I made a trip to the Kashmir Valley as a tourist recently. It was a unique experience to say the least. Through this post, I wanted to share my observations – hopefully debunking a few myths and perceptions in the process. Since I have a large number of observations to share, I am dividing the post into two parts. So here goes the Part 1.
1. J&K does NOT have high levels of poverty
The Planning Commission’s state wise Below Poverty Line report based on Tendulkar Methodology for the year 2009-10 shows that the poverty ratio in J&K is 9.4% which is significantly below the national average of 29.8%. To put this in perspective, the only entities that fare better than J&K are the 3 UTs of A&N, Puducherry, Lakshadweep, Goa and Chandigarh. This makes the poverty ratio in J&K the least among all the states of India barring Goa. Another interesting thing to note in this dataset is that the urban poverty ratio of J&K (12%) exceeds its rural poverty ratio (8%) which is quite opposite to what is observed in the other big states of India. The bsence of high poverty rates despite the recurrent disturbances is a great success for J&K and for India as well, something that it can speak of in international forums. Though the government would not want to start a ‘J&K shining’ campaign looking at these numbers as being above the poverty line does not necessarily mean well-being and it is human tendency to focus on what needs to improve in one’s life rather than being satisfied by what one has.
2. Ethnic diversity in Kashmir:
Not only J&K, even the Kashmir valley is amazingly diverse. Even within the 97% Muslim population in the valley, there are various diverse groups: Shias, Sunnis, Ismaelis and Gujjars. In Kashmir, it was for the first time anywhere in India that I saw posters of Ayatollah Khomenei and Khamenei at various places. The narrative of sympathy to Pakistan and separatism that has made it to the mainstream is propagated by only one of the diverse groups mentioned above. There is a need to bring the demands and viewpoints of the other groups to the forefront as well.
3. The myths surrounding tourism’s contribution to J&K’s GSDP
Tourism brings people from other parts of India to Kashmir and hence the role it plays in J&K has been greatly contested by separatists and others alike. Narratives like this portray that tourism in J&K is insignificant to the state and is only a way of increasing Kashmir’s assimilation in India. This narrative says that tourism contributes only to 7.93% of the GSDP and employs only 2% of its population. On the other hand, the J&K Economic Survey 2012-13 data mentions that the contribution of the service sector (of which Tourism is a major part) to the GSDP is 54.89%. The anti-India narrative ignores that Tourism has a substantive trickle down effect on the other service sectors like transport, ownership of dwellings and also on the native handicrafts industry. I believe there is a strong case for an official report on the contribution of tourism and allied activities to the state’s GSDP and employment. This would put the speculative arguments to rest.
Though this might be a case of anecdotal fallacy, my observation is that there are far too many people dependent formally and informally on tourism. During the tourist off-season, there is a large amount of disguised unemployment in tourism. A stronger manufacturing setup can come to the rescue. Investments into the state and establishment of new industires, even within the ambit of Article 370, need a much needed boost.
4. The unique houseboat heritage – the need to preserve it
The beautiful houseboats on the Dal Lake are the most iconic representations of tourism in Kashmir. The beginnings of this industry has an interesting story. Much like the Article 370 of today, which inter alia, bars Indians from outside J&K from owning property, the treaty signed by the Maharaja of J&K and the British India had similar provisions. Also, unlike other Indian princely states, there was no British Resident permitted in the Maharaja’s durbar. Thus in 1888, a few British civilian officers, frustrated with not being able to buy land in Kashmir, got a houseboat built in the lake. Since then, this craze kept growing and took the form of an organized industry. Today, however there are issues like untreated sewage from the houseboats polluting the lakes which threaten the wipe-out of this unique heritage and tourist magnet. Closure of this industry is not a solution and the state government can aid the houseboat owners financially to preserve this heritage.
5. The presence of UNMOGIP
The office of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan still stands in Srinagar. It was formed in 1951 after India took the issue of Kashmir to the UN. India disagrees to UNMOGIP’s mandate after the Shimla agreement was signed in 1972. Interestingly, Pakistan’s military authorities continue to report ceasefire violations to UNMOGIP while India has not lodged any complaints since 1972. Not withstanding, the UNMOGIP office stays put in Srinagar. Interestingly, another UN organization, the UNHCR in 2009 rated Jammu and Kashmir as partly free while in comparison PoK was rated to be NOT free.
I will jot down the remaining observations in my next post.