Among the people who recently showed up at Mujgund in Srinagar outskirts to assess the gunfight inflicted losses on seven residential houses was a group of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries.
The visit, perhaps first of its kind, was undertaken on the larger mandate which KCCI holds in Kashmir.
The grand old trade body’s newly elected chief says that the chamber is already working on a host of issues, including impressing upon the fact that human losses must be curbed across the valley.
But as things stand right now in Kashmir, the KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad of Alkhuddam Group seems quite mindful of that fact that the chamber is up against multi-front challenges at the moment.
In an interview with Free Press Kashmir’s Publications Editor, the chamber chief talks about a host of issues ranging from J&K Bank controversy to ‘sidelined’ sector called Handicrafts; and from LoC trade to the judicial assault on Special Status of J&K.
You’re back as the KCCI chief for the second time. What all has changed since your last stint?
Honestly, not much has changed. We were expecting tremendous economic growth, but we have hardly seen that. Change, in real sense, for growth and prosperous economy, is not happening.
What are the reasons behind the lagged growth?
First and foremost reason is the ground reality of our state. Situation is not feasible for business at all. When your family, village or town is disturbed, you are not able to do the right business.
In 2016, when Mr. Yashwant Sinha came to the Chamber and asked us the losses we are suffering, we told him that we don’t want to count economic losses. We are here to count our human losses.
KCCI is the first chamber, he said, that is counting human losses. It was something new to him. But for us, it is not new. At that time also, we were assured that civilian losses will be stopped but nothing is changing on that front.
So change, which is actually required on the ground is not happening. Thing is, a different yardstick is still being applied for civilian and their losses in Kashmir.
We, the Chamber, are definitely concerned about the civilian losses. We can recover economic losses but human losses cannot be recovered. So, concrete steps should be taken to stop civilian losses.
You see, as a chamber president, I should have been mainly discussing business with you, but here we are discussing conflict, our invasive reality.
So speaking about business, what new are you bringing on the table?
It has been 75 days since I assumed office. We have a lot of priorities. First of all we had an issue of waiver of input tax credit which we had taken up rigorously and have gotten that waived off. It was around Rs 40 crores.
Then coming back to our handicraft industry, we have a lot of challenges. It’s declining. We’ve given a lot of revival packages to the state.
Although the last state government had given a short term marketing support of Rs 5 crore last year, they were supposed to announce long term support. Before that, however, government changed.
What is disappointing though that in the recent budget passed by the Governor, handicrafts are not even mentioned. This is disheartening. It should at least have had a revival package. We had also discussed that in the pre-budget meeting. I mean all those areas which deal with papier mache, shawls and handicrafts should be identified and given a cluster shape, so that our weavers and artisans get the due they deserve.
But to our absolute dismay, they didn’t even mention the word handicraft in the budget. We are surely going to take this up. Our high level officials will go to Jammu. I personally spoke to Principal Secretary Finance and we have been assured that the matter will be taken care of. Let us hope for the best.
Then comes Industries. We have a disadvantage geographically and that’s why it is not prospering the way we want it to. So, we have demanded that the North East Industrial Package should be extended to Jammu and Kashmir also.*
For that, we even met the Union Minister Suresh Prabhu. If it is extended to JK, half of the problems of the Industrial sector will go away. We will go to New Delhi again to follow it up.
Alright. But, you had convinced the government to create a Pashmina Bank in the state. What is the status of that?
Well, previously they had announced a bank but that didn’t go well. However this time, they have roped in a package from the Government of India. That package is around Rs 2 crore, which is a revolving fund.
Recently, we had a meeting with the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts and we told him that there is a need for enhancement of raw material bank. It’s already existent in Kashmir and it is around more than Rs 1 crore. However, the requirement is ten times more.
We’ve put in a request for enhancement, so that our traders can get hold of the raw material at a subsidised rate. Also, it should be directly given to the stakeholders.
Coming to the issue of JK Bank, what is your opinion about the controversy which erupted after Governor decided to make it a PSU?
Our opinion was absolutely clear that making it a Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) is not the solution. If there are administrative issues, they can be resolved without taking such a decision. I really don’t know whom they consulted before taking such a decision. Also, whom they consulted after they decided that they are not going to change anything.
As of now, nothing is clear.
First an announcement was made that it will be PSU, then it was said that it will be ‘like a PSU’. Then it was said that it will work the ‘way it was’.
There is a lot of confusion. But whenever we meet the concerned authorities, we will ask for clarity regarding the issue.
There were also allegations that only the ‘rich and the influential’ are protesting against the decision of turning J&K Bank into a PSU.
Well, such allegations came from those quarters, who, I believe, have no dealing and direct association with J&K Bank. Fact is, all businessmen, be it rich, influential or a small trader, are connected with the bank.
We have seen how the bank has been there for us during the peak of the turmoil. It has an emotional connect with the people here. So it is wrong to say that a few were up in arms. On the contrary, all traders and associations, irrespective of being big or small came out and opposed the decision.
What is your future course of action related to GST?
GST is now almost one and a half year old. And already, our handicrafts and industries have suffered a lot.
We were of this opinion from day one that GST is not good for our state. But it was politicised. Political parties came on the forefront and paved the way for it. We opposed it that time, like we do today.
You see, earlier, when we used to have issues with our Tax Department, we used to approach the Finance Minister. But now, it’s not that simple.
Last year we took up the issue of GST on carpets. It took the government one year to revive it. Now our target is Pashmina shawls. People think that it is a high value product but we know how much hand work goes behind the making of a Pashmina shawl.
But on the contrary, they have imposed a 12 percent GST, which is hampering the sales. We want that it should be put under zero percent category.
We will take it up with the state government, the union government and if nothing happens, then we will approach the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi. If our people are suffering he has to think about it. What is point of imposing tax on the hands and finger of our artisans?
Recently a KCCI delegation visited a gunfight site Mujgund to assess the losses. It was perhaps for the first time that the chamber visited a blasted residential site in Kashmir…
It’s not about the gunfight site, it is about the people. People who are victims of violence. Their houses are grounded. Believe me, we are in deep pain after seeing this. It is a humanitarian cause which we will keep on pursuing, Inshallah.
At the end, we are all connected. If somebody is suffering, we have to see why and how that suffering can be reduced. It was a humanitarian visit and we don’t want any politicization of the issue.
If something happens in any area, the area committee pays a visit. We are the Kashmir Chamber and represent the whole valley. It’s our responsibility to reach out to people who are suffering even at the border. I have conveyed to my team that we have to reach those spots as well.
Recently, you had said that an alternative to shutdowns is needed, so that ‘business remains unharmed’…
Listen, it is already in debate. Even the Joint Resistance Leadership is thinking about it. We didn’t say anything new.
If a peaceful protest is held without calling for a shutdown, that can be an option. They have to decide. They can take a call. We are not the decision makers on this issue. But an appeal can be made.
But then, many argue that even peaceful protests are not allowed in Kashmir?
When the Human Rights Week was being observed recently, many told us that we should not come out as the authorities won’t allow it. We were of the opinion, that let us see. If anything inhuman takes place, we will definitely raise our voice because that is our strength. We have only one thing and that is our voice.
So, we did take out a peaceful protest from the Chamber office to the Press Enclave.
But yes, if government is not giving space to peaceful protests, I think it is a big mistake.
Regarding the issue of the special status, why are you silent right now? Why wait for the next hearing on Article 35-A?
It is a sub-judice matter. And it is a matter of our identity. And to protect our identity we will raise our voice whenever it is needed. And we will, without any doubt, be on the side of the people who are for safeguarding our identity.
What is your equation with the Jammu Chamber regarding the issue of special status?
They are openly supporting us. On the issue of identity, they, I believe, have been very clear and vocal that it has to be protected at all costs. Even on the issue of J&K Bank, they were with us.
Both Chambers are against any kind of regional divide. If we see a policy which benefits Jammu region, we tell the government to go ahead with it. We have never opposed on regional lines. They have also reciprocated.
If we have cleared any policy and the government takes the opinion of the Jammu Chamber, they hardly oppose us. In fact, on the issue of return of power projects, Jammu Chamber is on board.
Lastly, has LoC trade really become a burden as some people are calling it?
When we started it in 2008, we had a lot of expectations. It was the only Confidence Building Measure between India and Pakistan.
But today, after 10 years, let us admit that it is doing a favour to none.
It is a trade of few items. We had expected that it would move way beyond trade to tourism, travel, student programmes, cultural events and sports, so that slowly the LoC becomes irrelevant for the Kashmiri lives across it.
To our dismay, however, we haven’t made any progress and are trading even less today. Even a trade delegation was not allowed to go from this side to that side.
*When this interview was conducted, the Northeast Industrial Development Package was yet to be extended to JK. However, now the benefits of the scheme have been extended to the region.
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