Fight to Chew

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He managed to complete his studies by ferrying school children in an autorickshaw after college. Then to start a mobile restaurant he literally camped outside government offices. Ubeer Naqushbandi tells his story   

Chew-and-Brew-Pic

In 2007, Sajjad Ahmad Bhat, a student at Amar Singh College, would ‘disappear’ after classes, raising curiosity among his classmates and a few teachers.  One day, after classes were over, a Professor got hold of  Sajjad and enquired about his hasty exit. A resident of Wazir Bagh in Srinagar, Sajjad, hesitantly told him that he drives an autorickshaw after college to drop school going children home. This is his only means of income. “I am an orphan since I was six month old,” Sajjad told him plainly. He was raised by his maternal uncles.

Touched by Sajjad’s dedication and hard-work, the said Professor didn’t mind his absence from the campus.

After completing his graduation in the same year, Sajjad decided to apply for a MBA programme. But his meagre income hindered his plans. “I was eager to do an MBA, but poverty held my dreams hostage,” says Sajjad.

With no option left Sajjad continued ferrying school children in his autorickshaw. “Besides I started working as an LIC agent,” said Sajjad. “I wanted to earn and save for MBA.”

But, despite working fourteen hours a day, Sajjad was not able to save enough. “I could just manage to run my family with this income,” said Sajjad.

Then, on a friend’s advice, Sajjad applied for a student’s loan from a local bank. “I joined Pune’s BVP University for an MBA programme,” said Sajjad.

During his two year stay in Pune, Sajjad utilised the night time to work in call centres. In 2009, after completing his degree, Sajjad got a job in Bajaj Alliance. “I worked there for six months,” said Sajjad.

He also had brief stints at Infosys and County Club. Finally Sajjad got a job as manger at Kashmir House restaurant in Pune. “I had a small stake in this restaurant as well,” said Sajjad.

Everything was going as per plan for Sajjad till the floods of September 2014, devastated major part of Srinagar city. “As soon as I got the news of floods, I flew back immediately,” said Sajjad.

His home in Wazir Bagh area of Srinagar was in ruins. In his absence, his brother, his sister-in-law, and grandmother had worked tirelessly to clear the rubble left behind by flood waters. “For next few months I got busy with renovating the house,” said Sajjad.

Once the renovation part was done Sajjad began hunting for options to earn something for survival. “Working at a typical ten to four office was not possible for me anymore,” said Sajjad.

Then Sajjad, who was always fertile with business ideas, learned about special financial assistance offered by Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI) Pampore, for unemployed youth.

Without losing time Sajjad visited EDI office and discussed his idea of starting a mobile food outlet with the institute’s director. “Then on director’s recommendation I approached the bank for necessary financial assistance,” said Sajjad.

But things proved quite difficult for Sajjad once the bank authorities asked for a clearance certificate from Srinagar Municipal Cooperation (SMC), Industries and Commerce Department, Labour Department, Food and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) and Transport Department.

“I managed all certificates except an NOC from State Transport Department,” said Sajjad.

To plead his case Sajjad met Transport Commissioner Khateeb.

“There is no such provision for your kind of case. We have never received such a request before,” Khateeb told Sajjad. “Still we will discuss your case in STA meeting.”

When Sajjad came to know that STA meetings are held after months depending on the urgency, he started visiting Transport office on daily basis. “I knew one more step and it’s done,” said Sajjad.  But that one step wasted six months of Sajjad. “Finally I was granted light automobile permission for a particular route,” said Sajjad. “But that was not what I needed. I wanted registration of my mobile restaurant,” said Sajjad.

Despite losing six precious months of his life, Sajjad once again geared himself and visited Transport Commissioner. “I was told he is in Jammu because of annual darbur move,” said Sajjad.

The next day Sajjad reached Jammu and went to meet the commissioner at his office. “But the lower rung officials, who knew me because of my frequent visits, fumed at me,” recalls Sajjad. They were unhappy to see Sajjad’s dedication. “We cannot help you beyond what we have already done. Stop bothering us,” was what they told Sajjad.

But Sajjad was determined to meet Transport Commissioner at least once. “After much resistance I was finally allowed to meet him,” recalls Sajjad.

Like a desperate lawyer Sajjad told him that under Sec A of Transport Act, there is a provision that a vehicle with less than 3000 kg gross weight can be granted permission to operate.

After listening to Sajjad for a while the commissioner replied, “Now I got it. Your case comes under RTO Kashmir.”

Finally, the commissioner gave Sajjad a recommendation letter addressed to RTO Kashmir. This helped Sajjad get necessary certificate for loan disbursement.

In May 2016, Sajjad’s mobile food van ‘Chew and Brew’ was on the roads. The nine feet long van is equipped with modern kitchen that serves chicken biryani, chicken tandori, chicken shawarma etc. “This is a take away mobile restaurant only,” said Sajjad.

So far Sajjad is able to start ‘Chew’ part of the restaurant only, ‘Brew’ will be added soon.  “I will add fresh juices, Chinese cuisine and mutton dishes to the menu soon,” said Sajjad.

Sajjad’s day starts at 8 AM from his kitchen in Wazir Bagh. After preparing day’s recipe and loading them into his van Sajjad drives towards Lal Ded Hospital. His next stop is near Silk Factory Rajbagh. “I have permission to move between these two spots only,” said Sajjad.

Despite floating ads in local newspapers not a single Kashmiri chef turned up for the job. “I wanted to employ locals but ended up hiring four Nepalese instead,” said Sajjad.

From an autorickshaw driver to an MBA and now a mobile restaurant owner, Sajjad’s journey is full of twists and turns. “The response so far is good,” said Sajjad.

Encouraged by the response, recently Sajjad took his mobile van to Nishat area, but was turned back by the traffic cops. “They told me that all modified vehicles need to be registered for plying on this route,” said Sajjad.  “I want to explore business options beyond the allotted two points.”

Sajjad has already applied for registration to ply on Nishat route. “To establish a business in Kashmir is very challenging,” said Sajjad. “One has to fight his way to the top.”

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