Pulwama’s Oukhoo village, known for its pencil making, is falling behind due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to its impact on public health, Covid-19 has caused a major economic shock to the pencil industry besides causing massive disruption among other business units.
This village in Pulwama got significance due to the pencil making and in no time started to make headlines. However, it got hit due to the Covid-19.
Earlier, India used to import wood and pencil slats from China, Sri Lanka and Germany, but in recent years the 90 % of slats for pencil making was met by the Kashmir Valley and Pulwama had a major role in it. But, due to the Covid-19 lockdown the supply has been decreased and only 20% of the pencils are sent outside J&K.
The demand for pencils has dropped as the schools all over India are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jhelum Agro Industry used to have a monthly turnover of around Rs 1 crore before the pandemic and at present the monthly turnover is not more than Rs 25 lakh.
Jhelum Agro Industry’s supervisor, Abrar Allaei said that only 20% of the business is happening since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.
“Earlier we used to supply 250 bags of the slats to Jammu per day for further processing into pencils but at present we are supplying only 80 bags per day,” said Abrar.
The poplar wood in the Kashmir Valley has high dampness content and delicateness which makes it generally appropriate for the creation of pencils.
“Kashmir supplies 90 percent of the raw material to the rest of the country for the pencil production and only 10 percent is available from other states,” said Abrar.
He said, “Many other states also tried to intervene in the business of pencil making but that did not work out because the wood they used was not appropriate for the pencils.”
Oukhoo village supplies raw material for famous pencils like Apsara, Natraj and DOMS.
The village is known as the 'Pencil Village' and there are numerous small units in Pulwama occupied with the creation of pencils.
There are two large scale pencil making factories in Oukhoo and fifteen in Lassipora Pulwama making it to 17 pencil factories.
The pandemic has not only affected production but has also reduced labor. “Earlier we used to employ more than 150 people including both boys and girls but now only 30 people are working in the factory,” said Abrar.
He said “Before the pandemic there used to be a lot of women working here but due to the closure of the factory for some time because of the pandemic, these women did not return back to work.”
The raw material supplied for the creation of pencils comes in various sizes. “The length of each slat is 189mm and the width is 80mm for every 9 pencil slats and 70mm width for 8 pencil slats,” said Abrar.
The slats, once ready, are packed in batches of different sizes i.e., 9 ply, 8 ply, 7 ply, 6 ply, 5 ply, 4 ply and 3 ply and each of them costs Rs 2000.
“The package of 9 ply slat consists of 800 pieces, the package of 8 ply/ 900 pieces, 7 ply/ 1030 pieces, 6ply/ 1200 pieces, 5ply/ 1440 pieces, 4ply/ 1800 pieces and the 3 ply slat consists of 2400 pieces.
”The slats then go to manufacturers in Jammu and Chandigarh for the remaining process to make the finished product.
Manzoor Ahmed Allaei, the proprietor of Jhelum Agro Industries started this factory in 2010. “We used to have a monthly turnover of around Rs 1 crore before the pandemic and at present the monthly turnover is not more than Rs 25 lakh which I believe is for time being,” Manzoor said.
He said the pencil making business is directly dependent on schools. “Schools are closed and online classes are taking place so there is not much need for the pencils. Schools will hopefully open soon and likewise the pencil making business will flourish again.”
The raw materials provided to the Hindustan pencils for the making of Natraj and Apsara are later exported to 81 different countries, he said.
The wood used for making quality pencils is easily available in every district of Kashmir. This is found in wet spaces of Pulwama is an assortment of poplar.
The poplar wood grows best where the dampness content is great, and the climate conditions permit the wood to stay delicate during the tree's development. Poplar is easily grown in flood fields, valley streams and surprisingly void spaces along the streets.
During the 1960s, Deodar wood was prohibited by the government which was at first utilized as a raw material for pencil making. After that, the poplar wood supplanted Deodar.
Kabin, a labourer from Assam has been working at this factory for the last 5 years. He said, “We have suffered a huge loss because of this pandemic. Not only this factory was closed, I lost my livelihood and it was very hard to manage.”
“The factory was closed for three months and once it reopened the business is not booming as it was before,” he said.
Pic Credit: Abrar Allaei