From California to Changthang: Meet Babar Afzal, the Pashmina Man of the world
Srinagar: People grimaced and scowled when Dr. Babar Afzal left a cushy job at Silicon Valley in California to support the real custodians of Pashmina in Ladakh’s Changthang area, in 2012.
Come 2021, he has proved his detractors wrong by becoming the global icon. Pashmina goat herders affectionately call him Shepherd. He spends most of the time shuttling between Jammu and Ladakh.
Babar, who has added another feather to his cap by bagging the ‘The Global Changemakers Award 2021’ by ‘Project 100’, is presently trying to sensitize the policymakers in the United Kingdom and the White House about the Kashmiri Pashmina and its scope.
He is a recipient of several national and international awards including the Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award, Rabindranath Tagore Award, Promising Indian Award, Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and ‘Honoris Causa’ among others. Babar is also a TED Residency Finalist (NY), seven times TEDx Speaker and a WIRED Innovation Fellow (UK). A documentary titled ‘Call of Pashmina’ on his work has also won several awards.
Known as the ‘Most Credible Man on Pashmina in the World’, Afzal regretted that the famed Kashmiri Pashmina was facing a threat from the fakes made in Mongolia and Nepal.
“Fakes from Mongolia and Nepal sold in the name of Kashmir Pashmina pose a big challenge. Now is the time of transparency. A distinction has to be made between the people who make and sell Pashmina. The real custodians – the shepherds and artisans and their families should be made visible before the world through technology. Transparency and trust have to be created through technology. We have to tell the world and create a platform….where we tell them where the goat was and where we weaved the product. Then, we will create a barrier against fake trade. Fakes shouldn’t be sold in the name of Pashmina,” Babar told The Kashmir Monitor.
Flashback of 25000 goat deaths in 2012 is still fresh in his memory. “Goats died due to 118 cm snowfall that year but nobody highlighted it. I called up many involved in the Pashmina trade but nobody bothered. I had joined a few nomads in Pahalgam and we reached Changthang in three months. When I saw their condition, I decided I don’t have to return and work for them. In the meantime, I was also attacked by a snow leopard but saved by the shepherd. Then I decided to become a shepherd myself and live with them. Now, I usually shift between two places – Jammu and Ladakh. My father is from Jammu and I also visit Anantnag often from where my mother comes from,” said Babar.
Babar has now embarked on a mission to create awareness globally and make Pashmina an international issue. “Recently, the government of the UK invited me and I sensitized the diaspora and the policymakers about our potential. Engagements have also started with the White House. There is an attempt to bring about change. China also imports Pashmina to the UK but I am confident that the policymakers will shift towards us and take decisions in our favor. The journey has just begun. I represent the entire eco-system ranging from shepherds to artisans and their families. Around 10 lakh people are dependent on the initiative,” he said.
Babar said most of the people associated with the business were only interested to sell the product and did not understand the ‘complexity of the ecosystem’.
“All want to sell Pashmina but they don’t understand the complexity of the ecosystem and the link of this industry to climate change, ecology, art, culture, heritage, fashion, and policy. We need to create a sustainable structure for them and save the ecosystem. An animal is also involved and we need to save it too,” he said.