For decades Babademb’s walnut factory has helped many destitute and needy women to survive the onslaught of circumstances and society. Syed Asma takes a look at Azad brothers’ work and legacy
Every morning, a long line of women, mostly clad in black burqas and abayas, cross the bridge near Babademb in Srinagar.
Walking in pairs, these women, who are always in a rush, are on their way to Kashmir Kessar Mart’s [KKM] factory.
They start working exactly at 9 in the morning, have no holidays except for Sundays and work 7 hours a day. Even shut downs and strikes don’t hamper the factory’s work.
Owned by Azads, based in Munawarabad, Srinagar, the factory mainly deals with packaging of walnut, saffron and morels, and caters to the needs of foreign market.
Maymoona is one of the employees. She was in her 30’s when her husband didn’t return home from work. For past 16 years she is living with her 19 year old son.
“I am fed up of sharing the story of my husband’s disappearance. I have repeated it more than 100 times,” she says bluntly. “Over the years I understood one thing, no one except God can bring him back but I make it a point that I am a part of monthly protests of APDP,” she adds with a straight face, “there I show it to the rest of the world that I stand strong and I am still fighting.”
Hailing from old city, Maymoona is working in KMM factory for last ten years. She has never been to school, so finding a job was a difficult task for her. This factory has been a blessing for Maymoona, she believes. Talking about the positives of her job she adds, the salary might be less but it is a constant income filling her pockets which is a benefit.
Started in 1970’s KKM maintaining a low profile, as chosen by its owners.
The Azad group owned by two brothers Noor-ud-din and Altaf Azad, is now run by their children. Apart from owning KKM, the group runs a leather factory in Pulwama, a petroleum filling station in Munawarbad, owns apple orchards and livestock.
What makes their Babademb unit of KKM different is the work force. Around seventy percent of the work force is women. The outlet deals with cracking, washing and packing of walnuts, and packing of saffron and morels. Besides the company owns an outlet in Delhi as well, it deals exclusively with the dry fruits.
“Presently our Babademb unit has 300 employees; of these 70 percent are women,” says Usman Azad.
Usman, 37, is Altaf Azad’s youngest son and has returned from Canada in 2011 after completing his graduation in automotive designing and applied mechanics. Since then he is helping his siblings in the business.
“We have a clear criterion for recruitment where we help the distressed women,” informs Usman, “Widows, single parent or orphans and lone earning hand of their family are preferred in the factory,” he adds. The factory follows a particular rule book which doesn’t allow the [women] workers to talk to stranger but a few, with the permission of their boss, managed to share a quick details of their stories. Besides, clicking photographs is also not allowed inside the premises.
It is a cemented room and a dozen of women are cracking the nuts. Some of them have managed to get hold of small plastic sheets. Bare cemented floor enhance the pain in their bone joints, says one.
Like Maymoona, the 55-year-old Maryam is also a widow working in KKM. Her husband passed away two months after their marriage. Presently putting up in a rented accommodation in the city outskirts with her teenage daughter, she draws a salary of Rs 2400. Being a bread winner in the family of two, Maryam to save money covers most of the distance from home on foot. Patient of chronic diseases like diabetics and hypertension, Maryam says the team in the factory has been more supportive than her own family.
Her in-laws threw her out, along with her daughter, and were made to live on roads after her husband passed away. Likewise her brothers gave her a similar treatment when she tried to live at their places. “Had I not joined this factory, I would have killed my daughter and committed suicide.”
Though the salaries of the workers don’t exceed Rs 3000 a month, the women introduced their own system of rotating saving and credit system. It helps them to survive in a better way, they believe.
“Each month we collect an amount from each other and the sum total is distributed among us, as per the needs, and after regular intervals,” says Maymoona.
“This is how I manage the rent, expenses of my medicines, my daughter’s studies and other things,” she adds.
Likewise, Aafia [name changed] has collected her dowry items. In her thirties Aafia is getting married in September this year. Her would-be husband is the only person at her in-law’s place who knows about her job. “I don’t think they will allow me to work at such a meagre salary for 7 hours a day, so I thought not to share it with them and decided to leave it after marriage,” says Aafia.
She joined the factory fifteen years back when her brother was killed in a cross-firing incident in the old city and her father got the first heart attack. Her father, a labourer, could not work again and earn for his family. Aafia, a school drop-out, did not have many options to work so she joined KKM.
Their boss, Usman while elaborating on the reasons why are women their preference he appreciated their intellect to learn the skills fast. Besides, he believes that the job he offers is an extension of a household job, so they don’t need much training. “The work needs patience, delicacy and dedication, who better than a woman can do it,” asserts Usman.
“Women don’t even demand a huge salary for their work, so they are preferred.”
Initially more than 1100 women were working in their factory but change in the global market hampered their sales so they had to do the job cuts.
“Till 2004, we used to export 174 containers of walnut, but presently our sales don’t go higher than 80 containers,” Usman shares, “Each container contains 80 metric tonnes.”
While talking about the inception of their business Usman shares “our forefathers were into a business dealing with different kinds of seeds but it was my father and uncle who thought of export business,” says Usman. “Their first consignment was 400 gms saffron and it flew to Spain, says Usman. Presently, 80-90 kilos are exported across India and rest of the world.
“Our customer base for all the products is across the world including Europe, Australia, North America and South America.”
After saffron they started exporting Morels [Kanigicz]. “We purchase morels from the local forest department,” says Usman, “Initially we purchased morels from Shimla as well but now they have stopped supplying to us.” Presently 6000-7000 kgs of morels are exported.
In 1994, the company started exporting walnuts, the first consignment was of 7000 kilo and it flew to Germany.
Azad group purchases walnuts from both North and South of the valley. “Honestly, we are into global business. We purchase raw material from different countries of the world, process it, pack it, brand it and sell it to them,” concludes Usman.