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Will Kashmir see a new dawn under Mehbooba Mufti?

By Aditi Phadnis & Archis Mohan
January 18, 2016 11:11 IST
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The new PDP chief will have to work hard to keep everyone in the state happy.


Indians are not allowed to buy land in Jammu and Kashmir. But, they are allowed to lease it for 99 years. Some years ago, IAS officers of the J-K cadre mooted the floating of a housing society called Rajatarangani in Kashmir, to be built on leased land. Officers said they faced a lot of hardship in the state -- they could not bring families because of lack of educational facilities and because of inadequate accommodation. The army had its cantonment -- why not a complex for IAS officers? Once they had housing, they could set up a school. The proposal was put to the Centre, which passed it on to the state.

The matter was discussed in the state assembly. Rather unexpectedly, the person who opposed it most vociferously was Mehbooba Mufti. Today, it is land for a housing colony, next, it will be land for something else and soon, the composition of the state will be altered beyond recognition, all because of land that will be leased out to “Indians”, she said. The proposal was never revived.

That was in the late 1990s. Nearly two decades later, Mehbooba is about to assume charge as the chief minister of the state, in coalition with those very people who have been elected on a mandate to amend Article 370 of the Constitution that ensures J-K’s special status.

IAS officers who have served in the state say successive governments have destroyed the economy of J-K instead of buoying up its inherent strengths. The state was never developed as the industrial backbone of India -- it could not have been for obvious reasons. But, because of the harsh physical conditions and terrain-related difficulties, its art and handicraft were unparalleled. “So, many things are native to the state -- nowhere in the world can you get carpets like you can in Kashmir. Or for that matter, woollen textiles like pashmina shawls, or the exquisite embroidery… You were home bound for at least four months in the year so you could only develop those industries that were home-based,” said a serving IAS officer.

The other two strengths of the state were tourism and horticulture: Tourism spawned ancillary employment for guides, drivers and the travel and tourism trade; and horticulture meant export of fruit, dry fruit and commodities like saffron out of the state. In Jammu, tiny Basohli paintings are a trademark.

These were the limited options for development of the state and employment and should have been strengthened. But when militancy struck the state in the 1980s, rulers realised the root cause was socio-economic. The youth were not interested in traditional craft and wanted to do other things -- because the back-end for marketing of pashmina and Kashmiri carpets was just not developed enough.

Export of fruit from the state suffered from serious deficiencies because roads, highways and bridges were neither enough nor of the required quality to evacuate the products to sell them in the plains. In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, the state developed its food-processing industry through skilful marketing. In Kashmir, this never took off. Then how was the government to engage young men who were pouring out of their homes in search of jobs and were continually frustrated? “Just consider: If you were born in the mid-1980s, today you will be approaching middle age, with a wife and a family to support and with no job. What will you do?” the officer asked.

The government reacted in panic. It realised that in the absence of other gainful employment, the government had to become the principal employer. Thousands of government jobs were created, whether necessary or not. Money was thrown at the state with successive central governments hoping desperately if there was enough money, it would lead to growth and employment and somehow, militancy would go away, reviving tourism and the other sources of employment.

Of course that didn’t happen. But corruption increased. If a government job was the most prized objective in the life of a Kashmiri, those who could offer him that were more powerful than him. So whether it was a Class IV employee’s job or that of a daily wager, the government became bloated. Obviously this was an unsustainable economic model - how long could the state government spend more than it earned? Over a period of time, it became more and more dependent on the Centre, with little thought to reorganising its own finances or offering its own people the challenge of creating employment. Today, J-K is among the top three states when it comes to the ratio of government employment to population.

It is not as if the government did not try other ways of development. Both the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party tried to create infrastructure as a way of offering employment. Three- and four-storey buildings were built to serve as hospitals and schools. But, this required doctors and nurses and teachers -- and no one was ready to serve in the state where “Indians” were unwelcome. So those buildings decayed and eventually became derelict. The state has a resource that no other state in India does -- hydroelectric power potential. If hydel power is developed in J-K, it can generate 100,000 Mw of power -- enough to feed the entire Northern Grid.

Thankfully, because of the land reforms programme initiated by Sheikh Abdullah, every Kashmiri was sure of having a small dwelling and a small plot of land where he could have a small garden, rear some goats and ensure his and he family did not starve - poverty in J&K was not the kind of penury you might see in Odisha, for example. But younger people were more ambitious - and the backbone of the village economy in the state was broken. “Everywhere, governance failed,’’ an officer said.

The PDP came to power for the first time from 2003 to 2009 in alliance with the Congress. The power-sharing agreement was put in place by Manmohan Singh. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and Ghulam Nabi Azad ruled for a three-year term each. It was the start of a government “with a healing touch” - a new deal for estranged youth. Now, the second part of the story is unfolding. After the state elections last year, the Valley is represented by the PDP, and the Jammu region, by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

On the face of it, the BJP wants Mehbooba Mufti to take over the reins of the chief minister soon, and wishes to continue the existing power sharing arrangement that is based on a common minimum programme, called “Agenda for Alliance”, the two parties agreed upon before forming a coalition government led by the Mufti last year.

But there is as yet no final word from Mehbooba. She is neither riled by reports that the BJP wants the power sharing agreement to be reworked to have rotational chief ministerial tenures; nor anxious to take over as CM. The BJP has now asked its state leadership not to say or do anything which might lead people to believe that it was the one to rock the alliance.

BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav has rejected “speculation” that both parties have put up fresh conditions. “It is for PDP to take the first call from their side (on government formation). They have to decide about their leader and come forward. I hope they take a decision soon so that this kind of uncertainty ends,” he said a few days ago. He has also visited the state twice since the Mufti’s death. Madhav has also rejected speculation surrounding Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s meeting with Mehbooba and termed it purely a condolence meeting.

But suspicion within the BJP is growing that the alliance could be uncertain because a section of the PDP, led by the party’s Srinagar MP Tariq Hamid Karra, is in favour of ending the arrangement. Karra has been advocating an alliance with the Congress, and is of the view that PDP should dump the BJP as it has led to its losing support in the Valley. But the PDP and Congress together don’t have the numbers, and would need NC’s support to form the government.

There is also anxiety on how to keep the state united. The Mufti himself was a towering presence, having won elections from RS Pura in Jammu. But the general perception is that Mehbooba’s PDP is present in south Kashmir while north Kashmir is dominated by those who could, at some point, become her detractors, like Muzaffar Beigh. The third area of the state, Ladakh, also suffers from neglect and needs attention.

Mehbooba is going about her work with leisure and great deliberation. Observers in the BJP and PDP say she will need to show great patience and statesmanship to keep the alliance intact and the government going. If she can adopt policies that result in economic growth, she will have established a place in history.

Photograph: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters

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Aditi Phadnis & Archis Mohan
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