Businesses hit amid Valley lockdown
Sitting in his empty office on the deserted Residency Road, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmed is worried about organising transport for apple-orchard owners in Sopore in Baramulla district, and about the empty order books of handicrafts units.
“Businesses in Kashmir never really recovered from the floods in 2014 and the disturbances of 2016-17. Right now, we have to come out of this humanitarian crisis before we can even talk of trade,” Ahmed said, referring to the lockdown of the Valley since Parliament nullified the state’s special status on August 5 and 6.
The government’s actions in Kashmir, including the detention of mainstream and separatist politicians, and curbs on public movement and communications, were followed by a “civil curfew”, a spontaneous public protest that resulted in the closure of all businesses and shops, except pharmacies, doctors’ clinics and small grocery stores.
Prominent businesspeople are among the 2,000-odd people detained by authorities amid the communications blackout that has affected a wide range of businesses, including hotels, travel agents, start-ups and information technology-based firms.
With apple crops ready to be harvested in Budgam, Pulwama, Anantnag, Baramulla and Kupwara districts, Ahmed said organising transport to carry the fruit to markets outside Kashmir is a priority. “If we don’t get the apples out, they will rot and the orchard owners will be hit very hard,” he said.
On Tuesday, a state government official said arrangements were made to help fruit traders transport their stocks following threats by local militant groups. This came in response to a complaint of militants threatening apple-orchard owners in Wattoo village of Shopian to not load their crops for transport.
While the government is taking immediate steps to ensure the apple crop is allowed free passage, Ahmed is also worried about owners of handicrafts units making silk carpets, pashmina shawls and papier-mache products who, he said, usually received orders from importers in North America and Europe from August.
The annual sales of these units are worth about ₹500 crore, he said.“With no phone or internet connectivity, there are no orders. About 20,000 weavers are employed by the units making silk carpets and they depend on the work during this season to make it through the winter. If communication isn’t restored soon, the importers will go elsewhere,” he said.
The chamber, Ahmed said, is also facing the ire of young entrepreneurs it had encouraged to create start-ups, IT-related firms, and export units. “We organised workshops and told these youngsters we would back them to start such businesses. Now, they’re all angry with us,” he said.
“We are hearing about a shortage of baby food, which comes from Delhi and Punjab, in the rural areas of Kashmir. There are also problems in the distribution of medicines in rural areas,” he added.
Srinagar’s deputy commissioner Shahid Choudhary said restrictions would be eased as the situation improves, although the administration has taken immediate steps to help apple-orchard owners and to ensure the supply of essential goods.
“Enough trucks will be made available to ensure there is a seamless transportation system. We don’t foresee any problems and we also have cold storage facilities for horticultural products. As of August 22, medicines worth ₹23.81 crore have been supplied to retailers. There were some problems with the supply of baby food but we have stationed officials in Jammu and Chandigarh to ensure timely supplies.”
The communication blackout has resulted in heavy losses for the tourism and the hotel industry. Soon after the Centre issued an advisory to tourists and Amarnath cave shrine pilgrims to leave Kashmir, hotels were vacated in a matter of days.
“We were booked to capacity and there were bookings made in advance for the rest of summer. Now we have only media personnel as guests... A ballpark assessment at the end of the second week of the shutdown put the losses at over ₹20 crore,” said a hotelier asked not to be named. He said that the industry was looking forward to more footfalls this summer, especially since the previous year had seen a dip. Quoting local media reports, he said there was a 23% decline in tourist arrivals to the Valley in 2018 compared to 2017.
“Hotels and restaurants have had to lay off staff or send them on leave because it is not possible to pay salaries,” the hotelier said.
Many firms, Ahmed said, had defaulted on loans since 2016 and the last restructuring of loans was done in 2014, while others had no working capital. “Hoteliers, tour operators and handicrafts units are on life support... If the current situation continues for long, many of them are not likely to survive,” he said.