After spending years abroad, in Dubai, Arif Bashir returned home to Srinagar, when the pastures seemed green again. Mr. Bashir quit his job as a senior engineer in a Dubai-based company and set up his own firm, Matrix Group of Engineers.
The thought of being close to his family again ensured that Mr. Bashir, a diploma holder in civil engineering, did not second guess himself. But what had really led him to quit a lucrative job was the government’s Self Help Group (SHG) scheme to provide reservation in contracts to local engineers.
The SHG scheme was first rolled out by the former chief minister, the late Mufti Mohammad Syeed, in 2003 after consistent demands from Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) based engineers struggling with unemployment. The scheme had reserved 30 percent of the government’s tenders for local engineers.
“We used to earn on the basis of the work,” said Mr. Bashir. “We worked even during the floods [in 2014]. The last time there was a massive breach in Shivpora [in Srinagar] which could waterlog the entire city, we worked day and night and restored the breach.”
However, on 10 August 2020, the J-K administration abolished the SHG scheme, and with that, the hopes and livelihoods of many J-K based engineers were taken away. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi led government had promised jobs but the abolition of the scheme was another step after the imposition of the domicile law, in April 2020, allowed for non-locals to compete for government jobs in the region.
“We had started earning properly,” rued Mr. Bashir. “Our families were dependent on these SHGs but our work is suffering now. We even left the projects we were working on and we have been protesting since then.”
Since the abolition of the SHG scheme, Mr. Bashir said he has been constantly thinking about his future. “I left a good job outside Kashmir and came back home for employment but it was of no use,” he said.
Mr. Bashir believes that SHG engineers were not a burden for the government. “I haven’t been paid for the Shivpora breach project till now. I have a pending loan of around 20 lacs from J-K bank. How will I pay it back?”
Loss of eligibility?
Syed Parvaiz, an engineer from Srinagar, was 32 when he availed the SHG scheme and created a firm of his own along with his friends that gave them a constant income. It was the same for many engineers like them. “Employment was generated through this scheme,” he said. “Through this, we were able to generate further employment for others; for example, peons, computer operators, and more.”
Today, Mr. Parvaiz is 49-years-old. After 17 years of working under the SHG scheme, he is again left unemployed. “I am no longer eligible for a job,” he said. “So where am I supposed to go now? They made this decision without the knowledge of stakeholders. My family is dependent on me; I can’t get a job at this age.” He rued that no one had an inkling that the scheme would be abolished, that too, without any alternative for the future.
Jagpaul Singh, an engineer based in Jammu, is similarly worried about his future; he, too, is overaged to get a new job, he said. “Young engineers are not as affected as those who have been working like this for many years,” he said. “More than 50 percent of the people in these SHGs are overaged, what will they do?”’
The engineers working with SHGs, said Mr. Singh, had to invest money in projects by taking out loans. “We used to invest our own money. After it was finished, the bill used to be framed, then the bill was passed and finally, we would get back our money. We never required separate funds from the government,” he said.
Since 2003, over 4000 SHGs have been created in J-K. Out of which over 2500 were in the Kashmir division while over 1500 were based in the Jammu division. In 2017, new guidelines were issued and the scheme was modified for the benefit of engineers by the Omar Abdullah-led government. The unemployed group of engineers was now supposed to have a minimum of four members and a maximum of ten, with at least two-degree holders and two diploma holders.
“What will we do now?” Mr. Singh rued the uncertainty after the current projects were completed. “Once those projects end, there will be nothing left for us. If each group has invested at least 10 lacs for a project, who will pay them back now?”
Mr. Singh believes that the abolition of the scheme would also mean a job-crisis in the near future. “Now, the future engineers are also going to suffer,” he said. “The government is opening Polytechnic colleges in almost all districts [of J-K] but simultaneously there are no new jobs. How will they get employed?”
Tafheem Javaid Qadri, 24, completed his Materials Engineering from the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar in 2019 and is currently pursuing his master’s degree from the University of Munich in Germany. The employment rate of engineers in Kashmir, he said, is very low, and was not hopeful of finding work back home.
“The problem is that many graduates come out of engineering colleges every year and there are not enough jobs,” said Mr. Qadri. “Government departments have stagnated, there are no vacancies. Once these graduates come out there is absolutely no place to go. Even private firms cannot accommodate everyone out there.”
Each year many students take admission in various branches of the engineering departments in Kashmir. While there are around 515 engineering seats in the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), there are around 180 seats in Kashmir University (KU), 720 seats in Srinagar School of Management College of Engineering, and around 600 seats in the National Institute of Technology (NIT).
While there were around four government polytechnic colleges in Kashmir and around two in Jammu, the government is coming up with more Polytechnics. Around eight new colleges have been established in Kashmir and eight in Jammu.
In such a situation, Mr. Qadri said that the SHG scheme filled a critical gap. “It didn’t eradicate the unemployment problem but many people benefited from it. Especially those who were not economically [previlleged],” he said.
According to Mr. Qadri, going out of Kashmir is feasible only for those who can afford it, be it for higher studies or jobs. “One needs to have an initial capital or impetus which allows you to go out. Many people cannot leave their homes because they have aging parents or they have financial constraints. Going out is only an option for a few,” he said.
“There should have been a plan of action from the government’s side before they decided to dissolve the scheme, added Mr. Qadri. “What alternatives were they planning to provide the people with? Because so many people are left with nothing to do. These people are stranded. There is no short term plans to hold onto.”
The story originally appeared in our 7 – 13 September 2020 print edition.