What the Future Holds for Trade in Kashmir

The formation of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir heralds a new beginning and a promise for a better future for the region, as claimed by the central administration. But these hopes can hardly be realized unless the growing fear of insecurity and atrocities towards the non-local people is first extinguished. Despite all the containment efforts, labourers working in apple orchards are being threatened and killed as resentment silently brews in the valley.

As heavy security deployment failed to ensure the safety and security of migrant labourers, the J&K administration was forced to bar the entry of non-local labourers in the Shopian district, reported The Economic Times. On 5th August, National Conference President Farooq Abdullah with reference to J&K’s special status stated that it was “unconstitutional” delimitation and trifurcation of the state would be “aggression” against people of the state.

According to estimates, with the harvest season at its peak, over 7000 trucks move in and out of the valley for transporting apples. Majority of the truckers come from outside to reap the demand value, and this is how the business has been flourishing for years. However, the decision to bar non-local labourers has had a crippling effect on the business sentiment in the valley.

Reportedly, 60% of the apple produce from the Valley is yet to be transported to markets outside and still lies packed in boxes. The Shopian administration, after meeting with the stakeholders, earmarked four spots outside the J&K territory where the fruit traders and orchard owners have to transport the produce for further transportation. These designated spots/Mandis, however, lie deserted now due to sheer fear of attack.

As of October 7, five non-local persons, including a migrant labourer, an apple trader and three drivers, have been killed by unknown gunmen in south Kashmir.

State of Hysteria

The non-local truckers are the lifeline of Kashmir’s apple industry transporting at least 70% of the total exports of the crop to other states. The killings have created a state of panic among them and the traders hailing from outside the state. Few days before the passing of the J&K Reorganisation Bill 2019 in August, the government had asked all non-local labourers and tourists to leave the Valley. The political turmoil has led to thousands of migrant/outsider labourers to leave the valley; the brunt of which is being faced by the valley traders.

For traders, the claims and promises made by the administration have not been helpful. Delhi traders frequent South Kashmir during the season but now, all of them have been forced to leave. Most of these outside traders have made investments in Kashmir and are now helpless and are waiting to for the situation to normalise.

A national media report quoted Gopal Singh Rathore, state president of Jaipur Transport Operators Association (JTOA), saying: “An advisory has been issued due to the recent killings of drivers and helpers in Kashmir. We have asked truck owners not to send their drivers to the valley till the Centre gives them adequate security. The advisory also states that the transport companies should not take bookings for taking or bringing goods from Kashmir.”

Communication Lockdown leading to unrest

Another orchard owner was quoted by PARI saying ” All of my work is done on the mobile phone – calling labourers to come to the orchard, speaking with people at the sorting and packing centres, speaking to my trader contacts in Delhi, speaking to the truck drivers and transporters after dispatching the produce. When the government blocked the phone networks, our day to day work was severely hit.”

The business dynamics have changed as those with reach to markets in Delhi have come to coercing terms with the traders forcing them to sell produce on lower rates. The official Mandis are operating in the valley but the traders lament that they are only working for officials and not for them.

The advancement of the season further stranded thousands of vehicles stranding on roads. Heavy snow across Kashmir on November 7 cut off the Kashmir Valley from the rest of the country as the arterial Jammu-Srinagar National Highway was closed for traffic while all flights to and fro Srinagar airport were cancelled. Over 2,000 vehicles are stranded on the highway due to the closure. An official of the Airport Authority of India said all incoming and outgoing flights at Srinagar Airport were cancelled.

In an air of such distress and malaise, it is imperative that the government take immediate steps to remove the apprehension and fear in the minds of the people, and secure the future of trade in the region while reinstiling the hopes among people that the creation of the Union Territory was expected to bring.

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