Meet entrepreneurs who were crushed by the lockdown

SRINAGAR: The gradual lifting of restrictions on public movement and access to information in Kashmir has begun to reveal what the extended lockdown has done to Kashmiri entrepreneurs who had given up their savings and plush jobs to create new wealth, jobs, and enterprise.
Syed Ashfaq, an entrepreneur with 10 years of experience, is just one example of the devastation caused by shut internet, locked streets, and the pervasive uncertainty. Today he operates with six employees his three vertical businesses, which at one point of time were giving livelihood to more than 400 employees. There was a time when his revenue flow was such that he was convinced that entrepreneurship was the route to success in Kashmir.
“Kashmir’s uncertain situation has plunged entrepreneurs into a deep a well, in which where every effort to climb out of it is frustrated and attacked by various forces. The situation is such that even hoping for a solution has become impossible. It has destroyed the very mindset from where any success germinates,” Ashfaq said.
The 43-year-old entrepreneur had quit his position as branch manager at a renowned private bank in 2008. That time he was drawing a salary of more than what the chief minister of the state was entitled to. The company had hired him on his terms and conditions, not the company’s, he says.
Ashfaq started his journey in financial services, hospitality and tourism, and resource optimisation. In one year, he had more than 400 employees working for his ventures. Then came the 2010 restrictions, the 2014 floods, the 2016 uprising, and finally the 2019 lockdown, which shut everything and made him lose most of his wealth.
“I am not scared of failures because they are the steps on the ladder of success. But I find it distressing that that the means to create wealth have been blocked unnecessarily,” he said.
The passionate entrepreneur has been losing hope after witnessing how Kashmiri entrepreneurs were forced to call off their operations despite having a strong will to work. According to him, bureaucratic hurdles, corruption, vagaries of climate, and political uncertainty have all made Kashmir unviable for entrepreneurship.
Ashfaq’s loss is part of the more than one lakh crore loss the Kashmir economy has suffered over the last decade. Last year alone, the economy was hit by losses of close to Rs 20,000 crore, according to the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, a conglomerate of traders, entrepreneurs, and manufacturers.
Uzma Mushtaq, until recently a zealous 30-year-old entrepreneur, is another to have quit. Before the government imposed the lockdown in August last year, she was managing the operations of three businesses that were engaged in trading and services. Paying salaries to seven employees and high rents for office space was not a big deal for her. But after seven months of a shut Kashmir, all her earnings have been exhausted. So have her energies.
“Tell me, is there anything left to do here in Kashmir? There is uncertainty, turmoil hanging over the head, anxiety in the air. These are not conditions conducive for any kind of business. I am seriously thinking of moving out of this place,” Uzma told Kashmir Reader.
Uzma ventured into the world of entrepreneurship in mid 2016, when she was 27, and the mother of two kids. Defying stereotypes, she showed how a woman be a caring mother, obedient daughter, and successful business woman. The challenge posed by the lockdown, however, has left even her floundering for a solution.
Some 50 kms from Srinagar, in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district, Harris Wani had to move out from the Kashmir Valley to keep his one-year-old restaurant-cum-cafe running. To fund his start-up at a cost of Rs 22 lakh, the 24-year-old had to quit his engineering job, take a loan from a bank, and find a business partner.
Wani told Kashmir Reader that until August last year, his venture was performing financially beyond his expectations. Then the internet shutdown and everything else dealt it a body blow.
“I have monthly expenses of more Rs 1.5 lakh on my venture. For three months, I kept it running from my savings, but when they were about to be exhausted I went to Delhi for a job, to pay for salaries, rentals, and my monthly loan instalments,” Wani said.
The entrepreneur has now returned home after internet services were partially resumed by the government, but his spirits are not as high as before. He says that when he was about to start his business, his family had warned him that doing business in Kashmir was not the way to live.
He did not heed to their warning, he now rues. His family’s “logic” was right, he says.
“I don’t regret, but yes, I have learnt what it means to start a business here. It is not easy in Kashmir. I understand now why people choose government jobs over anything else,” he said.

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