Before Covid, the industry used to employ more than 4,000 people Photograph:( WION )
Oukhoo village came into the limelight after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned its success story in his monthly radio programme ‘Mann ki Baat’, where he spoke at length about “Pencil Village of India”.
We all have fond memories of writing with pencils during school days, but little do we know that the raw material for these pencils comes from a non-descript village called Oukhoo—which has earned the moniker “Pencil Village of India”.
Oukhoo, located along the bank of Jhelum River, in South Kashmir’s Pulwama district, exports the raw material called ‘slats’ to more than 100 countries and 90 per cent of pencils made in India are manufactured in this village.
The village came into the limelight after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned its success story in his monthly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’, where he spoke at length about “Pencil Village of India”.
Kashmir Valley has 18 slat factories and 17 of them are in Pulwama. But the onset of Covid has severely impacted its business.
“Most of the people from this village work in these pencil factories and that's why it's called the Pencil Village of India. There are around eight units running in this area. The slats manufactured in Pulwama are sent to various parts of the country,” said Farooq Ahmad, who works as a manager in one of the slat factories.
Before Covid, the industry used to employ more than 4,000 people. Now, the industry is working only at 30 per cent of its original workforce.
As the schools were shut during the pandemic, the demand for pencils in the market dwindled. Eventually, the production went down, and a lot of people associated with the industry lost their jobs.
Now, with Covid waning in the country, the factory owners are hoping that the demand picks up again, as they have started to re-employ people.
“Before Covid, we had around 150 people working in one unit, but now we are working with only 30 per cent of the original workforce. I am hoping that, by the grace of God, we start producing more and all the people are hired back to work,'' said Manzoor Ahmad, owner of a slat making factory in Pulwama.
The industry has been generating employment opportunities for the youth, especially for women in the Pulwama district. Every family had members working in these factories.
“I have been working here for five years, but we had stopped coming due to Covid. But now we have started again. Right now, only 100 to 150 women are coming to work, but we are hoping that once the Covid situation subsides, more women will turn up for work,'' said Shaista, a worker.
Earlier, India used to import wooden supplies from countries like China. But everything changed in 2010 when the local entrepreneurs decided to make use of Kashmir's famous poplar trees—a peculiarly supple wood which makes it best suited for manufacturing pencils.
The poplar wood grows best in the valleys of Kashmir where the moisture content is ideal, and the weather conditions allow the wood to remain soft during the tree’s growth.