By KO CORRESPONDENT
Abdur Rashid Dar, owner of a shikarah, steps forward to greet the passersby on the road passing alongside the famous Dal lake and offers a heavily discounted joyride “I will charge you just Rs 200 for a one hour ride,” he tells everyone. In normal times, the going rate for a one hour ride is Rs 600.
“There are no tourists in Kashmir Valley. Our shikarahs are empty,” Dar explains to me the reason for discount. “We haven’t earned anything for the past two months. And there is no hope for future”.
Around 600 shikarahs moored at over 30 ghats along the Dal wait endlessly for tourists. So do the 900 houseboats anchored to other side of the lake.
Tourists fled Kashmir on August 3, two days before New Delhi unilaterally scrapped Article 370 which granted Kashmir autonomy within Indian Union, plunging the state into turmoil. The flight followed a government order calling upon tourists and the pilgrims to the annual Amarnath pilgrimage to cut down their visit and leave the Valley within 24 hours. The state Government buses were pressed into service to ferry tourists and pilgrims from across the Valley and rush them to Srinagar airport and bus terminals to facilitate their exit. Within two days, Kashmir was empty of all the outsiders, something that has inflicted a crippling blow on the state’s tourism industry during its peak season. Hotels which until then enjoyed 80 percent occupancy have turned into ghost houses, among them premium hotels in famous scenic resorts of Gulmarg and Pahalgam whose rooms went for as much as Rs 25000 a night in June and July.
Tourism forms 6.8 percent of Kashmir’s GDP and employs 2 million people. Now the industry stares at an uncertain future. A significant number of people associated with it have either been laid off or are in the process of losing their jobs.
What is more, there is no end in sight to this pain. Kashmir has already been under a communication blackout for more than three months . There is no hope that the situation is going to improve anytime soon. The reason for this is the extraordinary nature of New Delhi’s move on the state which has not just deeply alienated the people of the state but also antagonized Pakistan which disputes the state with India.
“Situation is becoming exceedingly difficult with every passing day. Not only the tourism industry every other sector is sustaining heavy losses and people are getting laid off,” says Sheikh Altaf Ahmad, president of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries. (KCCI). “We don’t see any hope in the near to medium term”.
Ahmad is right. Kashmir economy is battling multiple headwinds triggered by withdrawal of Article 370. The first to be hit is the tourism sector. Valley has not only been evacuated of all the tourists and pilgrims but the fresh arrivals also are down to zero. Second, the communication clampdown that was enforced to purportedly maintain peace too has impacted the businesses hard, especially the IT sector which has stopped functioning altogether. Third, the lingering shutdown in the Valley against New Delhi’s move has set back the shopkeepers and public transport. Fourth, Kashmir’s famed handicraft sector is reeling and staring at an estimated 50,000-60,000 job cuts. The total loss to economy so far, says Ahmad, could be in the range of around Rs 10,000 crore.
Similarly, horticulture which is spread across 1.87 lakh acres of land employs more than three million people in Kashmir has also been hit hard.
“If nothing is done to salvage this harvest, thousands of families will suffer,” says Mohammad Yusuf Dar, president of Kashmir Apple Growers and Dealers Association. “We urge the government to restore the communications as that will enable farmers to independently take care of their produce”.
Dar showed his dissatisfaction with the recently announced Government Market Intervention Scheme whereby a state run cooperative will buy all the apple produce at competitive prices. “This isn’t working out,” says Dar. “The cooperative is not paying competitive prices as claimed but far less than that”.
Now with onset of winter, a significant amount of commercial activity has disappeared. The prevailing despair has been heightened by the receding hope of an improvement in the situation in near future. One major reason for this is the leaderlessness of the ongoing protest. All separatist and establishment leaders including even the business leaders have been arrested. And in their absence there’s no one to steer the public resistance against the repeal of Article 370 and bring it to a conclusion. This has created a dead-end scenario.