Kashmir has often seen slogans for self reliance, both recently as well as in the past. But the slogans have never moved beyond a dream that still remains a dream. Haroon Mirani reports.
A region whose lifeline is often at the mercy of hostile weather, or neighbours, always tried to rely on its own resources. But self-reliance in Kashmir has never gained ground.
Couple of biscuits, some packed mushrooms, one third of cement demand, plastic pipes, some LCD TVs, wazwan tins, small percentage of non polythene bags and lots of apples. It is not difficult to list the things Kashmir produces.
An industrial exhibition at Exhibition Grounds that concludes this week laid bare the capacity of Kashmir industry. The fifty odd stalls display what Kashmiris produce and convey to a larger extent what they don’t.
A product, any product, that can garner a major share in the Kashmir market or compete with similar products made outside, cannot be seen in the stalls or in the market. The industries whose wares are on display in the exhibition, occupy the fringes of consumer base in Kashmir.
“We produce just 10 to 20 percent of what we consume,” says Shakil Qallander president Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir (FCIK). “We are a consumer state and import goods worth Rupees 30,000 crore every year against the exports figure of just rupees 7000 crore.”
Last year when right wing Hindu activists of Jammu blocked the only road link to Kashmir, the people were left high and dry. Caught between the devil and deep sea, Kashmiris raised the slogan of self-reliance that has been raised many times before too but so far remained a slogan only.
“Self reliance is our dream and we are trying our best in this regard” says Nazir Ahmad Dar president Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI). “But it is not that easy and we have to fight for it as odds are heavily decked against us.”
Most of the industrialists list the system of governance as the major stumbling block in acquiring self reliance.
Dar says, “We understand that government is trying to help the industry but then everything gets held up in the bureaucratic maze and almost nothing trickles down.
“Let me quote an example, KCCI wanted to go for an international exhibition in Dubai which was entirely funded by Government of India. The state government had to just send a recommendation letter to Ministry of Textiles.
“We wrote to everybody who matters in the present system of governance but months have passed and our bureaucrats can’t even manage that simple piece of letter,” laments Dar.
Terming the status of Kashmir industry as not that rosy, Dar says, “The industry has been suffering for the last 20 years and even now the industrial atmosphere is not conducive.”
Even the latest exhibition has been ridiculed by the ‘industrialist’ community.
Gulzar Ahmad, Secretary Shaheeb Ari Cooperative Society, who soled handicrafts at a stall in the exhibition said, “The government started the exhibition after autumn, when almost all tourists have left and winter has started to set in.”
“This should have been organized at the peak of tourist season, which would have enabled us to promote and sell our products to a wider audience.”
One action that could have given impetus to the Kashmiri industry would have been the revival of the sick industries, but as of now nothing is happening in that direction also.
The industrialists are unanimous that whatever the Kashmiri industrialists have achieved is a big success story. “No captain of industry from India, Pakistan or anywhere in the world can bear the brunt of militancy for 20 years and survive, but Kashmiris have and this is a big thing,” says Qallander. “Every industry that has survived here and progressed is a success story.”
Qallander says that now was the time to support these individuals.
Whatever industry have thrived in Kashmir, has mostly been the individual efforts. “You see any industry that has developed to some level in Kashmir has been due to the efforts of our entrepreneurs” says Dar. “They have literally fought with numerous difficulties to reach to that place.”
Most of the industrial progress has been made in the cement sector and handicrafts.
Qallander says that they have the capacity to produce anything provided they are given access to technology and infrastructure.
Jhelum Plastics is another industry that has met some success. Heading the company Mudassir Bashir says, “We started our company in 2001 at Islamabad with machinery worth five lakh rupees and thanks to God we have been progressing.” The company manufactures high density polymer pipes and has the production capacity of around 15 tonnes per year.
Bashir laments the government approach. “What is government doing… Is there proper infrastructure, proper estate, space and other such essentials in place which form the elements of governance.
“Finance is a hurdle as we don’t get money when we want and even if you have a brilliant idea it is useless in the absence of finance,” Bashir says.
Unlike other entrepreneurs the lacklustre attitude of interest by the government has not deterred Bashir from moving ahead. The company is currently on an expansion spree to raise its capacity to 50 tonnes per annum. Basher claims that his company will be North India’s largest.
“But had we got an effective government my turnover would have been twenty times more and it would have been a big industry,” he laments.
Harco factory is one of the oldest food processing units of Kashmir which started operations in forties. Its co-owner Abdul Wahid Harco says that the food processing industry has unlimited scope.
The company cans fruits, vegetables, jams, juices, soups, pickles, wazwan dishes, honey and other such items. However, he says many hurdles hindering the progress of their business could have been overcome if the government exhibited some interest.
“We face double taxation, there is no working capital facility by banks and they give money only against our own money, no quality control laboratory is in J&K and we have to go to Delhi and the list is endless…,” says Harco while talking about the problems.
With such problems, which involve low cost or meagre solution, traders question whether the “government is for them or against them”.
“We don’t want your (government’s) incentives, but only support and promote us in such a way that helps us,” says Gulzar.
Wahis smiles at the question about prospects of Harco industries if it would have been anywhere else. “Once we used to be one of the largest food processing industries in India and those who were in our competition elsewhere have grown into billion dollar groups and we are where we were,” said Wahid.
Qallander says that the bad state of industries can be improved. “If the government acts from today then in 10 to 20 years time we can eliminate our trade deficit.
“If we consume goods worth Rupees 30,000 crore, we cannot produce all of them but we can export other goods worth Rupees 30,000 crore or more in ten years time to narrow or eliminate the deficit.”
The FCIK has identified lack of infrastructure and skilled manpower as the two major impediments in industrial development. “If anybody wants to set up an industry there is no space in industrial estates and when he sets up outside the estate he gets outside the purview of various schemes,” says Qallander.
In many cases the desperate entrepreneurs are setting up industries in their homes, shops, hills and anywhere they can get hold of some space. Almost all of them become hostage to power problems, weather vagaries, government control and so on.
One of the good things with new crop of entrepreneurs in Kashmir is that they have not compromised on quality. With the result they are carving a niche in the market. They are not only admired in Kashmir but praised outside too. The makers of Global LCD TVs, Treish bottled water, Hatrick products and other similar ventures are receiving enquiries constantly about their products from countries as far as South Africa.
“Who says Kashmiris can’t do anything,” says Iqbal Ahmad a retired lecturer. “When Kashmiris get going they simply get going. Show them that industry can work and let the government truly support them, they will bring industrial revolution in Kashmir with amazing speed.”
“Don’t dishearten them with moron governance. Kick out your excessive government staff. Stop the gimmicks of more jobs in government sector which has been intelligently used by government to sabotage private sector,” says Ahmad. “But then that needs a strong will (of leaders) which is hard to find.”