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Millennium Post

Peeling back the veneer

After the Centre’s move to revoke J&K’s special status in August last year, the recently christened UT has faced the longest communication lockdown in global history which has led to harsh consequences for residents working in industries like journalism and tourism

On a sunny morning in January, Bilal along with his father sat in their shop, which they own in Srinagar's Downtown area. The father-son duo owns a modest fabric shop, which sells home linen such as curtains, bed sheets alongside other decor materials. In an alley, which is a market area, a lull silence takes over while Bilal pours his tea into a cup – his mind distressed from the loss in business his family had incurred since August 5.

"Earlier we used to have a sale of Rs 10,000 to 15,000 per day, but now it doesn't even reach Rs 1,000. The condition is so bad that we don't even know what to do next," said Bilal, as his father quietly looked outside the shop.

Post abrogation of special status of Jammu and Kashmir by modifying Article 370 on August 5, Kashmir's economy has been drastically hit as the government had for almost five months shut down all modes of communication. While 2G internet has been working, less than 300 websites are accessible. This has affected almost every sector in the state, which is still under lockdown.

"We have been expecting things to get better and our business to come back to normalcy. There are many families whose business have been hit and we still don't have a clear picture ahead. We want the government to intervene and help the people out of this financial crisis," said Bilal's father's, Sheikh Mohammed.

The internet shutdown was not only humiliating but distressing for the people of Kashmir. At a time when the internet has become a necessity, almost 8 million people were ripped off of it for security reasons. This affected the economic, social, as well as mental aspects of the people residing in this beautiful valley. Business sectors were hit to such an extent that had left many unemployed. The situation is such that Jammu and Kashmir is leading the unemployment charts across the country with at least 2.50 lakh unemployed youth registering themselves with the district employment and counselling centres in 2019, according to various sources.

Media sector hit

Shahid Imran is the editor of Kashmir based journalism website called Kashmir Crown, who has his base in Kupwara. His business suffered immense blow since August 5, which has resulted in a huge amount of monetary loss. "For the past six months, we are suffering because we have not been able to connect with our people. We make money from our website, and with the internet being shut, we are looking for other income options. In the age we live in, the internet is not just a vital thing, it's a necessity," he told MillenniumPost.

Imran said that the condition was quite desperate for him as he had to travel back and forth from Kupwara to Delhi to just upload his stories. "We somehow managed to survive in Kashmir these past six months, but ultimately after some time, it got more difficult, because I couldn't upload the stories from Kashmir. I did one story in November; I recorded the story in Kupwara, but came to Delhi to upload the story," he said adding that whatever is happening at the moment is an agony for the people of the land.

In agony, Imran said, "Journalism is all about communication, which is a basic idea of interacting with people. Media is the dissemination of information and when you are blocking the internet, it affects my integrity and my independence being a journalist."

He said that about 50 of his employees had to leave jobs due to the problems of salary. "As journalists and editors, my team has suffered a lot. Many of our guys lost jobs and were completely unemployed," he added.

He also said that one of his employees, who was a promising journalist is now doing a meagre job in Rajasthan, as there is no opportunity available in Kashmir. An independent journalist from Kashmir said that in a desperate attempt to gain some kind of livelihood, many Kashmiri youths are shifting base to other states as there are no opportunities here. "After students finish their education in Kashmir, they leave for Delhi or some other state to find better opportunities, for jobs are a scarce entity here," he said.

Apart from journalists, many localities raised similar concerns. They further added that not only the media industry is suffering, the internet shutdown was also a gag on their work and life.

Harsh effect on tourism business

At Srinagar's much-popular tourist spot, the Dal Lake, hardly any tourist could be seen. What used to be one of the most crowded areas with tourists from all around the world soaking in the beauty of the valley, is now silent. The calmness of the area is something people haven't seen in a long time.

At the gates there, shikara walas sit, waiting in anticipation for a tourist. 40-year-old Gulzar is jittery due to nervousness and not the harsh winter wind. He finds relief that a couple of tourists chose his boat. Visibly distressed by the whole situation he said, "Whatever happened, has ruined our lives. What have we done? Our rights are being taken away and so is our business. Is this how innocent people are being treated?"

A father of five daughters, Gulzar says, he somehow manages to get food on the table twice a day, let alone three meals a day. "We are hardly able to manage food two times a day. Tourism was the only way for many of us in the valley to sustain. This is the peak season for tourists, but there is no one here," he added. According to the data and analysis by experts in August and September 2018, 85,534 and 103,195 tourists, respectively, visited Kashmir. However, in 2019 these figures stood at 10,130 and 4,562 – an 88 per cent and 95 per cent drop, respectively. This decline has let the problem of unemployment come to the fore – a steep decline indeed!

The shikaras are rowed either by the canoe-owners themselves or rented out to rowers for around Rs 30,000 per season. A person can expect to make Rs 2-2.5 lakhs over the six-month tourism season. After rent and other costs, one would be still left with around Rs 1,80,000. However, that income has to be spread across 12 months. In the off-season, the shikara walas have no work, or they do odd jobs. This year, they haven't managed to make a fraction of the expected income on which they rely year-round. "What are we to do? What is our future? What is the future of our kids?" Gulzar asked no one in particular, as he rowed the boat into the still waters of the Dal Lake.

Who will compensate the loss?

Kashmir's tourism and handicrafts sector are to a large extent dependent on the tourists and these two sectors contribute to the livelihood of a large chunk of the population. Since the lockdown, there have been approximately 1,44,500 job losses across these two sectors as per an estimate of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).

Overall, commercial losses in the state caused in the aftermath of the August 5, have been pegged at over Rs 15,000 crore and total job losses at 4,96,000, as per KCCI estimates.

At Pulwama's market, Ahmed (name changed) owns a fabric shop. A young educated lad, Ahmed started working at the shop as he found no job opportunities after completing his studies. "Kashmiris have never been accepted and never cared about. In fact, as one can see Kashmiris are on most instances termed as terrorists," said a frustrated Ahmed.

He also said that since the abrogation, his business has suffered a loss in crores, and even though his business is not making any sales, he has to pay his supplier every month. "This is a seasonal shop. During Eid and marriage, we sell most of the stuff. Now, all our summer stuff is as it is. We couldn't sell it and it is just withering away in a corner. Now winter is here, and when summer arrives new fashion will come, so all this stuff is wasted," he added.

With so much loss of livelihood and economy, will the people be compensated for a decision that they never really were a part of? Gulzar said the shikara walas were promised relief by the administration

but they have received nothing so far. Meanwhile, Shahid feels that the government has not thought of the people, which is why compensation seems out of the question.

People of Kashmir are suffering since the past six months, with no assurance being provided to them for a better future. All the people that I had interacted with have given a similar picture, which is filled with agony and pain. There is nothing normal in Kashmir despite a rosy picture being painted to divert the people's attention.

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