Loss at Lethpora

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For an improved quality of travel, the new highway bypassed all the major markets barring Lethpora and Sangam. But, Muhammad Younis reports that behind the trendy shop-line are stories of struggle, loss and hope

At noon, Aijaz Ahmad Reshi is reclined on a spacious sofa, in his dry fruit shop, Evergreen Kesar, at Lethpora. His puffy eyes suggest him being sleepy. But even if he falls asleep, he has nothing to feel concerned about. His three salesmen will attend to the customers. On an average, more than half a dozen tourist vehicles pull over near his shop.

But it wasn’t always like that. In 2010, Reshi started with a small steel shed, to sell saffron, kernels, and few varieties of snacks and juice, sparsely scattered on the shelves, across the interiors of the structure. Then, business wasn’t so big and he was the lone manager of the shop. The situation took an abrupt shift after the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) opened the new four-lane project from Qazigund to Srinagar. While it abandoned all of the main markets along the road, the project helped Lethpora market to survive. With footfalls and the bus halts improved, Aijaz felt the requirement of a bigger business space so he started constructing a new shop in 2015.

“Since the new road bypassed Islamabad, Bijbehara, Awantipora and Pampore, the customers, mainly tourists, who used to halt at the respective spots, now pull over their vehicles near our shops,” Aijaz said. “It has increased our market.”

Within days, the dry fruit varieties in Reshi’s shop increased to nearly three dozen. The shop became the source of livelihood to around half a dozen households. A salesman, with a couple of years’ experience, draws more than Rs 10,000 from Reshi’s shop, in addition to incentives which even cross Rs 12,000, a month.

Lethpora is a village in Pulwama district but has remained part of history for more than a millennium. It owes its name to Lalitadatya, the king of Karkota dynasty (625 – 885 AD).

The highway cuts through the village, dividing it into almost equal halves. Comprising of 828 families, most of 6131 residents are growing agriculture, saffron, almonds and walnuts. Part of the highway town is located on the boundary of a vast Saffron field.

A decade back, driving along the highway, nothing worthwhile would catch eyeballs in the village. An obtrusive view of infrequent dunghills on both sides of the road would pose a question mark on the town planners. A single wooden structure, abutting the road, was the only shop found. It belonged to Noor Muhammad Bhat, a person believed to be the founder of the dry fruit market.

During the 1980’s, the wooden structure, Bhat’s grocery store would attend to the domestic needs of the residents. As time passed, Bhat added saffron, honey, walnut and almonds to his basket. Since the locals also produced these things, he couldn’t attract any domestic customers for the same. However, the army convoys, passing along the highway on daily basis, would, once in a while, halt near his shop.

“I would help my father with the soldier customers sometimes,” said Abdul Jabbar, Bhat’s elder son. “The profits weren’t much but earnings would make both the ends meet of the family.”

With the rise of militancy, the business showed a downtrend. A decade after, around 2000, there were signs of revival. Not only Jabbar, but his two younger brothers were also drawn towards their father’s shop. In 2007, they laid the foundation of a two storey building, encompassing about 18 shops. But in 2014, the same had to be razed down because of the construction of the four-lane.

Sitting in a well-furnished shop, which Bhat brothers have taken on rent now, Jabbar thanks the family stars for the good profits. For six shops, situated on either side of the road, the brothers are managing; they pay a monthly rent of Rs 30, 000.

After the new highway, the value of the Lethpora market has grown to such an extent that for a single shutter, the set rent is Rs 5000. Almost 70 per cent of the market is rented out. Until 2012, a kanal of land would cost Rs 60 lakhs. Now nobody sells land, they construct shops instead. “But if someone wants to sell his land, the cost won’t be less than a crore rupees a kanal,” says Reshi. “The rates are going phenomenally up.”

In spite of huge rent, is higher in comparison to many other markets, traders from different areas, including Srinagar, Islamabad, Tangmarg, Kulgam and Baramulla, were attracted towards the market. Currently, there are around 50 dry fruit shops working in the market, jewellery shops, a couple of restaurants besides tea stalls and departmental stores. Recently Mahendra and Apollo have also set up their offices here.

A salesman at a dry fruit shop said he sells items worth a lakh rupees daily. “If the season is good, it could go higher,” he said, pleading anonymity. “From a minimum of Rs 7000, I have customers who purchased material up to Rs 80,000.”

Improved business has influenced the culture of the people. Along the course of the highway, the shops exhibit a sort of modernity. The style is generously exhibited in the upcoming houses too. “Till recently, we had no interaction with people from faraway lands,” Reshi said. “Now routine has changed, we need to be polished like good mannered people. We have changed.”

The flip side of the ‘change’ is also important. Since the market depends to a large extent on tourists, anything untoward has a huge bearing on the promising market.

“The start of the current season was promising but as the situation in Shopian deteriorated in April, there was less of a tourist flow,” says Abdul Qayoom Rather of Alamdar Restaurant. “Delhi TV by putting trivial incidents in an over-exaggerated form; make the valley an insecure place to visit.”

Before setting up his restaurant, Rather ran Hotel Shifaf at Rainawari in Srinagar. The new road attracted him towards Lethpora. “It is comparatively the safest place along the highway, and if tourists want to buy something, they, for sure will stop here,” Rather said. “So, I took a shop on rent.”

People who fly to Srinagar or drive in, nobody can bypass Lethpora, especially if they wish to visit Pahalgam. It is 2 pm, Rather is busy with a small family from Saudi Arabia. From the morning, they might be his second customers. He had enough time to talk. “For the last couple of months, it is going on like that,” says Rather, with concern. “There was a time when in a day we would earn Rs 30000 per day, but now it is barely Rs 6000 now.”

For a kitchen with a dining room, Rather would pay a rent of Rs 23000. After Burhan’s killing in 2016, when the business almost collapsed, the owner reduced the rent by Rs 8000. “I am scared of the situation.”

Already, Rather has sent half of his six workers home. During early 2015, he started with totally vegetarian foods. As tourists footfalls faded, he added non-veg. “Locals are very fond of non-veg foods and it is helping me to survive,” he said.

In the same building, opposite to Rather’s restaurant, is Sheikh Wood Carving. Decorated with a wide range of wooden sculptures of birds, animals, besides small items like bowls, trays, cigarette boxes, wall plaques and table lamps to screens, bedsteads and larger items of furniture with intricate patterns carved on them, the shop is not getting any customers. In the last three months, the only exercise in the shop is a morning mop-up. Sheikh drives from his Nowhatta home to his shop every morning and leaves without making a single transaction.

The main customers of Sheikh’s products are from plains. Usually, the Amarnath pilgrims would make a purchase here, but, this year they aren’t being allowed by the security personnel to stop here. Early this season, there were a couple of squabbles between the shopkeepers and CRPF personnel over the new trend. “When we ask them (the security men) why they don’t allow the pilgrims to stop here, they say they have to follow the orders from above, and they can’t do anything about it,” Sheikh said.

Now, Sheikh hopes, the conclusion of incident-free yatra will withdraw these orders and maybe tourists start halting in Lethpora again.

The grim market situation has led a few dry fruit sellers and a restaurant owner to end rent contracts and vacate the market. “Only those who own land and shops here have prospects to grow; rest have to take a risk,” one of them said.

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