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Haris Wani’s dreams of opening his own business were crushed by political instability in Indian-administered Kashmir. Now Wani, 24, is back on the job market and far away from home. Aliya Bashir, GPJ India
Migration

Political Turmoil in Indian-Administered Kashmir Forces Out Young Entrepreneurs

India

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, the region was thrown into turmoil. Many young entrepreneurs, once a source of employment and economic development in the region, had no choice but to close their businesses and seek opportunity elsewhere.

NEW DELHI, INDIA — Haris Wani always dreamed of running his own business. So after working for 18 months as a shift engineer on a power project in Indian-administered Kashmir, he quit that job and used his savings to open a fast-food restaurant.

“It wasn’t easy to convince my family, especially my grandmother, who was a doctor. She wanted me to stick to my job,” he says.

Despite their reservations his franchise of the chain Parsa’s Foods opened its doors in the village of Amargarh, in the Baramulla district of Indian-administered Kashmir in 2018. For seven months, Wani says, everything went well.

Wani put 400,000 Indian rupees ($5,600) he had saved from his job and gifts of money from his family toward the business. But he still had to take out a 600,000 rupee ($8,400) loan from a local bank to turn his dream into reality.

Wani employed eight workers – mainly young people – at the restaurant. He says he was happy to help this demographic in a region where youth unemployment is rife.

But his business didn’t last. On August 5, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir – the nation’s only Muslim-majority state.

In the days that followed, Indian-administered Kashmir was cut off from the rest of the country. As a communications blackout took hold, most non-essential businesses were forced to shut.

In recent weeks, government offices have reopened and some connectivity has been restored. Shops that sell essential commodities are now open for a few hours in the morning and sometimes in the evening, if there are no protests that day.

But Wani’s branch of Parsa’s Foods has been shuttered for good, and he’s moved to New Delhi.

“I invested my everything in the business,” he says. “I was so busy. I had not thought that any uncertain situation in Kashmir like this would shatter my dreams.”

Ejaz Ayoub, an independent columnist in Kashmir who specializes in economics and finance, says many types of business suffered the same fate.

“The cash inflow has choked in the Kashmir region due to ongoing crises,” he says. “People are shifting base, looking for employment outside the region.”

Throughout the state, markets have remained closed, Ayoub says, but small-business owners still have to pay rent, employee salaries and other overhead costs.

“The long-term impact of the ongoing bad situation is that people will stop creating new businesses,” he says. “There will be more of a youth brain drain.”

Alfarakh Bashir, 28, a postgraduate student in business administration, says her efforts to start a business in Indian-administered Kashmir failed twice due to political instability.

Her family would always say that uncertainty in the region would ruin her career, she says. In the end, their fears came true.

Bashir lost her first IT business during the 2016 unrest following the killing of Burhan Wani, the commander of an armed group. That year, the state was in shutdown mode for six months.

In 2019, she tried again, gathering her courage to plan an education venture that would provide camps and practical learning activities to children. The business was due to launch in November, but that was before more than 100 days of lockdown pushed her into unemployment once more.

“As an entrepreneur, we have to plan things and invest in the market,” Bashir says. “But in an uncertain place like Kashmir, all plans fail and that demotivates you.”

She too has moved to New Delhi, where she is currently looking for work.

Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he regrets ever having encouraged young people to start a business in Indian-administered Kashmir.

“Most of the start-ups won’t be able to make up for the losses, due to the lack of any rehabilitation policy,” he says.

Ahmad says the government must come up with a policy to help young entrepreneurs get back on their feet once the crisis is over.

On September 9, after his restaurant had been closed for a month, Wani had to give up on his business and lay off his employees. He needed to pay back his loan to the bank and clear the expenses he had racked up, he says.

“I didn’t find any support network or financial help to survive,” he says. “There is no hope left now.”
Wani is currently employed as an associate executive at an IT company in New Delhi. He plans to move to Dubai this year.

Aliya Bashir, GPJ, translated some interviews from Kashmiri and Urdu.