Market of Lemon: Pashmina & Pampore Saffron

If you want to kill an industry or market, flood it with fakes and make it impossible for the customers to differentiate. The fakes will drive down the price that the customers are willing to pay forcing the quality producers to quit. This is the essence of 1970 paper by George Akerlof. Currently the exotic local produce is facing the same state of neglect and dying out.

Although almost all the saffron grown in the region is from Pampore, the GI labeling is not being used. So there is no way for the consumers to gauge the authenticity for this spice. Silver sells for 35-40/- per gram but saffron sells for 250-350/-. Yet something that sells for almost 8-10 times more is not packaged, branded, tested or certified? There is an ISO 3632 mark that is widely used in Iran & other middle east, but rarely for any Indian saffron. Government has also not been able to come up a viable alternative. So there is no way to gauge if I am buying a worthless twig that is dyed with harmful chemicals or the genuine product. Even if it is genuine, the loose nature of packing makes quality & moisture control difficult. High moisture content punishes the buyers twice. Firstly, it adds up to the weight of the product making the deal expensive for you. Secondly it drastically reduces the shelf life from 2-5 years to less than a season. As a simple test: dry filament should be brittle and snaps when folded, but a moist one that is typically sold in Srinagar markets is pliable, indicating high moisture content. Then amount of foreign materials/debris is a matter of concern when one does the trade. Lastly, one should not forget that buying products that has a history of employing underage/child laborers and is expensive enough to fund militants/extremist movement needs to have a certified, verifiable declaration stating that this is an ethical produce and not blood saffron.

Earlier the weight and size of the fiber were indicators used to test the authenticity of Pashmina. Today, man made fibers esp. micro-fibers can easily be processed to give the same look & feel. Some of them are peptide based which will give the same hair-burning smell if you do a quick flame test. Hence the need of GI marks & lab tested marks are needed to demonstrate the authenticity of these products. Woolmark, for Merino wool & silkmark-India solved these problems for these natural fibers. Egyptian cotton also suffers a similar fate, which was highlighted in the recent controversy where the total volume of fabrics marked as “Giza 45” Egyptian cotton in USA alone exceeded the total annual production in Egypt. Then comes a second problem, a genuine pashmina has to be grown in Kashmir valley and sheared from only the underbelly of the Cashmere goat. However natural fibers from rabbit also look similar. Unable to differentiate, consumers are willing to pay only for the utility and workmanship rather than for the pride & luxury of owning a genuine product.

There are some ethical ways of farming Shahtoosh (made from the hair of Tibetan antelope) which allows shearing live animals that are tranquilized (as opposed to traditional mode of hunting) but nobody can ever tell the difference between the two modes. Hence the whole industry that could easily be regulated is banned all together.

When the China glass imports threatened the Murano hand-blown glass industry they took corrective steps to brand, differentiate & market their produce appropriately and won the battle. Can we indians not follow them? The tourism, handicrafts or the trade council could easily establish some low cost testing facility to assure the customers of the authenticity of their purchase, but lack of it we see the industry slowly dying out. The Nepalese & Chinese have taken over the fine wool trade, the Iran has taken the leadership in the Saffron and the people in the valley are left high & dry. I could have discounted it as a transient problem that could be solved once the peace is restored in the valley and social media ban is removed. However after 70 years of occupation, its high time that the locals organize themselves.

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