border review | 10 March 2012

Licit but illegal wool

The Indo-Canadian newspaper Link reports a rise of cross-border smuggling between the PRC and India. For the second time in 13 month, the police have arrested smugglers in Kinnaur near the porous border with Tibet.

Police on Monday seized two trucks laden with costly pashmina wool that was smuggled from Chinese villages to Indian border. The estimated cost of the seized wool is pegged at around Rs 1.5 crore in the international market.

We are not talking about drugs or weapons or endangered species here – just wool, carefully combed from the belly of Himalayan mountain goats. No animals are hurt and no international conservation laws are violated. Pashmina is widely known as Kashmir precicely because there is a long tradition of trade between Tibet and India. Since the Sino-Indian border war in 1962 the border is closed and trade is outlawed. As there is no official border crossing and no customs office, any cross-border trade becomes an act of smuggling. But pashmina is still an important source of income for Tibetan herders, and the most logical trade routes are still the ones to India.

Five tons of pashmina – that makes a caravan of one hundred mules that crossed over from Tibet. This is hardly a clandestine operation but rather a classical case of what Willem van Schendel and Abraham Itty have described in the volume _Illicit flows and criminal things: _cross-border trade that is not considered illicit by the communities engaging in it, yet technically remains illegal. My guess is that somebody has not received what he or she considered a fair share in makeing such a transaction possible. Rs 1.5 crore are more then USD 300,000. This is a considerable loss, and in all likelyhood it was not some rich crime syncidate that suffered it. I know of a very similar story in which a village collectively invested in such a deal and lost most of their savings when their goods were confiscated at the Indian border. That was more than ten years ago and the village still suffers from it.

The report goes on to mentions that “sources said that cops have also found some quantity of shatoosh wool”. Shatoosh wool is from poached Tibetan antilopes – an endangered species. Unlike Pashmina, it is banned from international trade. But the logic at work here equates the illegality and illicitness of poaching to the long-standing tradition of trans-Himalayan trade.