Livelihood Concerns

Insisting that they have nothing to do with politics, Jammu Chamber sponsored daylong protest strike put a basket of livelihood issues in the public domain, Tahir Bhat reports

Trade leaders in a symbolic protest outside the office of Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Pic Shilpa Thakur

At a time when Jammu was paralysed by the protest strike, the first after the undoing of the symbolic special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, Lt Governor, Manoj Sinha drove to Jammu Haat with Dr Jitendra Singh, an MoS in Prime Minister’s Office. It was obvious that he would react to the desertion of the streets sponsored by the Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI) with the support of the entire political class barring the ruling BJP.

Asserting that the Government money for him is like Gau-Mass, beef (Hindus treat cow as sacred), Sinha said he would ensure that every single penny must get into the development of Jammu and Kashmir. Then he directly came to the subject, though preferring Durbar Move over all other things that the Chamber had highlighted to justify their strike.

“Some say Darbar Move will hit the economy. I came here on August 7 last year and I saw 200 trucks loaded with files moving (from one capital city to another after every six months). It consumed lot of time, And when a file was called for some work, it was found misplaced,” Jammu newspaper Daily Excelsior quoted Sinha saying. It was then and there that a decision was taken that e-offices must be made fully functional. Once it started operating, the workforce was asked tyo vacate the government accommodation and the end to the practice of moving offices saved Rs 200 crore. “It (Durbar Move) was a big racket which some persons wanted to sustain.”

Before concluding, Sinha shared his thought process with the audience. “For common man and traders, we will do everything that is required. All steps will be taken for the welfare and development of the people,” the LG said. “But those who think that Jammu and Kashmir will run the way they want, I think they are badly mistaken.”

The Protest

The day-long protest by the JCCI was a bit embarrassing for the government in Jammu and Delhi because the trade body has never been critical of the decision-making on Jammu and Kashmir. Even while calling for the protest, they ensured that their strike should not be seen or projected as a counter to the decision on August 5, 2019, when Article 370 was read down and Article 35A scrapped with Jammu and Kashmir emerging into two Union Territories.

“A wrong message is being spread that the bandh was against abrogation of Articles 370 and 35-A. This is not correct,” JCCI President, Arun Gupta told reporters. “Big business houses had come to Jammu even when there was Article 370 including Best Price. The Chamber has no political agenda.”

Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, Union Minister DR Jitendra Singh inaugurate Jammu Haat on September 22, 2021. Pic: DIPR

Gupta said the protest was against the livelihood issue as some of the policies of the government have hit the routine life of the trade. The issues and the tensions were piling up for a long time but the reported permission to 50 Reliance Retail Stores (excluding three in Kashmir) in Jammu was the immediate trigger.

What was interesting was the Reliance Retail Stores boards becoming invisible from Jammu overnight. The chain also issued a statement that they are not opening the stores. Gupta, however, termed the statement “misleading”.

The protest was complete and violence-free. Authorities also avoided getting into hyper mode apparently to save the situation and ensure the protest passes incident-free.

Gupta led a symbolic rally outside the Chamber House accusing the “deaf and dumb” government of failure in safeguarding the traders’ interests. “The only reason behind this resentment is the lopsided policies of the Government towards the business community of the (Jammu) region,” Gupta asserted, apparently to plug a possibility of getting dragged into larger politics and Kashmir. He also said the civil and police administration at the divisional level had invited him for talks and he will take his Chamber into confidence and decide.

The Issues

This, however, did not mean that the Jammu trade did not encounter livelihood issues. In anticipation of the protest, the Chamber leaders highlighted every single issue.

The first major intervention, Gupta earlier said was the permission to the non-locals for mining in Jammu and Kashmir. Though it happened in Kashmir as well, Gupta did highlight the crisis the Jammu’s traditional lease-holders faced after they were elbowed out of the competition. He said almost 60 per cent of the leaseholders are not from Jammu and Kashmir.  The intervention led to the massive rise in the costs of the construction material and reached a level where a section of the society stopped thinking about constructing homes.

Thousands of families, Gupta said on September 18, have lost their livelihood because of intervention in the mining sector. Besides, he pointed out, consumers were exposed to exploitation by a mining syndicate.

Banquet Halls

Marriage in Kashmir as well as in Jammu are huge, expensive and fad social events. Unlike Kashmir, Jammu has an impressive culture of banquet halls, which are spread over huge swathes, mostly in the periphery of the city.

Owing to Covid19 SOPs, authorities have put restrictions on the number of guests invited to the functions. Gupta said the policy must consider the size of the banquet hall in deciding the number of invitees. Currently, it is 25 but, off late, it has been doubled to 50. These halls are literal resorts manned by scores of staff. Gupta said the pandemic has already broken the backbone of trade and the government must consider the state of trade that is fighting for survival.

Traders and Ware House Federation in a symbolic protest on September 22 in Nehru Market, Jammu. Pic Shilpa Thakur

Liquor Business

Apart from being the winter capital, Jammu has always remained the main hub of liquor manufacturing as well as consumption. Dozens of families are associated with the trade.

Last year, Jammu and Kashmir under New Excise Policy opted for e-auction of the licenses. As the results were out, Gupta said more than 200 liquor traders had lost their wine shops as they failed to get the license. In anticipation of the policy, the traders had said around 30,000 people will be impacted by the outcome.

At the same time, he added, the liquor bars were also closed briefly for want of no-objection certificates from as many as 20 departments. Reading a harassment in the move, Gupta said the intention was that the owners would close down their bars, thus, “giving an opportunity to the outsiders” to get in. The region has around 250 liquor bars, he said.

Nearly, 250 liquor bars are running in J&K including in private hotels and clubs. The above move of the Government as badly affected their livelihood in large. “We have requested the Government several times in this regard but Government is not paying any attention,” Gupta regretted.

In April, after the e-auction of 228 shops, the government said there were 800 competitors and it fetched Rs 140 crore for a year against a paltry income of Rs 10 crore earlier. While two shops went for Rs three crore each, five fetched more than Rs two crore, 34 were given on one crore rupees each and 51 others got more than Rs 50 lakh each. This, they said, was a 14 times growth in income to the Consolidated Fund. What was interesting, around 20 existing licensees could retain their shops.

Interestingly, the liquor shop in Srinagar’s Cantonment Board, fetched a revenue of Rs 3.46 crore.

Now the families impacted by the intervention are seeking intervention. “We were in the wine trade for five decades and the sudden government decision to introduce e-auction was protested by us as we were aware that we are not in a position to compete with proxy bidders and retain the source of our livelihood,” Jammu Wine Traders’ Association (JWTA) president Charanjeet Singh said. “The government has left us hapless. We have huge liabilities like housing and vehicle loans. How will we clear these liabilities?” He claimed two of the traders, a man and a woman, died in May due to the depression after losing their licence.

Durbar Move

The archaic tradition of moving the civil government offices from Srinagar to Jammu and vice versa was highlighted as a key crisis to the Jammu economy. Trade leaders admitted that the government saved Rs 200 crore but the Jammu economy lost around Rs 1000 crore, which the Kashmiri families would spend during winters.

In the last 30 years, Kashmir is a major contributor to Jammu’s real estate and hundreds of families have invested in the construction of spaces that would be routinely rented out to Kashmiri families. With the darbar halted, this income is expected to drastically get down. This, however, may not impact the movement of the families who have constructed alternative housing units in Jammu and its peripheries.

Chamber leaders said the practice in vogue for around 150 years has created inter-regional inter-dependence and a sort of bonding, which will be an additional loss.

Other Issues

Gupta also highlighted the issue of Mahajan, Khatri, Sikhs and Jains being allegedly prevented from purchasing agricultural lands in Jammu and Kashmir. He sought a policy review. Besides, the Chamber leaders regretted that while 300 members of the parliament visited the length and breadth of Kashmir, barring a few, nobody visited Jammu.

However, Dr Singh, speaking at the same event where Lt Governor spoke, said the new investment will not hit the local employment. “Whatever will be the merit of their (trade) concern will be addressed. We all have to address their grievances,” Dr Singh said while suggesting that the traders can fly to Delhi where he will arrange their meetings with the concerned ministers. “We have to ensure that single businessman should not feel unattended.”

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