â€˜Handicraft holds key to employment
GreaterKashmir.com (press release),Â India
Business Leaders of Kashmir: Meet Rouf Ahmad Punjabi
Very few people know how to rise after a fall and he is one among a few who stand after a stumble. Betrayal by a foreign business partner was a major setback that brought their business down by 80 per cent and it took their utmost toil to revive the enterprise a fresh. Presently he is running a carpet firm and exporting carpets to overseas markets.
He has been twice the president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry and it was under his tenure that union ministry of textiles gave its nod to the establishment of craft development institute and Indian institute of craft technology in Kashmir. Partner, Handicraft Exports Corporation, Rouf Ahmad Punjabi talks to GK reporter Rabia Noor. Excerpts:
Â I have done my B Sc from Islamia College of Science and Commerce way back in 1970s. My father Siraj-ud-din Punjabi was a government employee who retired as secretary to government of J&K. However I was never interested in a government job, otherwise I had an offer from the police department when I was in the college itself. I did not accept that for I was very much interested in doing business right from my childhood.
How actually did you come in business?
Â During my college days I along with my elder brother Ajaz Ahmad Punjabi set up a carpet firm under the name Continental Trading Corporation. The firm flourished and we became the leading carpet exporters. We also exported handicrafts items like crewel, chainstitch and namdaa. Namdaa during those days would be exported on a large scale. With our company growing to new scales, we opened an overseas branch in Germany. It was a joint venture with a German-based company. We used to look to the export segment in Srinagar and our German partner managed the sales side there. However in 1980s, we suffered a major setback in business when our partner betrayed us. It so happened that during one of our visits to our Germany office after a gap of around six months to check the accounts, we found our partner had lost a lot of money of the company in gambling. That was a major set back for us as we lost over 80 per cent of our business. We closed our company, but we did not let our suppliers get affected by our loss. Then we gradually restarted our business by the grace of Almighty Allah and today if not 100 per cent we have achieved at least 50 per cent of what we had before.
How did you manage restarting your business?
Â We sold some of our assets and property and paid to our suppliers. We did not borrow. We always believed that Almighty Allah wanted to test our patience, and then setbacks are a part and parcel of businesses. Our father had always advised us to work with honesty and sincerity and leave the rest to Allah. Keeping these words in mind, we went ahead to revive our business. That time we approached then Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi, with whose help we were able to get the remaining twenty per cent of our goods back from Germany. However it was not an easy job. We also had to approach the Court of Law and other quarters to get our remaining goods back. Then we gradually restarted our manufacturing, retail and export business.
Tell us about your current business:
Â Right now we a firm, â€˜Handicraft Exports Corporationâ€™ in Srinagar that my brother and I started around two decades back. Since our previous firm got closed, we had to start a new firm.Â Now we donâ€™t manufacture anything other than carpets. We manufacture high-knotage carpets. It takes months together or even a year to make a high-knotage carpet and also involves huge wages.Â We export our goods mainly to Germany, USA and Dubai. We have got an office and a shop in Dubai that my brother is looking it their. We procure the raw material from outside. Most of our raw materials include silk that comes from the places like China, Karnataka, etc. We provide silk to our weavers in Srinagar or other districts and they weave carpets. Around one hundred and fifty workers are involved with us. Since this is a cottage industry, we donâ€™t have direct employees. We pay them according to the amount of work they do. Both males and females are working with us. We provide raw materials to, say, head of an area, who distribute them to different homes, where the whole family sits together and weaves the carpet.
Does it involve child labour too?
Â There is no child labour in Kashmir. No doubt there is a lot of child labour in carpet sector outside the state. For instance there is a workshop in Bidayun where children are asked to work for fifteen hours daily. But here we provide raw material to the people at their homes, who may teach their children their art. The parents obviously wonâ€™t ask their children to work for long hours.Â
You have been president Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry twice. Tell us about your experiences in the chamber?
Â I am the immediate past president of KCCI. I have been the president of KCCI twice. My first tenure was for one year in 2001-02 and my second two-year term was during 2004-06. As president KCCI, I have worked hard for the development of the trade, commerce and industry of Kashmir. It was during my tenure, when national and international exhibitions started here. The union ministry of textiles gave permission to the KCCI for holding exhibitions and other events. Again it was during my term as president KCCI that the union ministry of textiles gave its nod to the setting up of craft development institute and Indian institute of craft technology in Kashmir. Both this prestigious institutions were set up in Kashmir and both are working. Again it was during my term that the said ministry allotted Rs 2 crore to SICOP for raw material bank. Besides, during my term a common facility centre was set up in Bag-e-Ali Mardan Khan industrial estate which due to some reasons is not functioning. Today you can see many handicrafts traders going to different countries for holding exhibitions; this was started under my presidentship. I have also held many seminars and awareness programmes for our artisans, so that they get informed about how they can get benefited. Then under my presidentship, a delegation went to meet Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. I remember, the meeting was supposed to be held for just fifteen minutes, however that meeting lasted for forty-five minutes. 90 per cent of the memorandum we had given to the government got positive reaction. There was an issue that was earlier pending for many years; that ultimately got solved. The people selling fur had been waiting for the compensation for several years and they finally got the compensation after we took the matter to the Prime Minister. Then I also tried to convince the government that the ban on the use of Shahtoos was uncalled for. I have tried many other things too during my presidentship. The current president is working on those lines and the future presidents too have to work on them, for the KCCI is now in limelight. Irrespective of who is the president and whom the team involves, they have to work very hard.
Do you believe in Corporate Social Responsibility?
Â Yes, indeed. Apart from business, it is the social service, in which I have been very much interested right from the beginning. I have been the president of Lionâ€™s Club Srinagar. As president of the club I got an international award for the best president. Then I also got the best zone chairman and best deputy district governor awards. I have won so many awards for social services that I donâ€™t even remember. Then I have been the member of the managing committee of Red Cross Society Srinagar for several years. Right now I am the vice-president of Sultan-ul-Arifeen Artificial Limbs Centre at Buchhwara, where we are giving artificial limbs to the people free of cost, particularly to those people, who have been affected by bomb blats, etc. We also provide them wheel chairs and tricycles free of cost. And then I am the honorary treasurer of the Voluntary Medicare Society at Bemina that is meant for the mentally retarded and physically challenged children.
A word about the current state of the carpet industry.
Â This is a very good business. But there are a few issues that need be sorted out. You see, the weavers here are not satisfied, for they donâ€™t get good wages. The government has got some very good schemes for the weavers, but unfortunately those schemes donâ€™t reach them. And then, mere two or three persons cannot help it. We ought to think seriously about these weavers. I suppose, this is a sole issue in the carpet industry. Otherwise from the time I am in this industry, I have not seen any problem regarding carpets. No doubt there are lesser number of orders sometimes, but overall this industry is doing well. Kashmiri carpet is there for centuries and will remain.
Your message to the budding entrepreneurs?
Â I believe the biggest industry in Kashmir is handicrafts. If our youth get proper guidance and training and are educated about different government schemes, unemployment will remain no more in Kashmir. My generation has the least contribution in promoting the handicrafts industry. The actual contribution has been of our great grandfathers. They took the Kashmiri handicraft to the rest of the world. They have worked really hard for it that too when there were least facilities in Kashmir. Today it is the time of speed. You can cross miles within a few hours through airplane or you can get all the information within a few minutes from the internet. But during our ancestorsâ€™ time, it was really a matter of challenge. Let me tell you, today many of the Indian crafts are being sold in the name of Kashmir at many places that include carpets from Jaipur and shawls of Amritsar. This is because our ancestors have made a name for Kashmir which even sells today. I donâ€™t think there is any need for the Kashmiri youth to hanker after government service. I would suggest them to join the handicrafts industry, for which they can also get the guidance from the KCCI.