Kashmiris talk business losses amid India's shutdown

SRINAGAR, Indian-administered Kashmir --- After years of hard work, Riyaz Ahmad, 45, had saved enough money to buy a tourist cab ahead of the annual Amarnath Yatra, the Hindu pilgrimage to a holy cave high in the mountains of Muslim-majority Kashmir. 

He paid 10 lakh rupees ($14,100 USD) and took a bank loan of another nine lakh rupees ($12,700 USD) to buy the car. He expected to do good business in a thriving tourism season, but that idea collapsed when India removed Kashmir’s autonomy on Aug. 5 and brought the region under Indian control as a union territory. An unprecedented shutdown of roads, Internet and phone service (with some violence to quell protests) is dragging down Kashmir Valley’s economy, which depends on textiles of silk, wool and carpets, agriculture like apples and tourism.

Without the annual crush of tourists in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, Ahmad hasn’t been making enough money to keep up with his loan payments. He used to earn at least 2,500 rupees ($35) per day, but has seen no profits since the shutdown.

“I am suffering major losses. I have never seen such a bad situation in my life,” Ahmad said.

Two hundred taxis operate out of the Tourist Taxi Stand on Srinagar’s main thoroughfare. None have worked since Aug. 5. Most drivers don’t expect things to get better any time soon.

“This taxi stand would fetch revenue of five lakh rupees ($7,042) per day, but now the revenue has come down to a zero,” said driver Gul Mohammad. “A group of high-end Malaysian tourists were scheduled to arrive in Kashmir next month. Most of our cabs had been booked for them, but now their tour operator has diverted the tourist group to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh.” 

So far, the losses counter the narrative that India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have repeated, that scrapping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, opening it up for outside investment and Hindu settlement, will boost the state’s economy. Critics argue that the BJP’s primary concern is reshaping the demographics in the Muslim-majority region claimed in part by Pakistan to have a higher Hindu population.

Across the street, life on the picturesque Dal Lake has also been at a standstill. The shikaras, or house boats, are empty and parked along the lake’s edges. In the months before the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy, the lake was bustling with tourists in the summer peak season, when many Indians go north for cooler weather. Now, the boats and hotels are vacant. 

Hilal Ahmad, a boatman on the Dal Lake, said police made the tourists who were there ahead of the article’s revocation leave in the days before it. He takes his boat to the lake every day hoping to find some work but returns home in the evening empty-handed. 

The situation is worse than a crisis in 2016, Ahmad said, when the Kashmiri militant Burhan Wani was killed. Almost 100 people died in violent riots after his death. “But today it is like a slow burn. We don’t know when this phase of lockdown and restrictions will end in Kashmir,” Ahmad said. 

His income of about 1,000 rupees daily has ceased. He’s worried it could mean the end of his business.

Hoteliers say the losses are huge. One hotel in upscale Rajbagh, Srinagar has closed. Its owner had continued to operate it in the hope that things would go back to normal, but after the Eid festival on Aug. 12, he still had no guests and couldn’t keep paying his staff.

Mohammad Akbar, a front office manager, is also acting as a cleaner at a hotel that had 20 employees. It is now being run by three.

“We have 20 rooms in our hotel,” he said. “All of those would be sold out in any tourism season, but this season not a single room is taken.” 

The business is losing 50,000 rupees ($4,900) per day.

More than a half million tourists and 340,000 pilgrims had visited Kashmir this season, according to government figures. It was in full swing on Aug. 2, when a government advisory directed them all to leave. More than 20,000 left the valley over the next 24 hours. The rest left over the next few days.

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries has estimated business losses at Rs. 3,900 crores ($550,000,000 USD) in the first 40 days of the lockdown. The tourism industry, worth Rs. 5,000 crores ($7,000,000,000 USD), and handcrafts worth Rs. 2,000 crores ($280,000,000 USD) annually are among the worst hit sectors.

While newspapers still had ink to print in the few days after the shutdown, the pages were flooded with notices of wedding cancellations. Some who didn’t cancel their weddings went for low-key celebrations.

Bashir Ahmad, a resident of the Lal Bazar neighborhood in Srinagar, slashed the guest list for his son’s wedding from 400 guests to 80. Wedding cards were printed but never sent. A lavish celebration had been planned to last three days, but most of its functions were cancelled, Ahmad said.

Businesses that rely on wedding clients are affected. That includes “wazas,” the cooks who prepare the multi-course mutton meal called “Wazwan” traditionally served at Kashmiri weddings, caterers, decorators and wedding singers.

Zubair Ahmad, a famous Kashmiri singer, and seven musicians perform as the band Expressions. They were booked for 57 weddings, but cancellations lost them 15 lakh rupees or ($21,000 USD). Ahmad had been preparing for the season since winter. He had invested in a new sound system from Delhi for 5 lakh rupees ($7,000 USD).

“It is such a big loss for me,” he said. “I haven’t even unsealed my new equipment. All of that is lying in boxes unused in my studio.”