the village would be developed as a “special zone” for manufacturing. “Now the whole country would be supplied finished pencils, manufactured completely in Pulwama,” the report mentioned. But the pandemic has shown how dependence on one product in a region can bring its own issues.
Abrar Ahmed who a unit supervisor at one of Ukhoo’s factories, stated that everyone has suffered immensely. “Even the sawdust from woodcutting machines is usually taken by the local villagers who then sell it to poultry farms and for other purposes in the village.”
One of the biggest factories in Ukhoo is being owned by Manzoor Ahmad Allaie.
“We are only doing about 30% to 40% [of normal levels of] business now because of the Covid lockdown impact from last year, which means we produce about only 80 bags of pencil slats a day,” states Allaie. “Earlier we could produce about 300 pencil slat bags [a day] in the factory, which were transported out of Kashmir.”
He is eagerly waiting for the schools to reopen in India. It has been a difficult two years for the pencil villagers, he further stated.