A Year After Article 370: ‘We Are Totally Paralyzed’

According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the economy has suffered a loss of about Rs 40,000 crore since 2019.

RECENTLY #NayaKashmir was trending on Twitter to amplify how the abrogation of Article 370 has benefited Kashmir. A majority of the tweets claimed that the move by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has resulted in development in the Kashmir valley but the ground reality is very different.

Article 370 was abrogated on August 5, 2019, by the Centre and since then the economy, travel and tourism in Kashmir valley have come to a grinding halt.

According to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the economy has suffered a loss of about Rs 40,000 crore since 2019.

The KCCI in its earlier report, released last year claimed that 4,96,000 jobs have been lost in 120 days since the abrogation of Article 370.

“The borrowers of financial institutions have lost their capacity to fulfill their commitments and a substantial number of accounts are likely to turn bankrupt, many business establishments have closed down or are contemplating closure,” suggested the report.

According to KCCI, within four months after the abrogation of Article 370, the valley suffered a loss of Rs 17,878.18 crore.

Troubled Tourism

According to the Preliminary Economic Loss Assessment Report by the KCCI which took into account 10 districts for 120 days from August 5, 2019, to December 3, 2019, the tourism sector has incurred a loss of Rs 1056.3264 crores.

“I am jobless since August 2019,” said Ayoub Rather, owner of Premier tour and travels.

According to him, from 2015 to 2020, only 2018 was a good year for tourism in the valley.

The travel agent’s only source of livelihood was tourism which was affected badly, leaving him and his family in a state of distress.

Rather was hoping for a good business during the spring season. “I received many bookings from November,” said the travel agent, hoping he would be able to achieve his target for the current year and might cover the loss he faced in the last year.

Riyaz Ahmed who runs a homestay in Nigeen Lake compared the Kashmir of 2019 with the Stone Age. There was no income and he was burdened with loans.

“There are 15 members in my family,” said Ahmed, adding, “how can I feed them when I have no source of income?”

Ahmed’s family is associated with the tourism business for decades but the prevailing conditions have forced him to think about changing the trade.

Hoteliers, ponywalas, dhabawalas, restaurants, shopkeepers, guiding personnel, labours were completely shattered after the nullification of Article 370 and the coronavirus lockdown in the valley.

The imposition of the pandemic lockdown was aimed to prevent the spread of the virus but on the other hand, this industry has completely given up since last year.

“We are totally paralyzed,” said Anwar Wangnoo, owner of Wangnoo Sheraton Group.

He claimed that the houseboats which used to host around one thousand people have received no guests in 10 months. “There is no fun to have a houseboat without tourism,” said the owner.

The Wanganoo Sheraton group has a chain of houseboats and they deal with international clients.

“Since 2014 we are dealing with overseas tourists from Malaysia and Thailand. This year we were going to approach Vietnam but luck is not with us,” said Wangnoo.

People working in the tourism sector were considered to be the richest in the valley, said Sameer Teli, “but those days are a dream now”.

The hotelier is struggling to feed his family and take care of his kids.

“I am not able to provide medicines to my family because of cash crunch,” complained Teli. “I am leaving them to die because of my helplessness.”

In 2018, Kashmir had received 316,434 tourists between August and December. In 2019, this number fell to 43,059 for the same period, a decline of 86%, according to the data maintained by J&K Tourism Department.

However, to promote tourism in the valley post abrogation of Article 370, J&K Tourism Department provided financial assistance to organize 12 promotional events in various cities across India, claimed Mushtaq Reshi, General Secretary of Domestic Tour Operators.

Domestic Tour Operators are tourism associations that are linked with the J&K tourism department. These associations are headed by an executive body. If there is any issue with tourism in the valley, the members of the association can talk to the higher authorities.

Reshi who is also a Managing Director of Essence Holidays Pvt. Ltd. organized a promotional event in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha. It was the best event out of the 12 events organized by the associations, claimed the general secretary. The promotional event was meant to create tie-ups with travel companies who in return will send people to Kashmir for tourism.

The event which took place on February 6 was aimed to bring more people in the valley but it turned out to be a “wastage of money” due to the onslaught of the contagion, complained Reshi.

The association, he said, had spent Rs. 9.35 lakh for the event out of which Rs. 7 lakhs were to be paid by the government.

Business Brakes

Majid Imtiyaz started his dream project of opening a café at the apple town of Sopore in 2017. He rented a feasible spot and took loans from the bank to bear the expenses.

Hampered by the frequent lockdowns and limited resources, his dream project was completed in August 2019.

To advertise the café, he organized a pre-opening event “Coffee & Qalaam” which had a good turnout. Unknown of the unfortunate time that lay ahead Imtiyaz decided to open his café “Mann te Salva” on August 8, 2019.

Just three days before the opening of the café, the government revoked the special status of Kashmir that resulted in curfew, slowdown, and internet blockade leaving the valley halted and stagnant.

Imtiyaz was shattered and decided to go to Delhi. The owner of the café started working in a call center to earn some money.

In January he got a call from his family, reassuring that the condition in Kashmir has started stabilizing. He went back to his hometown and finally his dream project was live on February 8. Little did he know that there was another lockdown hovering over Kashmir.

Mann te Salva” was closed after a month obeying the lockdown rules set by the government to limit the spread of the pandemic. Imtiyaz was again left in despair with hefty expenses.

“This is the story of almost all the restaurants, cafes, food joints and hotels especially in Kashmir,” emphasized Imtiyaz.

Like him, Insha Rasool who started her organic farm in 2019 had to face a backslash because of the clampdown in the valley post abrogation of Article 370.

“Around 7-8 months went by without any work,” said the self-made farmer.

But she started working once the conditions normalized and the result was satisfactory, said Insha.

Due to 2019 clampdown, Kashmir’s world-famous handicraft also suffered huge losses.

According to KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq, “The annual turnover of the handicraft sector has fallen from Rs 2000 crore to Rs 900 crores in the last few years. The handicraft sector is struggling to pay to their artisans.”

Travel and Trek

Saddam Hussain who runs a trekking company Mountain and Dreams in Sonmarg incurred a loss of approximately Rs 4 lakh when the valley was put under a political lockdown last year.

The peak season for trekking starts in July and Hussain had bookings of 22 groups consisting of 15 each people for the treks.

“As soon as the trekking season started, Article 370 was removed,” he said, “resulting in canceling of all the bookings.”

Since August last year, the business is in a complete loss, said Saif Ahmad, who is associated with the paragliding company, Karakoram Explorers.

Most of the pilots hired by him were from Himachal Pradesh and they were paid four-month salary in advance. He had to send them back after the lockdown. He also had to refund the amount to his customers who canceled their bookings.

“It was a nightmare,” admitted Saif, who started the paragliding business in 2015.

Kashmir doesn’t have big malls or industries but it has a natural beauty that is praised worldwide, said Anayat Hussain, General Secretary at Jammu & Kashmir Society for Trekking and Environmental Preservation.

“Trekking is a big chain,” emphasized Hussain, adding, “not only hotel and dhabawalas are benefited from it but also small vegetable vendors, porters, rickshaw and many more people are attached to this business.”

Valley’s Halted Wheels

A majority of tourists in the valley relies on taxi service for the journey. With continuous lockdown, taxi companies are burdened with loans.

Unable to pay his installments on time, Wasim Ahmed Bhat, owner of Kashmir Tourism Cabs, has to pay a double amount to the bank.

Bhat has employed many local people through his taxi service but with the lockdown in the valley, his business has come to a standstill.

“Locals don’t take Fortuner or Innova for traveling,” said Bhat, adding, “these cars are meant for tourists.”

But with the lockdown, these cars are resting in the garage.

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