“People now prefer plastic for everything,” rued Ghulam Rasool Ganie, as he deftly worked on a wicker basket, at his residence in Sogman Lolab, about a hundred kilometres north of Srinagar. “These days, I hardly sell 20 baskets a month, on an average.” Ganie sold over 70 wicker baskets a month at prices ranging from Rs 30 to Rs 100 per basket until a few years ago. But that era, according to Ganie, “has gone now”.

The story of falling sales of traditional wicker baskets is a common one in many artisan households in Kashmir. A decade ago, these baskets made from locally produced kaani or wicker by Ganie and his fellow craftsmen were a familiar sight in villages here. The baskets were used in carrying and storing farm-produce and other commodities. But now, artisans like Ganie are compelled to shore up their income by working as manual labourers at construction sites.

The ubiquitous plastic bag has made deep inroads into rural Kashmir, as in the rest of India. While the use of these bags has been banned through legislation in several states, including in Jammu and Kashmir, the ban has not always been effective. As a case in point, plastic bags and containers have steadily taken the place of traditional kranjul wicker baskets that women in Kashmir used to carry vegetables in. People are now reluctant to give up their plastic habit, even in the face of a ban. In March, the state government imposed a complete ban on single-use plastic items like disposable tableware.

The spread of plastics over the years has dealt a crippling blow to Kashmir’s once-booming wicker handicrafts industry. Can this craft make a comeback, now that the plastic bag is illegal? Environmentalists and local craftsmen definitely hope so. But there are several hurdles to cross before wicker can regain its former prominence in Kashmir and become a viable alternative to plastic.

Plastic waste from markets accumulates in water bodies and agricultural lands. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/Mongabay.

Irresponsible disposal

Ali Mohammad, who sells wicker baskets among other items in Srinagar’s Dargah Hazratbal, is upset that people have stopped using local products to carry things, instead favouring cheap and easily available plastic carry-bags and containers.

“The locally made products which we sell, are safe to use and can be reused for years,” Mohammad said. “But people still prefer to carry things in plastic bags and later throw them in Dal Lake and other water bodies. See how we have polluted our lakes!” He added that the government has not told people how the ban imposed on plastic would be implemented.

Abdul Rashid Shora, a 72-year-old from Zakura, said he had come to buy a zaen basket from Mohammad, as the one at his home had worn out. “I can’t understand why everyone is hell-bent on destroying nature,” said Shora, exasperated. “Our society has now accepted polythene, but abandoned our beautiful culture and traditions.”

Zaen used to be an important item in every Kashmiri household, used for carrying bread and groceries from the market, but not anymore. Memories of men carrying small zaen to buy bread from the bakers have now faded. Similarly, the sight of rural women carrying farmyard waste or produce in large wicker-baskets called paej, is almost history.

Though it has not entirely vanished, the kranjul, another type of wicker basket, is clearly on the decline, even as some people hold on to these traditional containers. “Taking vegetables home from my farm is a unique experience altogether,” asserted Saja Begam, a woman in North Kashmir’s Chandarhama village, while collecting hund, a wild vegetable, near the Haigam wetland. “I hate plastic as it is not pure. Kranjul is pure and without any infection. One day, people who have now taken to plastic will realise what costs they are paying to use it.”

What she mentions is already happening in many villages. Farmers at Nagbal in Ganderbal district, speaking to Mongabay-India, spoke about the accumulation of plastic waste from nearby markets in their rice-fields. The garbage produced by markets is disposed of into an irrigation canal which goes through their farms, carrying the waste there. The farmers need to frequently clear out the waste from their farms. They claim plastic waste is poison to agricultural land, costing them additional labour and expense in removing it.

“Every spring, in the past three-four years, we had to remove plastic waste from our farms,” Fata Begam, a farmer, informed Mongabay-India. Plastics, besides polluting Kashmir’s water bodies and mountain resorts, are also responsible for clogging drains in Srinagar city and other towns of Kashmir.

Credit: PTI

Wicker basket vs plastic bag

At Shallabugh village, Abdul Aziz Rather and other residents are known for doing one job perfectly – they make dry-fruit baskets called methaie toeker, a must at engagement and wedding ceremonies in Kashmir. Plastic alternatives have not permeated here. “Yes, it is surprising for us as well,” Rather declared. “Thank God, our business has not got affected by plastic. Otherwise, it has replaced so many things.”

In his late sixties, Rather is known as someone whose innovations might be one reason why methaie toeker defeated plastic while many other local inventions made of wicker have lost their markets. “A few years ago, he introduced coloured stripes in methaie toeker, which added to its beauty,” said Rather’s daughter-in-law, Tasleema. “It has really worked. There is a lot of demand for it.”

The seasoned artisan, however, does not believe his art will survive a few years down the line, considering that youngsters are disinclined from taking it up as a profession, he said. “If the government takes a firm decision that the ban on plastic, which it has announced, will be strictly implemented, I think our craft can give rise to an important industry in Kashmir,” Rather said. “Many among us make large baskets like kranjul, zaen and paej which are used for carrying things.” This, he feels, can motivate many in the next generation to find business opportunities in it.

A customer examines wicker baskets before buying one at Hazrathbal. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/Mongabay.

Implementation over legislation

When it comes to passing legislation on prohibiting the use of plastic, Jammu and Kashmir has been prompt. But the implementation of the legislation is the bottleneck. The ground reality is that the use of plastic carry-bags and other plastic products continues unabated despite the various laws in place.

As early as in 2007, the state passed the Non-Biodegradable Material (Management, Handling and Disposal) Act, which imposed a partial ban on plastic carry-bags by prohibiting the use of bags of thickness less than 50 microns. In January 2018, Jammu and Kashmir entirely banned the manufacture, stocking, distribution, sale and use of polythene bags, regardless of their thickness, in the state.

Finally, in March of this year, the state government imposed a complete ban on single-use plastic items like disposable plates, cups, bowls, tumblers, spoons, forks and knives. But, there is no indication of this ban in markets across the state.

Ecologically sensitive regions like Kashmir need quick solutions to the plastic waste menace. Finding alternatives to plastic products has assumed greater priority than ever before and is an essential step in the fight against climate change. Plastic is a carbon-high petroleum product, whose manufacture and transport requires several energy inputs, resulting in huge greenhouse gas emissions.

“So, reducing plastic production is also important for combating climate change,” explained Anjali Acharya, an environmental specialist at the World Bank, in a conversation with Mongabay-India at the Innovate4Climate event this month.

Back in Kashmir, experts say that the government has to make the ban on plastic products effective by making alternatives available to people and traders. In places like Jammu and Kashmir – where thousands of weavers, potters and women skilled in sewing cloth bags exist in every district – it is not difficult to do.

A farmer in Ganderbal hung polythene bags on his fence to protest against the incursion of plastic waste in agricultural fields. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/Mongabay.

Local solutions

Samiullah Bhat, who teaches environmental science at Kashmir University, mentioned the need for government involvement in making alternatives available to people. “I think if the government incentivises the people who make cloth bags and wicker baskets, it can be hugely beneficial in implementing the ban successfully,” Bhat said. “It has worked here in the past and it can work now and in future as well if the entry of plastic and plastic items in the state is totally banned and the locally made cloth bags and wicker baskets are made easily available at affordable prices.”

Nighat Shafi Pandit, the founder of Kashmir-based non-governmental organisation, Help Foundation, said that hundreds of women working with the foundation are ready to play their part in making alternatives available, in the form of cloth bags. “If the government is really serious, it should provide some kind of help to the women who work with our organisation or independently,” Pandit said. “It can serve the twin purpose of doing something for environmental protection and providing livelihoods to women.”

The growing population in Srinagar and other major urban centres of Kashmir has led to the mismanagement of waste and generation of tonnes of nonbiodegradable plastic trash that eventually gets dumped in landfills and water bodies. The environmental mess in Kashmir today underlines the need for an urgent and comprehensive waste management strategy for this “paradise on earth”.

The region’s tourism industry thrives on its stunning lakes and mountain resorts which are now under constant threat from poor waste management practices. Phasing out plastics through the promotion of local traditional products can help restore the Kashmir landscape while also offering additional livelihood options in the state.

Artisans prepare material for making wicker baskets at Ganderbal, Kashmir. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/Mongabay.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.