As we approach the first anniversary of the Abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir from Leh and Ladakh, Ground Report brings exclusive stories from the fringes on the year that has passed.
Wahid Bhat | Srinagar
Nearly a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government abrogated the controversial Article 370, and 35A while invoking a lockdown on the newly formed union territory, which continues to date as coronavirus pandemic rages. One of the worst-hit sectors since the abrogation has been tourism, which saw a dip even before the ordinance to bifurcate the state was passed in Parliament.
On the first anniversary of the abrogation of 370, Ground Report looks at the year gone by in Kashmir.
In 2019, the number of tourists visiting the region dropped to a 10-year low. Tourism used to contributes 8 percent to the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Official figures from the tourism department state that the region saw a decline of almost 60 percent in the number of tourists when compared with 2018 figures, with only 4,99,584 tourists visiting the newly created Union Territory in 2019.
The tourism industry came to a standstill post on August 5, 2019, as the state was cut off and tourists were asked to leave as soon as possible. While the government initially said that the order for cancellation of Amarnath and Vaishno Mata Mandir pilgrimage was on inputs of an imminent terror attack, things started getting clear from the night of August 4 as the internet connectivity was stripped and the then state was placed under official lockdown.
According to reports from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department between December 2019 and February 2020 tourism in the UT not only slowed down but completely froze. The cascading effect was visible on hoteliers, transporters, shikarawalas, shopkeepers, ponywalas, tourist guides, who are economically shattered and rendered jobless.
In the last one year hotels, restaurants, boats, and bazaars witnessed no buzzing activity, movement of people, and business.
Drowning businesses, rising unemployment
According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), the economy has suffered a loss of about Rs 40,000 crore in the last year. The shutdown of the tourism sector has resulted in the loss of jobs as well as finances evident from the incapacity of borrowers to repay loans, as revealed by a survey conducted by the KCCI. Artisans and weavers have lost customers.
As per the report of KCCI, the general trade sector with 1.50 lakh people tops the list in terms of job losses in Kashmir since August 5. “In the tourism sector, 74,500 jobs were lost in the first four months. In the handicrafts sector including the Kashmiri carpet industry around 70,000 people lost their jobs. In horticulture, floriculture, agriculture, and sericulture sector 12,000 jobs were lost,” reads the report. “In the industry sector 70,000 jobs, in transport 60,000 jobs, in construction and power projects 20,000 jobs were lost in four months.”
Empty houseboats await tourists
According to Abdul Rashid, Vice President of House Boat Owners Association, Kashmir says, “Houseboats are lying empty in Srinagar’s Dal Lake.” Rashid explains, “Our houseboat industry is going through the worst phase in the last one year. After the removal of Article 370, Kashmir was under lockdown for the first five months. During this time we had to suffer big losses.” In 2014, there was a terrible flood in Kashmir that led to economic hardship for the shikarawalas, followed by the bloody gunbattle that began after the killing of terrorist Burhan Wani, shaking the local economy.
He said, “Our industry is facing a very bad time. You can go and see the suffering of people associated with this business.” Rashid said that in the last year, most people associated with this business had borrowed money from the market and expected a good season but are now huge debt. Asked what the people associated with this business are doing, Rashid said, “They are not doing anything. The situation in our houseboat business is very bad. We do not know if we will get food tomorrow or not.”
Dal Lake in Srinagar has more than eight hundred houseboats. Rashid said despite the lockdown and the internet shutdown in the Valley, his work was slowly returning on track when the pandemic hit. “We started telling our customers that things have become normal in Kashmir. At the same time, we were also explaining to them that there is no law and order problem in Kashmir. The problem of the internet is almost over and we are able to contact our customers. But, with the sudden arrival of Covid-19, our lives have stopped,” he added.
Another boat owner Bashir Ahmad said that he now had no way to make a living. “We are getting mad with frustration because we have nothing to feed our families with,” he said.
Empty restaurants wear deserted look
Javed Ahmed, the manager of a restaurant in Pahalgam said that this time there is not a single tourist in the area, “We have 26 employees here and their jobs are at stake. If such circumstances continue, how will restaurant owners be able to pay salaries?”
Majeed Ahmad, senior manager of Hotel Hilltop in Pahalgam, said that all the bookings he had were cancelled, which led to a loss of nearly Rs 5 lakh. This was the first tourist season after the removal of Section 370 from Jammu and Kashmir. The government had aggressively conducted roadshows in other cities of the country to bring tourists to the Valley.
Trade rotten as apple market registers a Rs 200 crore loss
Kashmir has the second largest area of apple production in the world and produces 75 percent of India’s apples. The annual production is 20 lakh MT, which is worth about Rs 8,000 crore. Seven lakh farmers, which translates to 35 lakh people by including their families, are directly involved in the apple business. This is about 50 percent of the total Kashmir population.
Narwal Fruit Mandi is the biggest in the state and a bulk of the fruit from Kashmir is sent here and then supplied to the neighbouring states. About 60 percent of the trade takes place in the ongoing August-October season dominated by apple harvest. “We lost around Rs 200 crore as the supply of apples is down to 10 percent. We had made advance payments. Half of the payments are made by availing credit from banks. Supplies are not coming, our payments are stuck and the interest rate is ticking. It’s a loss in every sense,” said Parveen Gupta, president of the Narwal Mandi.
Handicraft market freezes
Embroidered suits and shawls of Kashmir along with other handicraft items command huge demand in Jammu and Kashmir, especially from tourists. Their supply is also hit as labourers working on embroidery, particularly from Bihar and other states, have left Kashmir following the clampdown.
While the sector reels under economic pressure, the Centre announced the process of Unlock 1.0. Tourism in Jammu and Kashmir reopened from July 14 after a 10-month long and painful closure. The government ordered tourists to follow the guidelines issued by the State Executive Committee for regulating their entry into the UT in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the notification, any deviation from the order will attract penal action under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.
Reported By Wahid Bhat, He is a Journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir.