Quite Streets

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Five weeks later, ground zero is not offering any indication that would suggest an early turnaround in Kashmir situation, reports Shams Irfan

For the first time in Kashmir’s chequered history valley is shut for last five weeks without a formal call for shut-down. Literally nobody is sponsoring the strike.

After the initial confusion following the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A on August 5, a new routine has emerged across Kashmir in which markets remain open for three hours in morning from between 6 AM and in the evening after 6 PM. For rest of the day businesses, schools, and other private institutions remain shut.

Barring Srinagar’s civil line areas and some uptown localities, life is struggling to limp back to normalcy in major parts of the valley. Even small towns and villages are observing a strict shutdown on their own. What add to the confusion are random posters and letters pasted in mosques asking people to follow the new routine and timing. But the authenticity of these posters and letters has not been established so far.

A number of these posters were seen in Shopian, Pulwama, Sopore, Srinagar, Pampore etc. Recently police arrested eight people in Sopore who they claimed were responsible for making and distributing these posters.

What added to the crisis is silence of the cell phones. Before the fixed landlines were restored fully people would travel from different parts of Kashmir to Srinagar and other areas to make phone calls. Long queues were a common site outside PCO’s which people had almost forgotten after mobile phones were introduced in Kashmir. Using internet is still a luxury. For around 200 journalists, government had provided one telephone and five computers with internet facility. Now four more computers were added at the Srinagar based facility.

But journalists were not the only ones whose work is dependent on the internet. Unlike earlier days, small traders used to place their orders and check samples on whatsapp, a cell phone application, and other social media platforms. The world had literally shrunken for everyone. It was a matter a seconds for parents to reach out to their kids studying in universities in Indian cities and abroad using Skype or whatsapp video calling facility. These parents were seen waiting in long lines outside police stations and other government facilities, where landlines worked, to call their loved ones. It took a week for a resident of Srinagar to contact his father who had gone to Saudi Arabia for Hajj.

In another instance an uncle causally walked past a graveyard where his young nephew’s funeral was held. He had no idea that his nephew had drowned in the Jhelum while saving a friend that morning. There was no way to inform him either.

But lack of communication also helped some people come out of their virtual worlds and become part of the real world. Families once again started talking to each other over dinner as mobile phones went dead. In last over five weeks kids visited their grandparents along with their super busy parents. Old friends met each other in parks or under Chinar trees instead of chat-rooms and whatsapp groups. Long lost relations got revived as people believed they might not get another chance to say sorry or forgive each other. Expression of love and longing too was done in the old fashioned way. A husband who was visiting Delhi sent his wife, who was at her parent’s house, a letter telling her that he will be away for two day. But not all letters would reach its destination. Some of them remain with messengers who couldn’t make it to their destinations yet.

Even big and extravagant marriages that were pre-planned were toned down and celebrated humbly.

It was like old times that both bride and groom had no news about each other till the day of their marriage. A special curfew pass had to be arranged for the groom who was flying in from Saudi Arabia where he works. His bride had no idea till the last moment if the groom has arrived in Kashmir or not.

With public transportation off the roads since August 5, travelling from one place to another has become a difficult task for people. Every morning, before the deployment of police and paramilitary forces in the area, people wait near market squares and main roads hoping to hitch a ride to their destinations. Interestingly, people stop to offer a ride, these days.

A large number of these people have their appointments fixed with doctors in different hospitals. What adds to the crisis is that most of the specialised healthcare facilities are located in Srinagar and its peripheries.

All schools and colleges are shut since August 5 across Kashmir. Efforts by the authorities to open some primary and high schools could not yield desired results. Government’s failure in opening its own schools discouraged private players from making an effort at all. One school had summoned parents and asked them to drive their wards to the schools but they refused citing the strike and the prevalent situation.

With students confined to their home, most of the schools are now trying to reach them with study materials. But the exercise is largely confined to schools located in Srinagar and its outskirts. There are reports of some community based efforts to help students stay in touch with their studies, but not on a large scale. In rural areas, kids kill their time in local playgrounds playing football, cricket, and volleyball.

In case of Srinagar, where playgrounds are scarce, indoor games like carom and chess are back in vogue. In small alleys of downtown area, one can find people sitting around a carom-board. As only four people can play at a time, others wait for their turn with excitement. “If a team loses three games in a row they have to give way to the next team,” said Ajaz, a resident of downtown. “This is how we kill our time and keep ourselves sane.”

Director (school education), Younis Malik was quoted by Hindustan Times saying that attendance in schools was thin but improving. “The percentage varies from single digit to 20% in different districts,” he has said but did not offer any idea where the schools operate.

All of a sudden, parents say the kids are usually news-hungry in mornings and evenings. “The students are losing a lot of precious time but these days have helped them get quick education about what has happened to the state and why,” one college teacher said on the condition of anonymity. “I am told by parents that their kids are asking them uncomfortable questions and they have to consult people to have a plausible explanation. That is the kind of education that the kids are getting.”

Outside Srinagar, this time of the year is usually busiest for people associated with horticulture. Since mid-July harvesting of cherry kick starts the four month long season of plucking, packing and transporting of the fruit. But with Kashmir shut, sending fruit outside the valley to markets in Indian cities has become a major challenge for growers.

“Almost 80 percent of the pear is sold at loss,” said a grower from Sopore who refused to be named. “A box of pear was sold for just Rs 150 while the same fetched Rs 700 last year. It didn’t even cover our transportation cost, which is highest this year between Rs 60 and 100 for Jammu and Delhi.”

It forced fruit growers to push most of their produce into local market at much lower prices. “But local market has a limited appetite for pears,” said another grower.

However, the real problem is harvesting and transporting apples, which makes bulk of Kashmir’s horticulture annual produce and adds more than Rs 8000 crores to farmer’s kitty. Kashmir produces more than two million tonnes of apple a season and this year it is a bumper cop.

But given the unprecedented situation in major apple producing belts like Shopian, Pulwama, Sopore, and Kulgam, growers have their fingers crossed already.

Compared to Srinagar, these districts witness strict civil curfew and fewer private vehicles plying on the roads during day time. At night, most of the villages in these districts observe graveyard silence with people confining to their houses early. The night silence is because of the security situation. In most of the south Kashmir, the counter-insurgency grid is patrolling the villages.

The government has roped in NAFED to purchase apple from Kashmir. But its budget limitation and lack of experience to manage such a tall order is expected to cost Kashmir much. Insiders in the trade said the NAFED intervention would run riot with the traditional market systems that have evolved over the years.

Governor Satya Pal Malik while launching the Centre’s Special Market Intervention Price Scheme (MISP)  on September 12, at Lal Mundi said the NAFED would procure 12 lkah metric tonnes of the apple crop. He said the C-grade apple that makes almost 40 per cent of the crop, would be procured at 1.5 to three times of the current rate (between Rs 3 to Rs 7 per kg). The apple procurement would be from the local mundis for next six months starting this month.

For the first time in a decade air tickets are at its cheapest but there are no takers. Hotels and houseboats which were booked for months in advance are locked like rest of the Kashmir. Tourist hotspots like Gulmarg and Pahalgam which used to be filled with visitors are empty. “We have stocks worth lakhs or rupees in our shops which will be wasted now,” said a dry-fruit shop owner Lethpora. “This year we anticipated good sales as tourist footfalls were better to Kashmir. But now everything is lost.”

In last few years Lethpora has become a must stop place for tourists who wanted to purchase quality dry-fruit. In anticipation of good tourist footfall, most of the businessmen had purchased dry-fruit in bulk from growers. It has blocked a lot of capital in their inventory.

“We have not been able to open our shop’s shutter in last one month,” said another businessman at Lethpora. “You can imagine what would have happened to dry-fruit in this weather.”

With most of the shops shut across Kashmir, a new and innovative way of selling goods is being practised by a few traders. Every morning, before the self-imposed restrictions would start, small load carrier auto’s carrying vegetables, milk and other basic items would swarm small localities. They sell quickly and leave even more quickly. One can even place an order with these flea-market style traders.

“It seems we were already living like this,” said a young college going girl in Shopian.

Officials say the situation is improving. The government had started the Media Facilitation Centre where the government spokesman would brief the media. The practice has been abandoned apparently because there is nothing new that can be shared. Privately, officials say that Srinagar is witnessing better attendance of government staff in most of the offices and their movement is key to the occasional busy roads during mornings. They also admit that people avoiding an angry response to the August 6, decision-making has helped the situation better.

The government is planning an early durbar move so that the authorities get enough of time in Jammu to prepare the roll out of the two UTs on October 31. There are rumours that possibly the Prime Minister NarendraModi may preside over the function in Jammu.

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