Trading Blows

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Kashmir’s trade and industry is confronted with certain basic issues. But the situation in which it operates for the last nearly 30 years, the sector has not remained immune to what it costs so hugely. The situational activism has given the trade bodies a stage but has undermined their importance and that is why it exists in fragments, reports Shams Irfan

J&K Finance Minister Dr Haseeb Drabu speaking to diplomats and investors at a PHD Chamber event on March 9, 2018

In December 2012, when Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), was allowed to plead and represent trade-related issues concerning Jammu and Kashmir, with the USA, it created a storm in Srinagar, where most of the local traders’ bodies are headquartered. The first one to react was Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), one of the oldest trade bodies in Kashmir with a history of over nine decades.

Constituted in 1924, KCCI came into being with an aim to promote business, trade, commerce, economic growth and bilateral trade. But that was not for the first time that trade bodies in Kashmir felt undermined by “external forces”.

The reason apex trade bodies like KCCI, Federation Chamber of Industry Kashmir (FCIK) and Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF), felt isolated was the promotion of fringe trade bodies. Since 1990, a number of parallel trade bodies, backed by vested interests, have come up at the cost of institutional credibility and stability in conflict-ridden Kashmir.

“There are both internal and external factors with ulterior motives that have divided trader bodies in Kashmir,” Shakeel A Qalander, an industry lobbyist, said. “It is a process not so new. This is unfortunate that we are divided.”

Given the complexity of place where these trade bodies operate, attempts are made to push people to the top of these institutions so that they serve certain interests.

“In past few elections, there were attempts by some sections in the government to get their men elected to the top posts,” said Qalander. “These external hands work covertly to sabotage genuine voices from taking lead roles.”

Industry insiders believe that such attempts are made to control the criticism against the government. In certain cases, it is aimed at pushing an agenda. “It has become a trend now to seek praises rather than listen to the positive criticism. This trend first stated in mainland India and then slowly travelled to Kashmir,” said an insider.

As a result, there are multiple trade organizations operating in Kashmir right now. There are less trade and more trade unionists. For example, in tourism sector alone there are at least half-a-dozen organizations representing different voices, trying to address an almost same set of issues. “There are separate organizations representing Haj and Umrah tour and travel operators,” said Qalander. “This shows how fragmented this small space in Kashmir is.”

But the larger question remains why there are multiple organizations representing the same section of businesses in Kashmir. “There is a practice in vogue that some people hang on to power even after losing elections,” said Qalander. “When they don’t succeed in retaining the post, they end up floating a new organization under their leadership.”

An insider who wishes not to be named said: “These people who run dummy factions are the ones promoted by the government for its own vested interests.”

Traditionally, there were three organisations that would represent the entire trade and manufacturing activities of Kashmir. KCCI, an upgrade of the erstwhile Beopar Mandal was the main body. Later, Kashmir retailers created their own association. And finally, the Federation of Chambers of Industries Kashmir (FCIK) came into being as the main spokesperson for the budding industry. All the three were doing well within the limitations they had and the differences they evolved with. But eventually, they were supplementing each other. This, however, had no bar on the smaller associations that would represent particular markets or the industrial estates.

Unlike the days of peaceful Kashmir, the new situation forced a new agenda on these trade bodies. Apart from promoting trade and commerce, KCCI has often tried to voice their concerns regarding the ongoing situation in Kashmir. It has been demanding the removal of controversial laws like AFSPA. Also, the apex trade body presses the government for initiating a dialogue between India, Pakistan and people of Kashmir. “Trade will only flourish when there is a certain level of security,” said Javed Ahmad Tenga, the incumbent president KCCI.

Taking up issues linked with the security was resented by the system at the peak of 2008 unrest. The government worked over time to create an alternative platform to the KCCI. It did not succeed to the extent but the division took place.

Seeking a solution to the Kashmir issue, Tenga says KCCI is trying to revive the old glory of Kashmir’s once famed handicrafts sector. “We are working to help revive this sector. In this regard we have participated in a number of exhibitions outside Kashmir,” said Tenga.

Mohammed Yaseen Khan, president Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF) and Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEI), shares almost same concerns and blames ongoing situation in Kashmir for division and confusion. “When you are in a conflict such things will happen,” said Khan.

So who are the legitimate voices representing trade and commerce in Kashmir? “Those who were there before the start of militancy in Kashmir,” said Qalander. “All others who came into the scene after that is created by vested interests and with their own agenda.”

Apart from KCCI, FCIK, KTMF, KEI, there are other bodies including, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association (KHARA), Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Federation (KHARF), Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK), House Boat Owners Association (HBO), Transport Associations and Fruit Growers Association among others.

“There is an attempt to shadow local organizations by giving space to much bigger bodies like PHD Chamber of Commerce, FICCI and CII etc,” said Qalander. “This will undermine our legitimacy in an already crowded small space.”

The entry of the central trade bodies is an interesting twist to the division of the trade in Kashmir. When CII started its local chapter in J&K, they made a strong choice. Almost all the major companies across J&K were picked up as members. When it was public, it created a situation that it became an exclusive club of the top businesses who were delinked with the real retail trade on the ground. “This triggered animosities,” one senior trader said. “Members of the larger trading fraternity was looking towards them for some sort of leadership but they join a non-state body thus excluding all of us.”

Major trade bodies like CII, PHD Chamber of Commerce and FICCI were facing their own problems in their display of presence. They needed faces from Kashmir especially at a time when Kashmir was in sharp offshore focus. At the same time, these associations shave access to huge resources and official sponsorships. They also have direct linkages with major institutional infrastructure that facilitates trade, industry, export and raw material and the market. Members of CII from J&K are getting free rides to world-class interactions on trade and emerging market education. The availability of resource and networking was at display early March when PHD Chamber of Commerce hosted an event for diplomats and investors in Delhi on Jammu and Kashmir. A huge event, that saw a massive participation, also proved the last major speech of J&K’s finance minister Dr Haseeb Drabu.

“In a way, the entry of these associations into the state indicates a failure of the KCCI,” one insider said. “For many years now it is still not emerging to the challenges of institution building, they do not look towards their Jammu counterparts.”

In contrast to the KCCI, FCIK was still more democratic but it faced a peculiar situation.

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