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Kashmir scores with willow

Hallmulla, Aug. 29 (Reuters): Abdul Majid has never played the game, but when tens of thousands of cricket-mad Indians feel the crack of leather on willow, it’s because of him.

The 53-year-old master bat-maker is one of scores of craftsman putting Kashmir on the map for something other than the decades-long militancy.

On a fume-choked stretch of the highway between Srinagar and Jammu, Majid and dozens of other makers churn out tens of thousands of willow bats a year for customers in India and around the world.

Kashmiri willow is second only to English willow for the spring and feel batsmen admire and is used everywhere from casual street games to just below Test level.

“Cricket is a very popular game in India and our bats are in huge demand,” says Majid, sitting among a sea of willow shavings carpeting a dirt lane by the side of his shop. “English and Kashmiri willow is the best in the world. Number one is English and number two is here.”

His company, Deeso (coined from decent), churns out 20,000 to 25,000 made-to-order bats a year — from small, flat cutouts for toddlers to meticulously shaped and oiled pieces for club and state-level openers.

Accurate figures are hard to come by in the state — it was left out of the 1991 census because it was too dangerous for data collectors — but officials recently estimated the bat industry to be worth about $20 million a year.

To keep the willow earnings for Kashmiris, the state government has banned export of partially made bats, or clefts, and cracked down on smuggling. The willow used for making bats thrives in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, but won’t grow in commercial numbers further south in northern India. Jalandhar is a major world centre for sporting goods, including cricket equipment, but Jammu and Kashmir is anxious to keep its willow monopoly.

Majid started his business more than three decades ago as the potential of Kashmiri willow was just being realised. He designs all the bats himself, including those destined to be sold under international brand names.

Majid’s three sons work beside him and 20 employees as they make the pieces, first machining cylinders of willow into rough slabs, then hand-planing and finishing each individual bat.

Majid inspects every bat at key steps in the process, turning it around in his hand to feel the balance and running his eyes over angles and curves before passing or, occasionally, rejecting.

If he doesn’t play, how does he know good from bad' “I have 35 years of making these. I know,” he says.

By Kashmir standards, the thriving bat shops along the highway and more down south around Jammu are an economic success story.

India pours huge amounts of money into the agriculturally-rich state to fight the militancy. The 450,000 troops stationed there spend heavily and many of the separatists also pay for some of their supplies locally.

But little of the money ends up with ordinary Kashmiris. It is siphoned off by interstate businessmen, corrupt government officials and middlemen, some of whom build sprawling mansions in the crowded streets of Srinagar, the lakeside summer capital.

The tourism sector has been wrecked and industry scared off in the rebellion which officials say has killed 35,000 people and separatists more than 80,000.

Outside the main cities and towns, infrastructure is poor or non-existent. Many Kashmiris don’t have electricity, or their own water — in some places, more than 60 homes share one tap.

The state lives off its farms — rice, fruit and vegetables and large saffron and apple production — as well as handicrafts such as carpets, silk and pashminas and its cricket bats.

Still, the economy is thriving at street level; markets bulge with fruit and vegetables and Srinagar and Jammu have bustling restaurants and modern shops that would be the envy of many Indian cities. Even small towns have packed markets, shops and restaurants.

“It is a stronger economy than many places (in India),” says Noor Ahmad Baba, head of Kashmir University’s political science department. “It has survived. Kashmir is reasonably comfortable in economic terms.”

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