Unless the political situation of Jammu and Kashmir is not addressed, there is little scope for its business and economy to prosper, believes chairman of Kashmir Economic Alliance, Mohammad Yasin Khan. In an interview with Kashmir Reader Business Editor Inam ul Haq, Khan talks in detail about “government of India’s discriminatory approach towards Kashmir” and the issues faced by the Valley’s business community
Kashmir Reader: You recently accused New Delhi and Congress party of having discriminatory approach towards Kashmir?
Mohammad Yasin Khan: See, I am not a politician and I won’t have any claim about political matters. As a business leader, I will talk from the business point of view. As far as Jammu and Kashmir is concerned, I do not feel, Government of India thinks that we are among them, they always consider us as other. This is the hard fact of life that all the acts of Indian government here are discriminatory. In past 68 years, I don’t find Government of India – that is any body in power in New Delhi, though mostly it has been Congress – let us be like any other state of India or any other part of the world, where people are free to do business. This discriminatory approach is particularly towards Kashmir valley. As per the Indian government and state government, the situation here has changed drastically but despite that the draconian laws like Armed Forces Special Powers Act is not being removed. This makes very clear that India is not serious about resolving Kashmir issue.
KR: You feel the economic prosperity and growth of businesses in Kashmir is linked to political situation?
MYK: Yes, until the issue of Kashmir is not resolved, I firmly believe till then there won’t be such prosperity like we see elsewhere. Neither will the businessmen of Kashmir reach to the level, which their counterparts have attained in other states. But New Delhi is not ready to accept this hard reality. In all its sections, the approach towards Kashmir is same.
MYK:If you take into consideration the role which the judiciary is playing here, it is doing the same thing, the Government of India is doing. See the case of what government calls illegal construction. First, all of these are not illegal. Yes, there are some of the cases where illegal constructions have taken place but all of them are not illegal. If you go to Jammu or Ladakh, constructions have came up in same pattern like they have come up in Srinagar, but no body says there are illegal constructions in Jammu. Neither do the courts interfere there.
KR: But can these constructions, which have vandalized the city, be justified on the pretext that similar things are happening in Jammu or other places?
MYK: You see how the Valley, especially Srinagar city has expanded over the years. Srinagar was having population of 8 lakh 20 years back but now the population of the city is almost 15 lakhs. So where will the people go, we don’t have any other option. The government has not reviewed the master plan for last 28 years, which is their responsibility. Business community or the general public cannot do it on its own. The other side is how these constructions have come up. People get the building permissions from the government, its different agencies. These constructions does not come up in a week or a fortnight, it takes at least a year for a construction to get complete. Where are the authorities till then? If these constructions are illegal, why do they allow constructions at the first place or why don’t they stop, when they see the building activities going on. The judiciary jumps into it. But why doesn’t this kind of judicial activism take place in Jammu, Leh or Katra.
KR: Why do you think that discrimination only happens with Kashmir and for what reason?
MYK: Playing with the lives of Kashmiris, we were being supplied low quality iron mis-branded and sealed as SAIL (Steel Authority of India) product by some Jammu based companies. When these people were caught doing this heinous act, why didn’t judiciary act? Even an FIR was registered after so much of delay and it was done half-heartedly. The bogus iron supplied was mostly used in development works, like bridges, flyovers and public buildings and judiciary didn’t utter a word, unlike last time when it took cognizance against Kanwal or Khyber. Why this dual policy? I repeat again why has not sealing of the buildings happened in Katra, Jammu and Ladakh, why only in Kashmir. Even when court issued a similar instruction for Katra town, the district administration there refused to act on court directions saying it will vitiate the atmosphere. These are the things which make it very clear what New Delhi and its representatives are doing in Kashmir – playing a dual policy and discriminatory approach towards Kashmir.
Whatever happens here is directly done by the Government of India on its own or by its representatives here. The pro-India political parties have no say on the affairs of Kashmir. They just act as the emissaries of New Delhi.
KR: You mean state government cannot act on its own, even on the development and business matters?
MYK: Yes. National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party have become puppets, because they don’t and cannot defend anything for their own state. If you compare J&K with other states, like with West Bengal, Tamil Nadu or Punjab, these state have power to act on their own or can even influence decision-making in New Delhi, which is related to them but the government of J&K cannot even open its mouth on such issues, which clearly indicates state government’s helplessness.
Take the example of the Afzal Guru execution. Why is death penalty of Bhular of Punjab or the killers of Raju Gandhi from Tamil Nadu waved off and Guru is executed out of turn. And even state Assembly fails to pass a legislation demanding wave off of Guru’s execution. Doesn’t it make clear that New Delhi, especially Congress, which has ruled there for the majority of the time does not want to empower the people of the state, particularly from Kashmir division. Even if tomorrow there is no Congress at the helm of affairs in New Delhi and some other party comes to power, I believe they will act in a similar fashion because when it comes to Kashmir, Government of India listens more to the dictates of its Military and intelligence agencies as compared to the local governments.
KR: When we talk of economy of Kashmir, it is mainly dependent on agriculture and the government jobs. What can be done to boost the economy here, given the limited resources state has got?
MYK: See resources of a place take a main part in developing any economy. In our case the biggest natural resource we have got is water. But, unfortunately, our all water resource have been taken by government of India. NHPC is illegally occupying power projects here. If you go into accountability or see the documentation you will never find that the state government has given them these power projects. So when I talk of illegal occupation, I don’t feel any difference between the army, which is without any purpose sitting here or NHPC.
KR: But NHPC says they didn’t come on their own. J&K government invited them, provided land and even incentives for setting up power projects here.
MYK: That is not so simple. They were asked to invest and develop the power project where they will take their profit and state will get also benefited. But they grabbed the whole thing. If government of India would have been sincere about the affairs of Jammu and Kashmir they should have returned one or two projects at least back to the state. NHPC and government of India even didn’t honour the recommendations of none other than prime minister of India’s set up working group to return few power projects to Kashmir.
Civil society of Kashmir including business community has demanded that the state be handed over at least those projects which are 25 to 30 years old, because NHPC has earned already lot of money from those projects, which will give some impetus to the state’s economy by overcoming some power deficiency.
KR: Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said in the floor of the House that they had taken back Uri II from NHPC and will be operated jointly. But recently NHPC commissioned Uri II and added its 240-MW generation capacity to its own kitty without even mentioning name of the state government?
MYK: I told you earlier as well whatever decision making about Kashmir be it political or economic, the head of the government in the state has no role in that. It is government of India, sitting in New Delhi, which decides about all affairs of Jammu and Kashmir. So there is no surprise. Chief minister here is just a post with no authority, unlike other states of India. Even when chief minister says government will not give any new project to NHPC, still you may see more projects going to NHPC, as he has no authority.
Business and economy of this place cannot be talked about without the politics going on in this place. Just take the example of Tosamaidan. We are against the extension of lease for the firing range. Local are up protesting as they have suffered both in terms of the human cost and economy. They do not want the firing range there, but it is not being shifted.
If we see by population or area, Jammu and Kashmir’s share of firing ranges is 1.5 percent, which means one out of the total 66 India has presently. But we have 12 firing ranges here, which is more than 20 percent. Why they cannot shift one firing range from the state. What is our government doing then?
KR:Coming to the issue of the doing business in Kashmir. How easy it is and how far the businessmen of the Valley get the government support? What are the issues confronting the business community here?
MYK: For establishing businesses or setting up industries, you don’t get easy clearance here. If one wants to go into power sector, where private investment is being encouraged in the other parts of India, getting clearance is damn difficult job in Kashmir. The clearance never happens through single window system. If one goes with such projects to other state, one gets not only easy clearance but incentives as well. Here the bureaucratic approach is such that an entrepreneur gets fed up and leaves the project there.
I would like to give you one more example for that, Kashmir has to face two entry points for tax collections where as Jammu has only one. How can there be two entry tax collection points for the one region in Lakhanpur as well as Lower Munda for Kashmir and only Lakhanpur for Jammu when both are parts of the same state. Besides, government sets targets for tax collections and gives incentives to collectors. To fulfill the targets officials of Sales Tax Department resort to any means. They harass traders, fine them on one pretext or other.
Take the horticulture sector, which is not only one of the biggest contributors of the state’s economy and employment but we supply 80 percent of the apple produce to India. But see how on the name of pesticides, fertilisers we are being deceived by providing spurious, and substandard supplies and our state government does nothing for that. Why do not we have testing laboratories and stringent quality control checks for that. And irony is that even when the authorities say that certain chemicals or pesticides are substandard but still allow them for the sale.
KR: But is it affordable to keep blaming government of India and state government only? Where does the responsibility of the local traders lie, because they are also part of these deals?
MYK: Yes, this is true some traders are also involved and trade bodies too need to take the responsibility. But when we see the holistic pictures, local traders or farmers do not have much role to play. But still I won’t say that the local business community is completely innocent. But it is again for the government to punish if they find any local traders involved in such activities and we will provide full cooperation for that. When did government take any action and traders did not corporate?
KR: When we talk of city, you recently lamented the state of the roads and drainage system and said government is not paying any attention to it. Why you feel so?
MYK: Unfortunately, we do not have any accountability here. And there is no one to ask any minister in this coalition government what they are doing. In last week of March, government of India released Rs119 crore for the construction of the roads in the city but Rs 94 crore out of that were spent by the PWD minister in Jammu division and gave the excuse that Valley has not good weather. Just move through the hub of the city, which is Lal Chowk and see the dilapidated roads. If you go to inner city or downtown one cannot imagine how bad road are there. Whole city is waterlogged even when it rains for few hours and they divert our funds on one pretext or another. This discrimination makes the condition of infrastructure abysmal.
This is completely unacceptable that the funds meant cannot be spent due to bad weather. Why cannot we schedule spending such a way or ask for extending the financial year to June or July. This is not a God given law, which cannot be changed. Weather here is something, which like this since eternity, therefore we need to plan according to it and not to make it an excuse. There are been certain places in India where due to weather situation they allow funds to be carry forwarded for next session, why not for my Valley.
KR: Last year Planning Commission of India citing state’s inefficiency to spend funds reduced state’s plan allocation. Then there are number of centrally sponsored schemes, where the funds remain mostly unspent. What you have to say about that?
MYK: See when Ghulam Nabi Azad was the chief minister of the state they extended the deadline for spending funds from March 31 to June 31. Why is present chief minister, his colleagues and bureaucracy unable to do the same now. These are only excuses of inefficiency. This has now become a routine for last 20 years that they transfer funds from this region to Jammu on the pretext of weather. This is a deliberate attempt to rob Kashmir division of its due share.
KR: Can you tell us the role of KTMF and KEA, two business bodies you are heading here, and how they fit in the representation of the business community here? There are some other business bodies like KCCI and FCIK too.
MYK: KTMF represents the retail business community of the whole Valley and then it has associations associated with it, like bazaar committees, district committees and different associations mostly involved with the trade. I can say that KTMF represents majority of the traders in the Valley. KTMF works for the over all trader community, to address them different concerns related to business and other matters.
It was the 2008 economic blockade of Kashmir, which awakened us that Kashmir businesses needs a bigger platform. No doubt we have chamber (KCCI) here, but I don’t feel chamber has been able to play its role. I fail to understand why they are not doing it. They mostly concentrate on the export of handicrafts. In 2008, when all hell was broken loose on us, all the people from different business communities said if such things keep happening what will we do. So people from different organizations: transport sector, hoteliers, tourism, industries sector, horticulture, joined together and Kashmir Economic Alliance came into being. Now we have a chamber of 14 organisations, which represents trade, transport, horticulture, a part of hotel industries, tourism, contractors, and travel trade of the Valley. KEA takes up all the issues related to business in particular and people in general here.
KR: What is the reason that all the big business houses of the Valley are not part of the local trade bodies rather they are associated with CII and other such bodies?
MYK: Yeah that is true. Most of them did not wanted to be part of local business bodies and it is also a fact that the business bodies here too were not developed the way they should have been. But now I see they have changed their mindset. Recently what happened with two big business families of the Valley, nobody from the outside came into their support, even when they hold their membership as well. It were the local trade bodies, which came openly in their support and helped them sort out things. Now some business families have approached us recently and they want to be part of KEA.
KR: You are a member of joint chamber of Kashmir, a body of traders between two parts of Kashmir seeking greater economic corporation and enhancing the cross-LoC trade. How you see the trade between two parts the way it is going presently?
MYK: See LoC trade is eyewash on the part of governments of India and Pakistan. I see it only as a CBM (confidence building measure). We want to become bridge between the two and if these come closer to each other, perhaps our problem will get also resolved. Practically speaking, do you feel, in this age the barter trade is feasible? I say no it is not. But still we run it. There are lot of conspiracies and hurdles on this trade. People who are doing international trade between India and Pakistan create lot of hurdles in this trade. They don’t allow it to run smoothly, as they think it is custom free trade and makes them at disadvantage. But they don’t understand that this is a minuscule of the trade what they are doing. If you see the trade between India and Pakistan at Wagah is Rs 3500 crore a year and here from both the sides the total trade since its inception in 2008 is Rs 5300 crore. So this in six years as compared to what happens at Wagah in fone year.
KR: A trade delegation, which wanted to visit Pakistan administered Kashmir was not able to go as two people, including you were not given the clearance by the government. What is the reason?
MYK: I feel both the countries are responsible for that. Me and Dr Mubeen (Dr Mubeen Shah – ex-president Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industries) were not cleared by the government of India, though both of us have passports. If they want they can still allow this trade delegation to go. Government of Pakistan says we didn’t stop you, but government of India says we cleared, it is government of Pakistan which is not clearing. I don’t know why it is so. A trade delegation from that side of Kashmir came here and we wanted to go there and meet the traders there so that we can carry forward the trade. We want to revive the trade, the way it was going on before 1947. There should be trade with Central Asian countries through this route; Kashmir should become a free economic zone.