Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Observations from Srinagar, Two Months into the Post 370 Situation


I visited Srinagar briefly, and I must say that what is visible on the ground is something the government should be brave about and confront, instead of hiding behind statistics and numbers, which, while true, are still not representative of the Kashmir valley’s reality in its entirety. Interestingly, security forces seemed somewhat relaxed in some of the areas like Parraypora, Hyderpora, Raj Bagh and Lal Ded hospital belt, though by the evening their numbers were up. However, it did seem like there was a terror threat or some input, given how checking and frisking picked up, with cars being stopped for verification of the passengers.

There is a tenuous peace clearly visible in the Valley’s capital, especially areas like the Lal Ded Hospital, Rani Bagh all the way up to the airport. Shops are mostly shut, clearly the sign of a civil lockdown. The odd shop seems to be open, indicating a kind of bravado that may prove fatal from these people. However, what is driving this lockdown? One can see multiple layers on the answer. Separatists, militants, partly popular sentiment within the Kashmir valley, all seem to be contributing this lockdown of sorts. Hospitals, pharmacies, banks – these three services are running fine, though banks seem to be marked by thin attendance. The government offices are reporting less than usual attendance, even though there are orders to be reporting regularly. Efforts are on to ensure that government work does not suffer despite somewhat lower attendance – one could see dredging activities in the Jhelum river bed, which is essential to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for diseases while ensuring navigability. Interestingly, traffic is somewhat normal in the area, though the numbers would be in the usual times at least fourfold of the current volume.

Businesses have been hit very badly by the shutdown. I overheard a businessman who while complaining about other issues also mentioned how militants had already threatened him twice to shut his factory, the consequence being bombing. He was undertaking production discretely in the night to avoid detection; in any case, his output was down to forty per cent of his capacity in a single shift, hurting him hard. Consequently, labour demand is down, which will add to the already humongous challenge of employment that the youth in the state and the valley in particular face. This also highlights the level of coercion that constitutes the civilian lockdown.

Tourism has been hit the hardest within the Valley. Stories of empty hotels in Gulmarg and Pahalgam abound. Temporary layoffs have happened in the hundreds in these places, and people are certainly not happy about it. One can also see several taxi drivers who have been sitting at home for more than two months now, having little business opportunities to earn from. Nearly all of these people are among the lower middle classes of Kashmir, who would rather be called people who could gain the most with the reformation of Article 370 as done by the government; however, sentiments in general are so poor that tourists are barely a trickle. Airports can see people; however, they are mostly locals or military personnel marching to orders of transfers. Tourists are barely a trickle, and seem to be mostly Amarnath yatris; other types are conspicuous by their absence.

Even among the supporters of the move of the government, there are serious complaints emanating about internet and mobile telephony controls. The common refrain seems to be about the government inability to ban Whatsapp and Facebook, and instead curtailing internet and mobile telephony altogether. For them, it is the proverbial throwing the baby with the bathwater. GST and income tax returns, school admissions, registration processes are all coming to a standstill. The government is unable to collect many duties in Srinagar, especially things like stamp duties, which are hurting the government revenue in the Kashmir division. This is one area where the nationalist elements are finding it difficult to defend the government at all, and clearly some thoughtful action is merited.

Increasingly, it feels like a kind of a staredown taking place in a metaphorical sense. A battle of nerves is on, with winner takes it all stakes only for one side so far. Good things could happen, and much merit could be garnered in the process if only some more humane steps could be garnered. The problem within Kashmir valley is that the economic mess of the last four decades literally needs another six decades of repair work, and that too in a somewhat peaceful environment free of interference of elements of restive irritant neighbours.  The closed silk factory near Raj Bagh, once famous for its products globally, stands testament to much that went wrong in the region. The answer to many of the problems perhaps lies partially in the economy; however the current environment will not enable it for the Valley.

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