New Delhi: A perceptible reduction in cross-border tensions has spurred hope among the people of Kashmir. Politicians and people in the Valley are pitching for post offices, not defence spending; fresh-fruit trade with Pakistan, not armed guards; and public investment, not joblessness in the region.
Weeks before the Union budget is presented, collective voices are pushing pet development projects, power generation from Dal Lake, tax exemptions on incomes up to Rs2 lakh and a rail head to link Kashmir with the rest of India.
“Instead of armed guards, the Valley could do with industrialization for a change. We don’t want chemical or acrylic plants, but public-sector units and small-scale business,” says Amir Ali, a United Nations Development Project (UNDP) official based in Srinagar.
Kashmir has special status under the Constitution, which entitles it to special assistance—pegged at Rs848 crore in the 2006-07 budget—apart from the state allocation of Rs2,300 crore that year.
But in January 2007, the state conducted its first pre-budget economic survey, which showed per-capita income in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at Rs17,174 a year, which is much below the national average of Rs25,907.
Loud voices in the state assembly demanded power reform when the state budget was presented in January 2007. The state’s first-ever economic survey also pointed out that in comparison to an annual economic growth of 7% at the national level during the first four years of the 10th Plan (2002-07), Kashmir had achieved only 5.5%.
The communications infrastructure is worse: There is one post office in J&K for every 60sq. km as against the national average of 20sq. km. And there are 7.76 telephones per 100 people in the state, far less than the all-India level of around 14.
As a result, politicians, like their ilk elsewhere in the country, want lower taxes and also more PSUs in J&K. “I don't think even 0.008% of the total PSUs in the country are located in the valley. Hindustan Machine Tools was the main employer, but that has changed after disturbances started in the state after 1989. Now, at least post offices can be opened up so that rural folk can find jobs,” said Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti.
The state’s own budget was cleared in January, with no deficit, but loud voices in the assembly demanded power-sector reforms. Kashmir has the maximum hydroelectric power potential in the country, but is unhappy with the power-sharing arrangements.
“Yes, we get 10% or so free power, but the issue is that when I was a child, new projects like Baglihar were promised, which would have produced an additional 300 megawatt power. Now I am turning 50, but nothing has happened,” says Noor Ahmed Baba, head of the department of political science, Kashmir University.
Unemployment among Kashmiri youth is currently at 60-70%, doubly ironic for a state where 100% free education is provided from nursery to post-graduation.
In its economic survey, the state found that the urban unemployment rate was 7.33%, while rural unemployment stood at 3.54%. The all-India unemployment rates were lower at 3.09–2.31% in rural areas and 5.37% in urban areas.
At present, hotel occupancy in the Valley is at 3-5%, except in pockets such as Gulmarg, where 50-60% hotel occupancy is common due to winter-sport enthusiasts.
Hotels in Srinagar were actually booked till August 2007, but after the terrorist attacks last October, many touristscancelled their visits, and the rate has dropped to below 5%.
“Tourism has been the mainstay for the Valley’s economy, but we want other things, too, to change the prospects of locals,” says Srinagar-based A.K. Wani, who works with the Voluntary Health Association, a non-governmental agency.