‘I failed again’: Lockdowns worsen Kashmir’s unemployment curse

New Delhi claimed that articles 370 and 35A had been “roadblocks” in the path of development -- and the abrogation would pave in the path for opportunities for the youth, long battling corruption.

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Mudassir Nisar had all he wanted — if not everything — in 2019; when he arrived in Kashmir Valley in June that year, a bride awaited him at home. His well-paid job off-shores had made him able to put his ailing father at ease. 

Nisar had left his home behind to find work at a chain of hotels in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia while job opportunities in Kashmir — battered by years of failed economic policies — remained scarce. 

Two weeks into the new marriage, he packed up bags to return to his job of a hospitality trainer offshores. “I was really excited to start my new life,” he said. “This job had a lot of scope of growth for me.”

But that didn’t happen. Before Nisar could join back, New Delhi clamped curfews and imposed a blanket ban on communications in the region in August 2019. The parliament revoked the limited-autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and broke the erstwhile state into two federally governed territories.

Amid the clampdown, Nisar was “too worried” to leave behind his family. “There was no way I could have spoken with my hotel [management],” he said. Long story short: Nisar lost his job when he didn’t return in time; the only source of income in the family was choked. 

“I was shocked,” he said. “The company had tried to communicate but couldn’t reach me. They knew what was happening in Kashmir but nobody stops their work for you.”

The August clampdown knocked out Kashmir’s economy as fabrics of life were cut apart by razor wires on the streets.

‘Ate like a termite’

In the next four to five months, Kashmir lost at least 5 lac jobs across various sectors, estimated the oldest commerce body, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI). Sheikh Ashiq, its president, said, “Kashmir and politics can’t be separated and the businesses and employment” face the first burnt of political upheavals.

New Delhi claimed that articles 370 and 35A had been “roadblocks” in path of development — and the abrogation would pave in path for opportunities for the youth, long battling corruption.

In the coming months, Nisar set out to find a job as he faced financial tensions. He found his area of expertise, a masters in tourism sector coupled with a diploma in hospitality, in shambles.

“Hotels were shut in Kashmir,” recalled Nisar. “There is no scope here, I saw people who lost jobs opening small shops to live on.”

But Nisar was adamant for a job and he said he applied for at least ten government jobs: “I tried everything from hospitality to librarian.” He didn’t get through in any. His aspirations to secure a government job is a reminder of the perpetual political instability that has restricted the building of a strong private sector and other forms of economic development. 

As per the latest numbers, there are nearly 90,000 youth  in Jammu and Kashmir registered as unemployed with the government’s employment exchange, a top official told The Kashmir Walla.

Saurabh Bhagat, Commissioner/Secretary to Government, Labour and Employment Department, however, said that since the registration is on a voluntary basis, “the number has to be definitely much larger”. 

To tackle problems at hand, Nisar thought of opening a footwear retail shop in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. Falling short of money, he sold a few valuables and took a loan of 5 lac rupees from a bank.

Investing all his hopes in his new venture, Nisar threw open the shop in Chadoora area’s market area on 10 March 2020. To support the family, his father too came back behind the wheels as the schools reopened in the same month. 

Two weeks later, Kashmir was locked when the COVID-19 pandemic seeped in. 

With the unprecedented travel restrictions, the pandemic forced billions of people across the world into homes. Nisar was at his home, again — awaiting reopening in anxiety. So was his father. “It broke my back,” he recalled.

“I was always passionate about my career in hospitality but I learnt to move on and found a living for myself,” Nisar said. “But I failed again.”

Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a private think-tank, estimated India’s average unemployment rate in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic lockdown at a whopping 23.52 percent. Currently, it has come down to 7 percent; however, J-K stands at the worst among all the states and union territories with nearly 22 percent.

Unless the government brings in strict policy implementation, Kashmir’s unemployment problem will linger on, warned Ashiq, the head of KCCI. “The impact of the lockdown stays. We warned the government that the impact of August lockdown will impact the economy adversely,” he said. “Now all of it is visible and it will remain here for long. It has eaten our economy like a termite.”

Signs of revival, drowning hopes

There are a few signs of respite though. Last month, the government unveiled a new industrial policy for the erstwhile state that it claimed will woo developing industries and bring in scarce investments in the private market. 

J-K’s lieutenant governor Governor Manoj Sinha also picked a top Indian Railway Traffic Service officer Ranjan Prakash Thakur to help him in the administration’s industrial outreach.

In May 2020, the government also ordered the constitution of an Accelerated Recruitment Committee, to fasten the recruitment to government vacancies. Bhagat was one of its members. “We highlighted 45,000 posts, including 22,000 class-IV jobs,” he said. “There are new job creations under new institutions like AIIMS and universities too.”

However, Kashmir’s problems run much deeper than the surface of lucrative government postings. And Bhagat says the government is aware of that. “Ninety percent of the jobs or vacancies are in the private sector,” he told The Kashmir Walla. “The revolution can only come if there is transparency in the private sector.”

He, however, put the onus of unemployment on the “high number of graduates and postgraduates” in J-K. “[J-K] is relatively very well placed in terms of educational institution,” said Bhagat. “We produce a huge number of pass outs but they do not get good jobs because primarily they don’t want to migrate to other parts of India and (want to) live close to home.”

Although a cursory analysis of the government provided data states that the number of students enrolling in Kashmir-based colleges dropped by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2016 even as the unemployment maintained numbers.

On another front, the government has also planned to come up with a centralised portal to regulate the employment in the private sector, as The Kashmir Walla exclusively reported earlier, and simultaneously “trying to lure in some big BPO companies”. 

State Job Portal, “a marketplace for jobs”, which will be launched by Sinha in March 2021, will work on bringing job-seekers and the employers together on the platform, wherein an unemployed youth will be creating a ‘profile’ on the portal with his education qualifications and skills.

“Then all the jobs, including by Indian government or private companies will have to post job vacancies on the portal,” he said. Any company that is registered under any act of the government will fall under the portal’s functioning and “will mandatorily provide every private [company] … will have to post vacancies.”

“The private sector needs to have a proactive approach that they have a responsibility towards the population,” Bhagat said, “it will happen gradually.”

Both Bhagat and Ashiq are, however, hopeful for the future. “Locals need to be proactive and grab opportunities, including under the new industrial policies,” said Ashiq. “The growing unemployment is a concern for all but there are a few signs of revival as well.”

Bhagat agreed too. “In the last two-to-three months, the tourism industry has had a quick revival. We have seen an upward U-curve and it is promising,” he said. “Kashmir is primarily a tourist and horticulture economy.”

Tourists returned to Kashmir Valley last winter as the famed hill stations, giving much relief to the stakeholders struggling with back-to-back lockdowns. But watching a tourist on the streets irks Nisar, who struggles juggling his call for passion and his retail shop.

“I feel really bad when I see them now. I still see myself at the counter of that hotel,” he said in a cracking voice. “[Hospitality] was something I wanted to do. But there isn’t scope in Kashmir for your passions.”

The continuously failing efforts to settle himself in life had an inevitable impact on his married life too. “I’m struggling to earn here. And I’m under a lot of tension,” he said. “It has damaged my marriage as well.”

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