File Photo: Mubashir Khan
Kashmiri entrepreneurs reflect on the losses they suffered during six months of curfews and shutdowns
A combination of record 50-day government-imposed curfews and prolonged Hurriyat protest calendars, beginning July 2016, following the killing of Burhan Wani — a popular tech-savvy Hizb commander from south Kashmir — has dealt a severe blow to business industry in the Kashmir Valley. In an atmosphere of uncertainty and unpredictability, Kashmir’s young entrepreneurs are finding themselves at the receiving end.
Regional economic experts put the business losses from July to December (2016), at nearly 16,000 Crore rupees (INR). That’s perhaps why some up-and-coming entrepreneurs caution “if there is a repeat of 2016 situation, we might consider leaving Kashmir forever”.
Normal life in Kashmir remained suspended for over four months in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing on 8 July last year, which triggered massive protests and demonstrations, resulting in at least 95 civilian killings and injuries to over 10,000 people as government forces responded to the crisis with unprecedented force.
Moreover, vision of almost 1,100 people was either partially or completely affected due to the use of lethal pellets as crowd control mechanism put in place by the security grid.
Meanwhile, many young entrepreneurs who had invested sizeable amounts for their Start-ups last summer are of the view that “economy stands crippled” in the restive Valley for curfews and strikes are part of Kashmir’s ‘normalcy’.
A long-lasting summer uprising has dashed hopes of many as far as profit making is concerned. Some say they are down and out, but determined to rise again. Others point out that “curfews and shutdowns are nightmares for Kashmir’s entrepreneurs and start-ups”.
With little or no savings in business wallets, their investments have taken an enormous hit. The profits are manifestly down. And, their morale badly hit. That makes most of them appear less enthusiastic about the future.
Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, a Srinagar-based young cultural entrepreneur and management consultant who owns Goodfellas at the Bund (Jhelum embankment), believes that a series of blows — curfews, strikes, and harsh winters— has severely hit his business, too.
“Without a doubt, the lack of business activity due to curfews and hartals cripples economy and hampers growth. Add harsh winters as yet another blow to this series of blows. Routes are cut off. And we suffer without a break,” Mr. Rizvi tells Kashmir Ink.
He argues that long breaks in business shatter consistency and hurt the customer base. He says he has pumped 12 lakh rupees (INR) more, as yet another investment, to sustain his business. He is hoping for a peaceful 2017.
“It is like starting afresh. It is my third investment to keep my business alive. Curfews and strikes have made me lose my customer base,” he says, adding, “I will have to devise new marketing strategy to attract new customers, which means new investment.”
Mr. Rizvi makes another critical point. That, a six-month long pause in normal activity deeply affects purchasing power of common people, which is “bad news for businessmen like me”.
“Only the salaried class can breathe easy, everyone else suffers. When purchasing power of people takes a hit, our business suffers. Now, it is about hiring new people and adopting newer techniques,” he concludes.
There are many youthful entrepreneurs like Mr. Rizvi who share his views. But there are some like Javid Parsa, owner of Kathi Junction, who have a slightly different take.
“Everyone in Kashmir suffered because of what happened from July to December last year. I, as a businessman, suffered too. But I think it is love for my motherland and love for my people that made me side with the dominant sentiment prevailing on the street,” Mr. Parsa tells Kashmir Ink.
Nearly two months after the devastating floods of 2014, Mr. Parsa started his business venture and named it as Kathi Junction, a food outlet at a rented place in a local mall in Srinagar. He says he left his secure job at Amazon in south India to do something substantial in Kashmir.
Parsa is known for his innovative business strategies, which include taking Selfies with customers and using social media space effectively for promoting many social and literary initiatives, which include Road Safety and Gaash (Light), etc.
Owing to the civilian uprising, government curfews and Hurriyat hartals, Mr. Parsa had to pay five month salaries (roughly seven lakh rupees) to his staff members without doing any business. However, he says his employees made him proud by one good gesture.
“All my employees returned their one month salary as a goodwill gesture, and as a token of respect, toward my decision to pay them their full salaries for five months when no work was possible,” he says.
Doing business in Kashmir, a place which is unpredictable for variety of reasons, is no cake walk. “It is obviously difficult. It gets more difficult for young entrepreneurs like me who have little or no savings,” Mr. Parsa says, adding that “at the end of the day, money matters”.
Sometimes he finds himself at the crossroads, thinking long and hard whether he should have left a secure job outside Kashmir. “I hope that we will rise again, but if there is a repeat of 2016-like situation, I might consider leaving Kashmir forever.”
Mir Muneeb, another young entrepreneur who owns The Other Side Café in Srinagar and south Kashmir, feels that the prolonged break in business has been a “tremendous setback” for businesspersons like him.
“Whether we make profits or not, our expenses remain the same. We have to pay our debts in time, and also pay salaries to the employees during prolonged shutdowns and curfews. A lot of raw material goes waste. The food items cross their validity date,” he writes in an e-mailed response.
Mr. Muneeb opines that “the unrest crushes budding entrepreneurs to the core”.
He also highlights the emotional aspect of the economic loss on young entrepreneurs. “Apart from the monetary loss, the unpredictability exhausts us mentally. Many a time, we feel like quitting and giving up,” he adds.
Talking further about the anxiety factor, he says: “Life in a conflict zone ain’t easy by any stretch of the imagination. Long breaks give us sleepless nights. Stress. Anxiety. And there is indecisiveness about the future.”
“All planning and hardwork goes down the drain. A budding entrepreneur like me is left at the mercy of others. In Kashmir, our journey from day one is full of risks and unpredictable hits,” he tells Kashmir Ink.
Tabish Habib is another Srinagar-based young woman entrepreneur. She runs Prism Creations and ThinkPod. She argues that in situations of natural disasters like floods or earthquake, a significant part of the loss is covered by the insurance, but there is no recipe for conflict-induced disasters.
“For obvious reasons, no outsider is willing to make investments in unpredictable Kashmir. My business suffered immensely during the unrest,” Ms. Tabish Habib says.
She says that she had invested over 35 lakh rupees (INR) to set up her new business venture, ThinkPod. “With rumours of another round of unrest this workings season beginning March has inflicted huge psychological pain on young entrepreneurs like me,” she says, adding “we live under constant threat in Kashmir. We are often left at the mercy of others. We have no control on our lives and businesses. The psychological loss is tremendous.”
During the unrest, she says she had to pay one lakh rupees (INR) as rent for her new office without doing any work. With uncertainty looming large in Kashmir, she is planning to set up another office in Jammu to keep herself in good stead. According to her, she suffered over 40 per cent losses during the period of strife.
There are many other entrepreneurs who did not want to be named. They insisted that that the earthquake of 2005, floods of 2014, and civilian uprisings in 2008, 2010 and 2016 have blown their enthusiasm into pieces.
Shakeel Qalandar, Kashmir’s well-known businessman and a civil society actor associated with the Kashmir Centre for Social and Development Studies, says that the Kashmir Valley suffered over 100 crore rupees (INR) on a daily basis during curfews and shutdowns.
“Our moderate estimate is that we lost nearly 16,000 crore rupees (INR) in five months of strife, from July until December 2016,” he says.
Faiz Bakshi, Joint Secretary General of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce (KCC), agreed with Mr. Qalandar’s estimation.
“Officially, I believe the Kashmir Valley suffered business losses to the tune of over 15,000 crores (INR). Though the actual losses might be difficult to assess for the simple reason that some transactions also do happen under shadow economy,” he writes in an e-mailed response.
Apart from enormous economic losses to entrepreneurs, the periods of strife also leave their employees in limbo. They also suffer psychologically with no work and little hopes for a productive future. It is equally demoralising for them as well.
But does anybody care, they ask!