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The almost 12 weeks of curfews and strike are exacting a heavy toll on Kashmir – livelihoods, education, businesses and above all young lives. A Kashmir Life report.

Rashid is a coppersmith. He lives in Badamwari belt of the city’s Fort area with his wife and children. He works near the Jamia Masjid. What makes him different from other coppersmiths is that he neither owns the shop, nor the utensils. He makes a living by nickel coating copper utensils.
 
“It is over two months now that I did not work,” Rashid said. “I used to make around Rs 3000-5000 a month.” He kills his day roaming around, praying and fasting. During these days a local relief group gave him some amount once and that was it. He foresees very bad days for himself if the situation does not change.

The third summer crisis, now in the twelfth week has taken a huge toll of civilian lives and the economy of the place. Scores of youth are still admitted in hospitals across Kashmir and many of them would be crippled for the rest of their lives. The crisis erupted at the peak of summer, a productive work season. Over half a million tourists had visited Kashmir and people had drawn elaborate business plans at their respective levels.

“Right now everything is over,” said Yasir Ahmad, a businessman. “The tourist season is over and the airport is (will be) closed in September for a fortnight. Marriage season that would help a wide range of traders and professionals to make their earnings is over and the constructions are now almost impossible as the temperature is down and nothing major (work) can happen in two months time.”

Kashmir has a narrow industry base and the crisis has hit it hard. “I believe majority of the loans to industry will go bad,” said industry chieftain Shakeel Qalender, who has been appointed to Dr C Rangarajan’s panel by Prime Minister for identifying jobs. There is no work and no earnings, so there is likelihood of default increasing.

“Units which have massive local demands are unable to work and in scores of cases entrepreneurs have downsized their organizations.” A ply-board manufacturer was keen to invest in a polymer unit. “Now he is diverting the same amount to set up a hotel near Katra,” he added.

Some of the Greenfield industrial projects that were about to go into generation have delayed further. Qalander says there are small projects worth Rs 200 crore that were at various stages of implementation and have been hit. Many are frozen at the concept stage.

Non-local skilled labourers working in factories here have already left and units having local manpower are unable to work. Industry insiders said merely four percent of the small units are working because they have residential set-ups attached to workplaces. “Even they are unable to sell their goods,” a unit holder said.

Kashmir is a consumer economy. Most of its requirements, from food to FMCGs, are sourced from Jammu, Punjab, Haryana and other places. As the imports have gone down, all these suppliers have taken a hit with their turnover witnessing a nosedive. But despite all this, Jammu is getting benefited by the situation. “We have 25 flour mills in Kashmir, all are locked,” said an entrepreneur, adding, “Right now when almost two-third of the population is consuming hand-made bread (for Ramadhan) entire supplies (of flour) come from Jammu.”

Cement offers a better example. It is a sector in which Kashmir is almost self sufficient. All the manufacturers in Kashmir are closed. “We work as and when the calendar (of strikes by separatists) permits and then there is no production for a long time now, we are somehow consuming the stocks,” said an insider, adding, “A portion of the demand is met by some grinding units from Kathua and we have reports that people who used that cement suffered immense losses.”

Most of the industry could have survived had they been permitted to manufacture and supply during the nights which are otherwise outside the ambit of strikes by separatists and curfews by the government. This could have saved the entrepreneurs from downsizing their organizations.  

Jammu is emerging a hot destination for the business honchos to operate from. State heads of all the cellular services are based in Jammu and now middle rung executives have also shifted there. Even a spice major has started accessing north Indian market from Jammu as strikes and curfews in Kashmir tumbled its sales.

Kashmir has a small IT base – around 25 software and networking companies with a yearly turnover of Rs 40 crore. But the situation is gradually devouring it. Kashmir’s first software company BQE that has its clientele in US is shifting to Jammu. Industry sources said protestors prevented its staff from reaching company’s Rangreth premises and the initiative feared loss of customers.

Same is the case with Musky Software that specializes in banking software and remote management with its client base in America and Africa. “We pleaded with everybody but nobody permitted us to reach the office,” said Musky CEO Fayaz Ahmad. “Now we are in the process of taking a final call of shifting either to Noida or to Jammu.” He said the STPI office that would offer some basic facilities like power-back-up to the IT companies has closed its operations. “Their gate is locked and sealed and it has happened over 50 days back,” he said.

Jehangir Raina, one of the techie chieftains said they are in a dilemma. “It was possible for the government to earmark some facility within the Rangreth Electronic Park where the staffers of the IT companies could stay simply on temporary basis,” he said. He regretted that support to the industry came from neither side.  

Aegis, the Essar group company had invested Rs 25 crores to create Kashmir’s first BPO. After an inordinate delay it was ready this spring. Around 120 appointments were made and testing phase was over. Finally, part of Vodafone business was shifted to it from Lucknow. Then the crisis erupted and everything went off the script. “We do have the employees on rolls but they are not working,” an insider said. “All the leaders of the team were shifted out of valley for the time being.”

If anybody is working in the world class BPO, it is the security guard who man its gates, now opened rarely.

Banks are losing big money these days. At least one private bank has started laying off the staff. Another is under intense pressure to shift to Jammu. “We were told that the expansion plans will have to wait,” an HDFC official was recently quoted saying. The bank is going slow even in case of ATMs within the capital city. J&K Bank the leader in the banking could have problems as its operations remained closed for all these days. Unlike 2008 agitation when it managed to work, it became comparatively difficult in 2010 for a varied set of reasons.

“It pains to see the faces that you knew for years going home with tears in their eyes,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, who recently witnessed a major hotel disengaging 35 employees in one week and 20 in another week. “The hotel owner says that since the occupancy has gone down to zero, he will require a few security guards and a cook.”

Compared to all earlier years, the tourist arrivals this year were the best. Home Minister P Chidambaram recently said that 516970 tourists had visited J&K which was much more than 355960 arrivals of 2009. Even the 456 thousand Hindu pilgrims to the cave shrine of Amarnath – during the crisis period, were 23 percent more than that of 2009.

Arrivals had encouraged many entrepreneurs in the hospitality sector to invest in new infrastructure and repairs. But the fall in occupancy has proved all these decisions as bad initiatives as capital is blocked.  “Layoffs are a reality,” said a hospitality sector insider. “No entrepreneur in this part of the world can pay the staff beyond three months if it has to come from overdrafts.”

Education is a critical concern. One is the student community that is resting at home for over two months now. The second is the private schools most of whom are indebted to banks. Reports suggest that Delhi Public School is making arrangements for around 200 of its students in Delhi on the request of their parents.

Authorities hinting that there will be no change in the schedule of examinations have started worrying the parents. PDP, state’s principal opposition party recently suggested that the examinations be deferred to March. Separatists had suggested community schools in localities but it did not take off. The same way relief organizations could not make an impressive start.

One of the major worries is that most of the orphanages and other social and relief organizations were managing most of the funds in Ramadhan (the Muslim month of fasting). It was not less than Rs 14 crore. They may make part of these funds if and when situation becomes normal, but it will dent their efforts to expand and grow. The crisis has limited their activities to the campuses they own.

All the developmental projects have come to a grinding halt. Hindustan Construction Corporation that is setting up the 330-MW Kishanganga Power Project has stopped work. Railways has also stopped implementing its projects and most of the staff that was running the Srinagar-Anantnag rail service left the state in July in wake of some unruly attacks on railway infrastructure.

The major worry in the civil secretariat is that what will happen to developmental funds that will remain unspent in wake of the prolonged unrest. “Ministers in Jammu have asked all the departments to increase their work targets four fold,” a middle rung officer in the civil secretariat told Kashmir Life. “They have in mind that the money that would remain unspent in Kashmir will eventually be transferred to Jammu.”

Interestingly when all these concerns are being raised with the government authorities, they are willing to add many more instances of inconvenience and loss. Ask separatists, they have only one answer – “we do not want to be on strike but suggest us the other option for protest.”

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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