On Tuesday, Delhi High Court issued a notice on the plea moved by Pashmina Exporters and Manufacturing Association (PEMA) seeking a direction to improve, augment and enhance existing forensic testing of Shahtoosh (Tibetan Antelope) shawls. The petition demands modern ‘Scanning Electron Microscopic’ technology and DNA testing procedures in the labs.
The plea has been moved by three unions of exporters, manufacturers, traders, and artisans of Pashmina shawls. Their grievance is that customs and criminal prosecutions are initiated against the stakeholders of Pashmina trade on the premise that their consignments for export carry articles ‘suspected to be shahtoosh guard hair’ and such actions are adversely impacting the industry.
The petition states, “The petitioners stand aggrieved of customs and criminal prosecutions initiated against innocent stakeholders in the Pashmina trade on the premise that their consignments for export carry articles ‘suspected to be shahtoosh guard hair’, that adversely impact the industry at large. The sole basis of these prosecutions emanates from forensic reports that are issued by the forensic science laboratories using technologically obsolete methods ‘Light Microscopy’, that erroneously conclude various exporters’ consignments to be positive for Shahtoosh ‘guard hair‘.”
It also added that consequent to such forensic reports, the accused stakeholders are subjected to onerous customs proceedings, huge monetary losses, huge delays in the release of seized shipments leading to loss of business, loss of reputation, mental harassment, and agony, as well as the initiation of multiple criminal proceedings and potential incarceration.
The petition moved through advocate Tanvir Ahmed Mir has impleading the Ministry of Environment, forest and climate change, the Ministry of Textiles, the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, the Central Board of Direct Taxes and Customs, the Zoological Survey of India, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Bureau of India Standard (BIS), The Export promotion council for handicrafts as respondents.
The petitioners said that there are only two dedicated wildlife forensic science laboratory by the state, namely the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, as well as the Zoological Survey of India, Kolkata, both of which employ Light Microscopy upon being directed to examine various consignments suspected to be ‘shahtoosh’.
This technology is only able to observe the morphology of the hair and the physical characteristics of Pashmina and Shahtoosh fibres are similar in terms of physical properties and tangibility, which make it nearly impossible to distinguish on the basis of morphological characteristics, most particularly while using the standard Light Microscopy method.
The petition also contended that Despite making all efforts to ensure quality control, many times it is noticed that the shawl which is otherwise 100% pure pashmina and manufactured/weaved from pashmina wool contains a few stray ‘guard hairs’ superficially or somehow contamination found belonging to different species or for that matter of Tibetan Antelope (Chiru) / Shahtoosh.
However, it is to be noted that accidentally falling hair is a case of contamination and by no stretch of the imagination can be said to constitute trading an illegal item or ‘Animal Article’ as defined under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
The petitioners pleaded that in spite of superior forensic testing methods, the laboratories are still using the obsolete testing methods which are giving false positives and initiating customs as well as criminal prosecutions.
The plea was noticed by a division bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad. The bench has listed the matter in November for further hearing.