Streets might be bustling again during the present ‘unlock’ phase in Kashmir, but uncertain markets and unsure status of the valley-based startups continue to make the place unpredictable.
By Swati Joshi
WHEN panic-buying triggered by doctors’ fervent appeals for healthy diet gripped the valley early this year, Mir Saeid, cofounder of Kashmirnica, suddenly saw his dream venture becoming a sunshine startup. This incredible rise came when the virus was sending body bags to cemeteries and forcing people to boost up their bodily response to resist the viral attack.
It was in this backdrop that immunity-boosting foodstuffs saw surged sales.
“Food material like saffron suddenly witnessed high demand,” says Saeid, whose e-commerce platform deals with Kashmir’s luxury handicrafts, art, and culturally-driven products. “It certainly infused a new life in the sector which otherwise had its own niche customers.”
But then, one swallow doesn’t make a summer.
While merchants of the food sector were making hay while the sun was shining, it was a sombre sunset for many startups — tumbling and heading towards closure.
The lockdown implemented by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the onslaught of the pandemic on March 25 this year badly dented startup sector.
According to a survey by Nasscom, the technology industry body, 40 percent of 250 startups across India have halted their operations, while 92 percent of startups experienced some level of revenue decline.
Despite surged sales, Saeid and Co. faced impediments in product delivery process in the locked down valley.
While Kashmirnica fed supplies to the stores in Kerala and Delhi, it couldn’t do so in Kashmir.
“Till now,” he says, “product delivery mechanism is not feasible in Kashmir. The only viable option is India Post.”
Though India Post has a huge network, Saied says, the services provided by them are more inclined to personal items rather than business.
Due to these practical hitches, sales in various startups nosedived during the pandemic lockdown.
But the more blatant crisis was seen in textile-based startups, currently suffering from order cancellation, pending payment to artisans, unavailability of raw materials and low demands.
Unlike many manufacturers, Aaditya Kitroo, cofounder of Jos&fine, had asked his artisans to work from home after reassembling handlooms there.
“We ensured our production continues without any hassle,” Kitroo says. “However, that’s not being of much use.”
Demand has gone down, he says, and half of the looms are not running. But, he asserts, he’s paying the artisans a working amount for subsistence.
“But we’re not getting into production as of now,” the self-starter says. “If production begins at this stage, we would’ve inventory on our hand which is quite difficult to handle right now.”
The more important thing for their business, Kitroo says, is to make sure that they’re not in a position where they’ve to fire people.
“But sadly, we’re getting close to that [disengaging workforce],” continues the cofounder.
Before the back-to-back Kashmir lockdowns, he says, last year by June, they had finalized the order and the winter production was already underway.
But currently, only the first stage of production has finished, Kitroo continues. “I don’t think 2020 is going to be a good year for startups.”
According to him, next year, the Indian market will start picking up some lost threads, but it’ll take two-three years for the market to bounce back.
“A person will only indulge in luxury products when he’s in a good mood,” opines Kitroo, who sells expensive shawls and other merchandise. “But sooner or later, we’ll witness personal prospects of growth.”
But while the rest of the world is currently grappling with the first lockdown, it’s a lockdown within a lockdown for Kashmir, says Anam Siraj, owner of Closet Cloud by Anam, a self-made fashion brand.
As Kashmiris mostly found themselves under curbs since August 5, 2019, when New Delhi struck down Article 370 which gave semi-autonomous status to the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the local industry mostly found itself under a lock and key, Siraj says.
“My store was largely closed after the August lockdown,” she says. “Even online work was not possible as deliveries were stopped.”
The owner is quite skeptical about her store reopening, as she doesn’t want to sit idle there.
These days, when she’s not taking online orders, Siraj looks after bank installments, rent and employee’s salary.
“These are the costs we’ve to pay in Kashmir for no work,” she grins. “Wish we could come out of these enforced situations to breathe easy and feel some life!”
Like Siraj, Ubair Shah is equally paying through his nose for running a startup in the lockdown-plagued valley.
An orchardist with a twist, Shah is now mulling to rebrand his startup by feeding his fresh farm produce directly to local consumers, rather than exploring new buyers and markets.
After Covid-19 lockdown disrupted the overall fruit production supply chain in Kashmir, the likes of Shah started rising above the traditional methods of marketing, wherein they would transport their produce to outside markets.
The orchardist stresses that the pandemic has hugely impacted local farmers because they cannot find buyers for their produce and have to sell it at marginal prices.
“There was a very limited demand for fruits especially apples stored in cold storage this year,” Shah says.
The young Kashmiri is a co-founder of Efruit Mandi — an online platform to connect farmers directly to the buyers.
“In a place like Kashmir,” Shah continues, “one has to resort to available options to safeguard one’s startup based on lot of love and efforts.”
While many of these new-age self-starters of Kashmir are today finding themselves at the crossroads due to the recurrent lockdowns in their homeland, the traditional tourism players are silently witnessing a steep fall of their prospects.
But despite the crisis situation in the sector, Irfan Mir was quite hopeful when he started his trekking and tour company Woodswalk Treks and Tour after completing his graduation.
All his hopes, however, ended in despair.
Mir had bookings for March 2020, but they were canceled because of the pandemic. He had to refund the amount, and approximately lost Rs. 2 lakhs in a single month.
“Last year I had bookings till August,” says Mir. “But because of the abrogation of Article 370, everything was canceled and I didn’t earn a single penny.”
Mir’s only source of income is tourism and his savings are going to end soon. Owing to the loss in his business, the young man has to curtail on many things.
“Life is not the same in Kashmir now,” he laments. “A person like me today has to think twice before buying anything.”
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