Wicker baskets on display in a shop in Srinagar. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

The wicker basket takes on plastic

At Shallabugh village, Abdul Aziz Rather and other residents are known for doing one job perfectly – they make dry-fruit baskets (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. Thank God, our business has not got affected by plastic. Otherwise, it has replaced so many things,” Rather declared.

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. It has really worked. There is a lot of demand for it,” said Rather’s daughter-in-law, Tasleema.

The seasoned artisan, however, is not hopeful that this art will survive a few years down the line, considering that “youngsters are not inclined” to take it up as a profession. “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, as many among us make large baskets like kranjul, zaen and paej which are used for carrying things,” Rather said. 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. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.
A customer examines wicker baskets before buying one at Hazrathbal. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

Effective implementation needed for effective ban 

When it comes to passing legislation on prohibiting the use of plastic, Jammu and Kashmir has been prompt. But the implementation of the legislations 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 was invoked several times for imposing 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, as an essential step in the fight against climate change. Plastic is a high carbon-containing 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 in early June this year.

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 said that his act of making this polythene part of his fence also serves as a protest from him against the incursion of plastic waste in agricultural fields. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

Local solutions looking for support

Samiullah Bhat, who teaches environmental science in 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 for implementing the ban successfully. It has worked here in the past and it can work now and in future as well, if 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,” Bhat suggested.

Nighat Shafi Pandit, founder of Kashmir-based non-governmental organization, 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. It can serve the twin purpose of doing something for environmental protection and providing livelihoods to women,” Pandit said, adding that this could help support thousands of 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 the 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 the landscape of 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 preparing material for making wicker baskets at Ganderbal, Kashmir. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

Banner image: Abdul Aziz Rather, an experienced weaver in Ganderbal, Kashmir. Photo by Athar Parvaiz.

Article published by S. Gopikrishna Warrier
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