Looms of Ladakh, inspiring the world through women empowerment

Ladakh is undoubtedly an amazing place to visit and we all wish to settle down in such beautiful places don’t we? But we often forget that sustaining a livelihood is really difficult in these beautiful areas. The people of Ladakh are hard-working as they survive there in harsh weather conditions. The primary occupation of the locals includes agriculture based on the Indus River for their livelihood. Barley, wheat, buckwheat, peas, rapeseed and beans are the main agricultural products. Apples and apricots are grown in warmer regions of low altitude.

Changthang is a part of the high altitude Tibetan Plateau in western and northern Tibet extending into south-eastern Ladakh, India, with vast highlands and giant lakes. The communities living here follow their traditional occupation of rearing long-haired goats and sheep to earn their livelihood by trading the wool, which is another primary occupation of the locals. These herdsmen are called Chang-pas. Changthang is also known as the cradle of finest cashmere or pashmina.

Recently it was noticed that the locals started following the trend of migration. The Chang-pas started migrating to Leh and other urban settlements for a better lifestyle. This became a major concern as it might affect their way of life. Another reason for major concern was that the locals living there are sentinels of the border, hence it was important to find a way of keeping the locals motivated to earn their livelihood there itself.

This issue was acknowledged by Looms of Ladakh (launched in July 2016). Through the project Laksal which means ‘skills’ in Ladakhi language, the project aims to train the unemployed women of these communities to make finished products with resources which are available to them like pasmina, yak, camel, sheep wool. These finished products are hand knitted and hand woven.

The motive behind the project Laksal is to stop the locals who are migrating in search of better livelihood options, by giving the women of the community, an opportunity of forming women cooperative.

Birth of the idea
Deputy Commissioner of Leh, G. Prasanna Ramaswamy on one of his district tours to Chumur IAS, noticed the women knitting beautiful garments for their family. This was when this idea stuck him to hone the women’s innate skills along with introducing weaving, so that they make marketable products.

On many of their exhibition visits, G. Prasanna Ramaswamy and Abhilasha Bahuguna (his wife) were surprised on not finding Changthang Ladakh pashmina sellers, and they discussed the strategy of promoting Pashmina products with the help of the women of the particular community to highlight the best quality pasmina. Everybody else was selling Pashmina and everything under the brand name using the cooked up marketing tactic of fabled Pashmina shawl that can pass through a ring when genuine fabric cannot pass through a ring. So they strategized and worked together on Project Laksal to create the brand Looms of Ladakh. Other likeminded and dedicated officers and individuals joined hands to contribute in the success story of Looms of Ladakh Women Cooperative.

Their aim was to establish sustainable Pashmina, Bactrian camel and Yak wool small scale industry with responsible environment impact in Ladakh. This was very essential so that the locals can remarkably benefit from their own ecosystem; this high end raw material comes from.

With their observations over many visits to the place, a comprehensive scheme was laid out.

This self help group includes women of eight villages namely Chuchot, Pheyang, Kharnakling, Stok, Chuchul, Merak, Perma and Sato. 150 women are working under an executive body. Looms of Ladakh has tie ups with financial partners and designers who are helping this self help group of women to reach a desired goal. This is a perfect example of using traditional skills and achieving a sustainable production.

How are they different from other retail entrepreneurs in cashmere, Yak and Sheep wool?
· They don’t work for any entrepreneur.
· They are entrepreneurs without schooling.
· They hire management graduate, but they themselves take care of other executive functions.
· They have office bearers like Chief Executive Officers, Cashier and product officers who are not schooled but wise and passionate enough to run the cooperative. These positions are elected every two years. So one who is CEO this year can be a member after two years. Similarly, a member can be elected as a CEO.
· A certain percentage goes to the members and rest is kept for buying raw materials next season and paying bills. Some amount is kept for welfare funds for the members who can get small loans for health and child education only.
· Social audit are also done of the women cooperative to maintain understanding, motivation and transparency among the team.
· They are also working for insurance and other artisan benefits for the members.

They are not just entrepreneurs, but social entrepreneurs, they are together entrepreneurs working for themselves. The work of these women is being appreciated not only in the national market, but also in the international market. They are now an inspiration for others.

The Roving Feet