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Manipur set to worm its way up on the silk route

For centuries, the women of Khurkhul village in Manipur have raised silkworms. Tens of thousands of grey
worms with voracious appetites are kept in bamboo trays either in the living room or a rearing shed. They are
fed fresh mulberry leaves every six hours until they spin golden yellow cocoons of raw silk. Then, one by one,
the cocoons are boiled, and the fibrous silk is unravelled and wound on to a stick. “Silk is an important part of
our tradition. We need it for marriage ceremonies and it is part of our life,’’ says 20-year-old Surbala Devi.

Manipur was once a key staging post on the fabled silk route. Traders carried silk from China’s Yunnan
province through Myanmar, across India and finally to Afghanistan where they joined the main silk road. Now,
Manipur wants to spin tradition into profit once again. Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (OECF)
has loaned Manipur $32.77m in the first phase of a project to revitalise its silk industry. ``The Japanese built an
empire out of high quality silk for parachutes and we want to do the same,’’ said S D Sharma, director of
Manipur’s department of agriculture. Consultants have introduced modern Japanese sericulture methods to
Manipur hoping to boost production. Manipur cocoons yield up to 800 metres of raw silk thread each, compared
to 1,200 metres for cocoons in Japan.

Although India is one of the world’s largest silk producers, Manipur accounts for just a fraction of the 15,000
tonnes it produces annually. By 2002-03 (April-March) the project leaders aim to increase Manipur’s annual
silk output to 328 tonnes from 202 tonnes. Sericulture accounted for 1.48 per cent of the state’s real GDP of
$378.9m in 1995-96. That proportion is likely to rise sharply once the industry takes hold. Villagers who have
land suitable for mulberry trees were invited to take part in the project. About 8,690 hectares (ha) has already
been selected to grow mulberry trees. The project has encouraged villagers to raise hybrid worms and trees
with more leaves. The sericulture project is still in its infancy but project officials are already thinking about the
second phase, which will expand production further and look at the processing of the silk.

In Manipur, there are no units to twist silk into thread for weaving. Raw silk is sent to Mumbai or Karnataka.
OECF is due to inject more cash into the industry, but officials fear Japan’s sanctions on India after the nuclear
tests could delay the additional loan. “This is the first foreign funding Manipur has ever received in its history,’’
Mr Sharma said. “If we are successful with this project, I think it will make it easier for us to get funding for
other projects from abroad.’’ —Reuters

Source : Economic Times. May 17. 1999