Inside Ookhu, the pencil village in India

The village is located in south Kashmir's Pulwama district

60-Poplar-trees-from-Kashmir-are-widely-used The woods are lovely..: Poplar trees from Kashmir are widely used in making pencils | Bilal Bhadur

Nestled along the meandering banks of the Jhelum River is the village of Ookhu at Kakpora in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district, 26km from Srinagar. Ookhu has earned itself the title of ‘pencil village of India’, and rightly so. It has beaten competition from China and Germany to become a major supplier of raw materials to leading pencil manufacturers in India.

Presently, there are 14 prominent slat-producing units in Kashmir, with 13 in south Kashmir and one in Srinagar’s Parimpora.

Manzoor Ahmad Allaie lives in one of the 250 quaint homes that comprise the village. He was born into the timber trade. As a young boy, he watched his father―a small-time timber trader―toil hard to provide for his wife, two sons and a daughter. After he finished schooling in 1996, Allaie persuaded his father to sell some land to buy a bandsaw mill and set up Jhelum Agro Industries. He began by making poplar boxes to transport Kashmir’s famed blood-red apples.

The mill improved the family’s finances, but Allaie had bigger dreams. In 2012, he travelled to Jammu and convinced Hindustan Pencils, India’s top pencil maker, that Jhelum Agro Industries could meet their raw material needs. It first supplied poplar logs and then shifted to slats―5.2mm thick wooden blocks that could be used to make four pencils. That was a decisive move, as demand for slats soared. Allaie hired 15 people, secured a bank loan to buy a machine to make slats and a generator to power the machine during power cuts. “Making a slat is half the job done,” explains Allaie. “We succeeded in that and the business took off.” His success inspired his neighbour Feroz Ahmed, owner of Barkat Saw Mills, to follow suit and provide raw materials to pencil manufacturers outside Kashmir.

But their success story would be incomplete without stressing on the role of poplars. India has nine varieties of poplar, four of which are endemic and the rest exotic. In Kashmir, the exotic P. deltoids, locally called roosi phras, has nearly replaced the indigenous kashur phras (Kashmir poplar), which takes around 40 years to mature. Roosi phras, which matures at 15 years, was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 as part of a World Bank-aided project. Roosi Phras is erroneously called Russian poplar. But it has nothing to do with Russia; it is American. Roosi also sounds similar to the Urdu word for dandruff. Some experts say that the name must have come from the pollen that its fluffy seeds shed. No matter the variety, the poplars in Kashmir provide top-notch timber and are cheaper than the German and Chinese varieties. There are reportedly 10 million to 20 million poplars in Kashmir, and they are the second largest source of income, after apples.

61-labourers-at-work-in-Ookhu Labourers at work in Ookhu | Bilal Bhadur

Ookhu and other villages are now supplying slats to leading pencil makers like Hindustan Pencils and DOMS. Presently, there are 14 prominent slat-producing units in Kashmir; 13 of them are in south Kashmir (predominantly in Pulwama) and one in Srinagar’s Parimpora. These units collectively employ around 3,000 people, encompassing a diverse workforce that includes local men and women as well as migrant workers. The yearly turnover is around Rs150 crore.

Jhelum Agro Industries employs nearly 150 people during the winter months. From band saw drivers to plank cutters and machine handlers, their skill set is varied. Workers are also needed to sort and grade slats by hand. During summer, the workforce expands to 180 as migrant workers stream in from various parts of India, mainly the north. The work hours are from 9am to 5pm.

62-Slats-stacked-up-at-Shabir-Agro-Industries-in-Lassipora Log’s in: Slats stacked up at Shabir Agro Industries in Lassipora | Tariq Bhat

Sami Rasool is among the 24 young girls from neighbouring villages employed at the unit. “Our job is to collect the slats, make bundles of them and remove the defective ones,” she says. Her colleague Shazia Jan is grateful for the pickup-and-drop facility provided by Jhelum Agro Industries. All workers enjoy a day off every week, and wages are paid on time, say the workers. Migrant workers who continue through the winter receive free accommodation.

The one-acre plot that houses the unit also has Allaie’s residence. When his business grew, he had to acquire more land to store raw material and sawdust. In winter, slats are dried in hot rooms at another facility, located in the industrial estate at Lassipora, some 18km away.

63-Manzoor-Ahmed-Alliae Manzoor Ahmed Alliae’s Jhelum Agro Industries supplies slats to Hindustan Pencils | Tariq Bhat

Lassipora has proven to be an ideal location for several slat manufacturers to expand their business, thanks to the land, electricity and improved connectivity provided by the government. Some of these units go the extra mile by offering conveyance and free lodging to workers from outside Kashmir.

Shabir Ahmed, owner of Shabir Agro, one of the largest units in Lassipora, says that his unit provides 7,000 bags of slats per month (800 slats per bag) to Hindustan Pencils. He currently employs 125 people. Some workers, like Umar Ahmed Mir and Anil Kumar, are contract workers who are paid based on the number of bags they fill. Umar says he earns about Rs25,000 per month. Shabir Ahmed has also hired some skilled workers from outside Kashmir to operate six machines.

Bundled together: Workers at Jhelum Agro Industries | Tariq Bhat Bundled together: Workers at Jhelum Agro Industries | Tariq Bhat

Imtiyaz Ahmed Dar of Soft Wood, who transitioned from timber trade to slat production in 2017, has two machines at his unit and a drying facility. He says pencil companies lease machines used for slat production and the slats they make are exclusively supplied to these companies. He wants the government to help buy the machines, as it would increase production and create more employment.

With all that government assistance and availability of skilled labour, why not make the finished product in Kashmir? Muhammad Younis, proprietor of Hycon, has the answer: “Even if all the necessary resources were available, the core of the pencil, made from graphite powder, poses a significant challenge owing to its explosive nature.” Younis used to supply undressed poplar logs to Hindustan Pencils before transitioning to slat production. “Because of security concerns, the prospect of producing pencils as a finished product appears remote.”

However, slat makers hope that as the security situation in Kashmir is improving, the government would allow the production of pencils in the region. A slat producer points out that stone quarries in Kashmir also require explosives for rock blasting, so why restrict the use of graphite?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi commended Pulwama in one of his Mann Ki Baat sessions, emphasising that nearly 90 per cent of the country’s demand for pencil slats is fulfilled by Kashmir, with Pulwama playing a substantial role.

Despite the notable achievements of the relatively new industry, there are lingering challenges. A recent government directive has called for the felling of poplar trees in Kashmir, as the pollen they release in spring causes allergies. The directive has raised concerns about a potential shortage of poplars in the future. Post revocation of Article 370, the government’s decision to remove encroachments on grasslands and wetlands―significant sources of poplar trees―has further intensified apprehensions.

“The government must acknowledge our concerns and take proactive measures to ensure the sustainability of poplar plantations,” stresses Allaie. “It is imperative that people be allowed to plant on the land from which they have been evicted.” He expressed concern over the inability of the departments of irrigation and social forestry to grasp the potential impact that the scarcity of poplars could have on the industry.

Younis is worried about the already reduced profit margins owing to inflation and taxes; a shortage of raw materials would negatively impact an industry with unexplored potential, he says.

Dar points out that some timber traders are selling undressed poplar core to factories in Punjab, a practice that should be banned. “This will further impact the availability of poplars for slat making,” he says. Poplars also play a crucial role in making plywood, which is then sold to dealers outside Kashmir, he adds. “We are not against that, as it is a finished product and provides jobs, helping the local economy,” he says.