Podcast; Voices from the Lockdown: Kashmir’s economy, one year since Article 370’s abrogation

“I am 47 years old and I have never experienced a situation like this in my life. I was around in the 90s, 92s, 96s and 97s. Not just that, even 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 had difficult situations, still tourists used to visit. Since the abrogation of Article 370, we have not seen tourists visiting the valley. The tourism sector is the backbone of Kashmir and now, that backbone is broken.” says Yaqub Donoo, a representative from the Houseboat Owners Association of Kashmir.

This episode of Voices from the Lockdown will attempt to highlight dying tourist revenue and the crumbling economy in the valley, through interviews with various stakeholders from Kashmir.

In conversation with Firstpost, Kashmiri journalist Quratulain Rehbar explores the debilitating state of the tourist-reliant economy in Kashmir. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated that Kashmir’s economy suffered losses to the tune of ₹40,000 crores since the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A in August of 2019. Since, most businesses have been shut. The worst-hit, according to the KCCI, has been the tourism, hospitality, transport and horticulture industries.

As Qurat points, it’s not just one, but all allied industries associated that have suffered as a result of no tourists in the valley. Add to that the lack of government aid and job losses, and there seems to be no respite or resolution for the major and minor business owners.

“When I spoke to different people across the sectors connected with Tourism, what I could see is that there has been a complete breakdown of an entire ecosystem. I spoke to a ponnywalla in Pahalgam, whose name is Mohammad Shafi. He used to earn his livelihood by ferrying tourists around. But since last year he has not seen a single tourist. Even if he had to find alternative employment, there is nothing available for him. Shopkeepers, shawl sellers, hotels, home-stays, small tea-stall owners and other businesses dependent on tourism are not able to make anything for their living,” said Qurat.

Making matters worse is the inability to operate any businesses online, given the joke of internet speeds in the state. What the people need right now is immediate and effective government intervention and assistive policies to revive what could soon be a completely crippled economy.

Full script of the episode:

“The tourism sector is the backbone of Kashmir and now, that backbone is broken.”

Hi I am Greeshma Kuthar and this is Voices from the Lockdown, a Firstpost podcast.

In the previous episode of Voices from the Lockdown, we looked at how a year after August 5 of 2019, the worst repercussions of this move has been on students. In todays episode, Kashmiri Journalist Quratulain Rehbar will be speaking to us again, to help us understand the state of the economy in Kashmir.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated that Kashmir’s economy suffered losses to the tune of ₹40,000 crore since the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A in August of 2019. Through the year, businesses have been mostly shut and could hardly participate in anything which can be considered normal market activity. Job losses due to the state of the economy is a whole story by itself. The worst hit, according to the KCCI has been tourism, hospitality, transport and horticulture industries. While we have heard many such data points which suggest that the situation is extremely bad, through this episode, we will attempt to listen to some of the voices from Kashmir.

Qurat, thank you for joining us again.

Qurat: Thank you for having me Greeshma.

Greeshma: Before speaking further with Qurat, I am going to share an interview with Bilal Ahmed, a hotel owner from Pahalgam in South Kashmir. Let us listen to what he has to say about how life has been for him since August 5 of 2019.

Bilal Ahmed: We are totally crushed because of the state of the economy. If we look at our economy, it is totally dependent on tourism. There is no other source of income, especially in Aro Valley. Agriculture is not an option here.

All the villages are totally dependent on tourism. There are some people who operate horses, some have shops, some have restaurants, some have mobile taxis.

When we are totally dependent on tourism, and there are these kinds of problems, we are totally crushed. After 5th of August, there have been no tourists. We were trying to get tourists at least during winter but no luck.

Qurat, from Mr Bilal’s words, it is evident that businesses dependent on tourism in Kashmir have taken a massive hit since August 2019. But just saying tourism isn’t good enough, I think we should discuss the major and minor players in the industry, as clearly there are quite a few. Can you break it down for us?

Qurat: The thing is you cannot view the tourism industry in isolation. There are many allied industries dependent and connected to tourism, like local industries which have been hit the hardest. For example, Kashmir is known for its handicrafts and shawls. Thousands are dependent on this sector but there has been no revenue.

When I spoke to different people across the sectors connected with Tourism, what I could see is that there has been a complete breakdown of an entire ecosystem. I spoke to a ponnywalla in Pahalgam, whose name is Mohammad Shafi. He used to earn his livelihood by ferrying tourists around. But since last year he has not seen a single tourist. Even if he had to find alternative employment, there is nothing available for him. Shopkeepers, shawl sellers, hotels, home-stays, small tea-stall owners and other businesses dependent on tourism are not able to make anything for their living.

In Srinagar’s Dal Lake, a major tourist attraction, around 1000 houseboats are anchored in a ghostly silence. These floating boats used to be bustling with tourists. But these luxury boats are sinking now. With no business in hand the houseboat owners say that even they don’t have money for the yearly necessary maintenance of these boats.

Greeshma: Since you’ve brought up the losses suffered by those who operate houseboats, let me play back an interview with Yaqub Donoo, the spokesperson of the houseboats owners association.

Yaqub Donoo: I am 47 years old and I have never experienced a situation like this in my life.

I was around in the 90s, 92s, 96s and 97s. Not just that, even 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016 also had difficult situations, but still, tourists used to visit.

Since last year after the abrogation of Article 370, we have not seen tourists visiting the valley. The tourism sector is the backbone of Kashmir and now, that backbone is broken. We Kashmiris are living a helpless life.

We were promised by the government that we will be paid Rs 1000 per houseboat as monthly assistance for 3 months.

I have to spend around 50 thousand to one lakh rupees for caulking a boat. Will 3000 thousand rupees be of any help? That is why we rejected the government’s assistance.

Greeshma: Qurat, Mr Yaqub raises an important point about government support during this lockdown and says it has been inadequate. Has this been the case across industries? For example, immediately after August 2019, there was a lot of talk about the Indian government providing help in the form of minimum support price to Apple farmers. Were there more such support policies, and if there were, in hindsight, were these policies effective?

Qurat: See Greeshma, the first thing that you’ve to understand is that the losses aren’t specific to one industry. All industries have suffered losses, be it these houseboat owners, apple farmers, private transporters or allied industries. The people I spoke to, across the industries, complained that either they have not received any government help or it has been very minimal which has not eased their economic sufferings. The people largely feel that the government has been indifferent towards them. There has been no government intervention in the tourism sector, which is the worst hit. A relief package of 1000 rupees a month was declined by houseboat owners terming it as a pity joke by the government.

After August 5 of 2019, there were attacks on non local truckers, ferrying apples from Kashmir to outside markets. For the first time, non local workers were attacked. Apple growers were completely dependent on these transporters. Government announced an intervention and promised to procure apples directly from growers. But there was no security of payment from the government as farmers had no idea about at what time they would receive payment. Local farmers also told me that there was no security in it. They had to take security from the government at that time and had to wait in line in DC offices to get this protection. Even if we got this permission, it was entirely upon the farmers to have responsibility over apples. Most of them didn’t find this scheme helpful. Eventually they sold whatever didn’t perish to local merchants. Some of them kept apples in cold storage and sold them outside when things were a bit normal. Also, thousands associated with the transport sector are out of work and badly affected. Many are now doing manual work to feed their families. No help or support has been provided to them as well.

Greeshma: Right so essentially there has been close to no effective support. Before we head into the last segment I want to play back just one clip of Musaib, who is an entrepreneur and runs his own business in Pulwama.

Musaib: I am a young entrepreneur from South Kashmir. Due to abrogation of Article 370 and COVID 19, my factory has been severely affected.

I haven’t been able to achieve the targets I had set for my factory and I am in so much loss that I am thinking of shutting it down. Whatever stock I have at my factory I am just selling it at no profit so that I can pay my employees their outstanding salaries and the people I buy raw materials from.

My entire business was online and now, due to the slow internet, 90 per cent of my business has been impacted. According to me, Kashmiri youth should go for government or private jobs rather than doing business.

Greeshma: Qurat, the truth, like Musaib has clearly articulated, is that the situation continues to be bad, as we speak. People are running in losses, businesses are shutting down. Those who are dependent on any of these industries for jobs have been out of work for months. What is the way ahead then? Without these sources of income, what do businessmen like Musaib or workers like Sahfi intend to do, to provide for themselves and their families?

Qurat: The way ahead will be that this government lifts restrictions, and provides basic facilities like high speed internet. Industry players are all saying that the government has to bring in effective interventions and assistance policies for the people working in the different sectors. See, one of the pretexts the government gave for the abrogation of article 370 was to bring economic prosperity in the region. However, like we’ve seen the local economy is in shambles. In the middle of all this chaos, people are struggling to find answers as to how they are going to revive their businesses and earn their livelihood. We are not sure who is going to answer this.

That is all from this episode of Voices from the Lockdown. For previous episodes, visit the Firstpost channel on audioboom.com.



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