Land row makes Kashmir economy bleed

August 7th, 2008 - 12:41 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Amarnath Shrine
By F. Ahmed
Srinagar, Aug 7 (IANS) Fruit is rotting away on trees or in trucks, handicraft items are stuck on the highway, tourist inflow is down to a trickle…The Amarnath land row has led not only to Jammu and Kashmir’s worst communal divide in six decades but also to huge economic losses. The horticulture, handicraft and tourism industries - all money-spinners for a state that has been in the throes of militancy since 1989 - have taken a big beating in the past few months.

Kashmir Valley’s mainstay, the horticulture industry, produces fruit worth Rs.25 billion annually. Transported through the Jammu-Srinagar-Pathankot National Highway, this produce is sold in various markets of the country.

But the highway is under a blockade, hit hard by protests over the land transfer to and its subsequent return by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.

“Apple production alone is worth Rs.2 billion annually. Besides this, we produce pears, plums, cherries, almonds and walnuts, all of which have markets outside the state and even abroad,” said Ghulam Rasool Bhat, president of the Kashmir Fruit Growers Association.

The state has been witnessing unrest since May 26 when the government allotted 40 hectares of land in the valley to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board that manages the pilgrimage to the high altitude cave shrine dedicated to Hindu god Lord Shiva. The land was subsequently taken back in July.

Fifteen people have already died in both the regions of the state, leading to a divide between Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley and Hindu-dominated Jammu.

“If the present standoff between the two regions of the state is not sorted out, the horticulture industry and millions of locals earning their livelihood from it would be left without any means of sustenance,” Bhat said.

“Fruit worth Rs.1.25 billion has already been destroyed because it rotted on the trees after ripening as the same could not be plucked for packing and transportation because of the present situation,” Bhat said.

“Fruit worth another Rs.600 million awaiting transportation and already packed for dispatch will be destroyed as our fruit laden trucks are now being stopped in Punjab also,” Bhat alleged.

After suffering losses due to the economic blockade, fruit growers have threatened to route their supplies through Muzaffarabad (in Pakistan administered Kashmir) and from there to the Pakistan town of Rawalpindi and then to Amritsar.

“I received a communication from Governor N.N. Vohra who had assured us of transportation and protection to fruit-laden trucks and that is why we postponed our plans to march to the Indian markets through the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road.

“We do not want to break our relations with the Indian markets, but for god’s sake save our livelihood and do not allow it to be destroyed by vested interests,” Bhat said in an appeal.

Besides horticulture, the valley produces handicrafts including shawls, papier mache goods and carpets worth Rs.15 billion annually.

Bashir Ahmad Mir, a carpet dealer here, said: “Thousands of local artisans and their families in addition to those who trade in handicrafts here and outside are totally dependent on the Srinagar-Jammu road for passage of their goods.”

“If the present impasse is allowed to continue, we would starve.”

Ironically, these statistics stand to prove that the most talked about local industry, tourism, is in fact the third largest industry in Kashmir and not the first as is generally believed here and outside.

The tourist industry earns the valley around Rs.10 billion each year if the situation here remains conducive for the movement and stay of domestic and foreign tourists, according to official statistics.

“We had wonderful tourism in Kashmir this year and the tourist inflow this year was the highest in the last 18 years,” said an official who didn’t want to be named.

“Hoteliers, houseboat owners, tour and travel operators, taxi drivers and even the non-skilled labourers made respectable earning before the situation worsened here because of the forest land allotment row.”

“But at present the tourist inflow into the valley has dropped to a mere trickle,” the official said.

It is generally believed here that even during the worst years of violence in Kashmir, the economy did not face such a grim situation as now.

“Even during shutdowns in the early 1990s I used to earn about Rs.100 daily to keep myself and my family alive by selling oranges, bananas and mangoes, all of which come here from outside because the highway remained open,” recalled Meraj-ud-Din who sells fruit on the Residency Road in summer capital Srinagar.

“If nothing comes from outside, what do I sell?” said a highly worried Meraj-ud-Din.

Hundreds of local marriages scheduled this month have been postponed because of non-availability of mutton and poultry which comes to the valley from outside the state though some families have only cancelled the feasts but carried on with the religious ceremonies.

“We have decided to solemnise the marriage of my daughter without inviting any guests to our home. There simply isn’t enough mutton to serve the guests,” said Haji Ghulam Nabi, 56, a resident of the old city area here whose daughter’s marriage is scheduled for Aug 18.

“The groom will come with his few friends, have tea at our place and the Qazi sahib shall read the Nikah. That is it. No fanfare, no festivities, no feasting, etc.”

“Unless politicians and people rise above their narrow, short-sighted loyalties both in the Jammu region and in the valley, the worst sufferer would be the common Kashmiri whose livelihood today faces the most serious threat since 1947 when the state acceded to the Indian union,” said Aijaz Hussain, a journalist here.

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