Sitting in the crowded Departure Hall of the swanky new terminal of the Delhi airport, I was politely asked by a young gentleman whether the seat opposite mine was taken. I replied: ‘No, please have a seat.’ He was a marketing professional, working in a big business, for a wealthy individual from the South who has a political identity as well. As the casual discussion meandered, he asked me where I was from, and I replied, ‘Kashmir.’ In a few short seconds, without catching his breath, he counted four Kashmiris working in his firm, of whom two were quite close friends. One of them, young and restless, was playing a major role in the FM radio station owned by this wealthy individual.
I was taken to a few hours earlier in the day, when at an India-wide conference, I met a Head of Department from a prominent medical college, who was also quick to list a number of Kashmiris who had worked with and under him at various times. At the same conference, I met a Muslim member of the Society, who named a Kashmiri he was working with during his training. Later, I was told by my previous batch-mates about a particularly famous Delhi Hospital, where there has been a Kashmiri in every annual batch of training for the last five years, some of whom have returned to the Valley to work in prominent government hospitals.
Kashmiris need to take heart from these tales. Whether in the cockpit of prominent airlines, or the cricket field with major teams, or the studios with major producers, Kashmiris have breached walls, and crossed major hurdles. There is a Kashmiri on the faculty of the AIIMS, India’s premier government-run medical institution, and there are many more in various large corporate hospitals throughout India. Equally, Kashmiris now hold positions of importance in many, many private and multinational companies, often rising against the tide, and without any political or personal backing. Not to talk of the recent surge in the number of Kashmiris who have joined the Civil Services, and are seeing themselves as modern-day heroes for the common Kashmiri.
However, all this begs an important question: is Kashmir witnessing brain-drain? Is Kashmir developed enough to accommodate this surge in professionals? Are there enough opportunities for Kashmiris returning from studies and research outside to work and establish themselves?
The sad answer is no. For every success story of a Kashmiri boy or girl having braved odds and returned highly qualified, there are many sad tales. Like the one of a PhD from Germany, who had two Post-doctoral fellowships, including one from Harvard, of all places, the world’s number one University, who is now working at a low post in Kashmir’s premier health institution, for which he is too qualified. The sum total of his tragic tale is this: Kashmir does not have a job for him, and there is no place for someone of his credentials in Kashmir. Hence, his only options are to leave Kashmir for greener pastures elsewhere, or to stick it in the mud, and wait for lady luck to shine. There was another case, of a surgeon who obtained advanced training from one of India’s top-notch medical colleges, and ended up being posted in a place where his skills were wasted. He now finds himself in a Gulf country.
With a subservient economy, dependent on doles from Delhi, there are only limited options anyway. Not everyone can be a farmer or tailor or craftsman. Neither can all the hospitals accommodate the surplus of Kashmiri doctors that graduate every year all over the world. Nor can the few engineering colleges admit all the graduating students as faculty or researchers.
Forward thinking policies, that look at the demand and supply for jobs over the next few decades, are the need of the moment. Unemployed or underemployed professionals are a waste of talent, and a waste of hard-earned money by the tax-paying public, which Kashmir can ill-afford.
Brain-drain is inevitable as long as India’s economy is growing and faster developing regions are able to absorb professionals from the lesser developed or slow-growing regions. When such regions reach saturation point, the result will be an unmitigated disaster. What then?
The government has little time on its hands, and so does the Kashmiri public. There are only a few areas where Kashmir can see sustained and genuine growth: information technology (IT), telecommunications, hydro-electric power generation, and tourism. With a few short and far-reaching steps, these areas can generate employment for thousands of people. What is essential is facilitation of ideas, tax-free incentivisation, and a platform of adequate infrastructure. Bureaucratic hassles have to be reduced to a bare minimum, bank back-up should be protective and not predatory, and team work rather than individualisation should be encouraged. There is no reason why Kashmir cannot be the best software technology producing region in the world – all the ingredients are there: a well-educated population, skills waiting to be used, and ideas that are second to none. But the government and administration is falling behind, forcing these people to move elsewhere.
Enough has been said already about power generation, but tourism, which has received attention, is an area bereft of ideas. As the new tourist season is about to begin in a few months, it is important for all stake-holders to take a critical look at the way this sector is being managed. A focus on ‘numbers of tourist arrivals’ is leading us nowhere – what is Kashmir giving them in terms of quality and experience? Are there any theme parks for children? Barring a few notable exceptions, how many high-end hotels are there in Kashmir, which is where employment and wealth is generated? How many museums and libraries cater to the growing interest in modern Kashmiri history and handicrafts? None. How many restaurants and eateries are there in Kashmir of international standards? Too few. What about infrastructure at tourist spots? Well below average.
Without a sustained effort to find ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions for the need for jobs and development in Kashmir, the current policy of myopic ad-hocism is going to lead Kashmir down a path of ruinous debt. The sooner Kashmir realises that economic slavery is far worse than any other form of slavery, the better it is.