My visits to Kashmir were not as a tourist. In fact, I have never visited Shalimar Garden, nor even famous shrines like the Shankaracharya temple. I never felt like boating at leisure in the famous Dal Lake, even though on many occasions I passed by it. Ladakh I visited for the first time to launch my music album Monsoon Sonata, but didn’t visit any Buddhist shrine or Pangong lake. I did visit many places but these were the farms and lands where I could start my factory. To my friends it was madness. Kashmir was burning with terrorist violence then also. Even the thought of starting any commercial activity in Jammu & Kashmir would be considered suicidal. But then, I had already established an iron-powder manufacturing plant in the Naxal-affected district of Gadchiroli.
My encounter with danger began in 1993, when I traveled by a State Transport bus to Gadchiroli, guarded by an armed policeman. Buses were often attacked by Naxals, and traveling to Gadchiroli was not safe. But when I reached my destination, I fell in love with the simple-minded tribals and witnessed firsthand their strife with life. I heard the horror stories of these people sandwiched between the Police and Naxals. They cherished dreams of development, but there were no opportunities available. There was no industry, and consequently no local jobs. Education facilities were poor and inadequate. Who would dare to start an industry where enemies of the so-called capitalists – the Naxals – had a strong base? I heard stories of their brutalities exacted on road contractors and forest officers. I heard how the tribals were left with no option but to either sympathise with and join them, or be killed.
I resolved to start an industry there. I decided to provide employment to the tribals. And so, against all odds, I began work in 1995 and now, in 1998, I was ready to start another plant in Kashmir! Had I been lucky enough I would have opened factories in the North-Eastern states as well.
But why? In my opinion, the root cause of these people resorting to wield guns lies in their economic conditions. If conditions are bad, people can find an excuse in religious or separatist fundamentalist sentiments to agitate and become violent. Those people who have no surety of a stable future, fall easy prey to violent motives. It is not a coincidence that the Naxal uprising is in poverty laden tribal regions. The first armed revolt was of penniless land tenants and laborers.
And due to a dearth of industrial and business development in Kashmir and the North-Eastern states, people’s dissatisfaction was bound to lead towards separatism and violence. People who have nothing to lose do not care for their own lives. The Kashmir issue, too, gradually became complicated and today people hurl stones at the Army. They can become brutal enough to lynch a police official, caring not whether he belongs to their religion, and this shows that religion and other reasons are superficial. The central reason is the insecure atmosphere that does not guarantee any future to them.
Once, while entering the Ministry in Srinagar in a rickshaw, a scooter bomb exploded at the gate, not even 200 feet from us. Cursing, the rickshaw driver turned around and said to me, “If someone pays me even Rs. 50,000, I can kill the Chief Minister! This terrorism has destroyed us. There are no tourists, so no income. Houseboats are rotting empty in Dal lake….” and he went on describing to me the misery that terrorism had brought to their lives. The driver who obviously was Muslim, strengthened my resolve that yes, the root cause of this terrorism is not religion, but poverty.
In my speech at the Polo ground in Leh, to an audience of about 70,000, I announced in the November of 1998 that I will start food processing Industries at Leh and Srinagar. The reason was that though Kashmir is a large producer of apples, almost seventy thousand tons of these apples go to waste because of inadequate storage and transportation facilities. Apricots are grown on a large scale in Ladakh, but they cannot be sold fresh out of the Valley. I concluded that starting apple and apricot dehydration plants was the best solution, simultaneously providing hundreds of jobs and saving the state from wastage.
When I met Dr. Farooq Abdullah and the concerned ministers with my project report, I was welcomed. The idea was sensible. I was allotted 17 canals of land in Leh, and I was in the process of finalising plots in industrial development zones where not a single industry so far had begun. On my insistence, Dr. Abdulla made a visit to Mumbai for a meeting with corporate leaders to invite them to bring industries, and hold Board & General Meetings of shareholders in J&K. The meeting was a failure, however, as no one came forward with a positive proposal.
Though I had completed all formalities, year after year passed with no actual ground work. Financial institutions – including J&K Bank – consumed a lot of time in processing the proposal, but neither sanctioned nor rejected it. Government officials were boringly discouraging. So far, I had wasted over 45 lakh Rupees on this venture. One fine day I met with Dr. Abdullah to intimate of the difficulties I was facing. After hearing me, he coolly suggested that I see a prominent leader of Maharashtra if I wanted to get my proposal sanctioned. This was a ridiculous suggestion which infuriated me. I turned down the suggestion to meet anybody irrelevant to get my proposal sanctioned, as it was my money and life at stake and I was not ready to pay any bribes. I left his chamber and went straight to the office of the Kashmir Times, where I gave an elaborative interview revealing Dr. Abdullah and his anti-Kashmir policies, before departing for Delhi that same night. The interview was published on the front page the very next day, thus sealing the future of my venture.
How would my project benefit J&K, besides possible profits to the company? It would prevent the criminal wastage of natural resources and help increase farmers’ revenue. It would help youth in the form of direct and indirect employment. The myth that outsiders cannot start any industry in J&K would be shattered, and many new enthusiastic and bold entrepreneurs would come forward to start other industries and businesses in various segments. But the political filth never wanted it to happen.
The regret I have about this episode is that although the politicians and bureaucrats of J&K know very well that rapid and eco-friendly industrialisation – which will use those natural resources that are abundantly gifted to the region – is very much required not only for employment generation but also the creation of wealth, they lack in political will. They do not truly desire the well-being of the Kashmiris. Since 2002, the situation has worsened to the point that students, instead of attending classes, are aggressively challenging the system. It is no matter of separatism. They have no means to live an honorable life. Their sustenance is in danger, and neither central nor state governments care for them. The urgent need, apart from establishing a political dialogue with the people, is to generate enough employment in the state so that people feel they have a secure future. The agro-industry has the biggest scope in the valley, but unless the government takes positive steps, no entrepreneur is going risk his life and money!
For the North-Eastern states, too, the same strategy is required. The government spends on the army lakhs of crores, but is not ready to spend even half of it on constructive projects. The policy needs to change drastically or Kashmir risks remaining a land of terror and bloodbath forever.
The writer, Sanjay Sonawani, is an acclaimed author and historian.
Sanjay is an ex-industrialist and Senior Leader of the Swarna Bharat Party who now devotes his time to the cause of spreading liberal thought.
Tweet at Sanjay: @sanjaysonawani
In order to support farmers, Sanjay Sonawani – a specialist in dehydration technology – will lead an awareness mission across the country from July 2017, starting from Maharashtra, to explain good agricultural policies to farmers and bring awareness about dehydration techniques. Sanjay has invited socially aware entrepreneurs to actively get involved in supporting farmers by building food storage and processing facilities.
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