TOURISM & HANDICRAFTS: Backs to the wall
status: Almost no tourism; crafts trade only Rs 900 crore
potential: Eco- and religious tourism can generate Rs 1,000 crore revenue, while handicrafts can turn in Rs 3,500 crore
strategy: Revive confidence by reviving governance
Some 1,400 empty, rotting houseboats ringing the Dal Lake provide mute testimony to tourism and the craft industry's demise in the state. Each houseboat, sustaining five families on an average, is a story of human tragedy. Sheikh Baseer, a houseboat owner, recently got his first tourist in seven years. But the visitor stayed in his houseboat for just one day. "I had to dust off the houseboat as it had not been in use for years, and the tourist didn't like the dirt," he says. Baseer, who used to earn Rs 10,000-15,000 a month just a decade ago, is about to sell his houseboat as scrap.
According to the Houseboats and Shikara Owners Association, the Valley is currently receiving around 2,500-3,000 tourists per year on an average. About five million visitors still flock to Jammu and Vaishno Devi every year, but very few of them divert to the Valley. The association puts the combined economic loss at about Rs 1,000 crore a year. One unwelcome fall-out of this has been a spurt in child labour: to survive, many houseboat-owning families now send their children to work as carpet weavers.
In the early 1980s, around five million people, with an average stay of three days per head, visited the state annually. Tourism was earning an impressive Rs 12,000 crore for the state every year -- besides employing two lakh people. Beginning 1989, militancy curbed the tourist inflow drastically. By 1991, hardly 10,000 tourists were visiting the Valley per year; during 1991-95, the state received only 2,000 tourists a year. After a brief upsurge just before the Kargil conflict -- the state received 69,000 visitors a year in this period -- tourist inflow slackened once again due to the Indo-Pak stand-off and a spurt in terrorist activities.
"j&k is an exclusively tourist state," says Jamwal. Tourism has always been regarded as a direct market for the state's products, ranging from shahtoosh shawls and handicrafts to saffron. According to the j&k Chambers of Commerce and Industries, an association that has survived the militancy, the state's traditional market has reduced by 45 per cent due to lack of tourists. Mohammad Ashraf, the secretary of Machiekash, a handicraft society, says: "It affects close to half a million people directly."
Gulam Nabi's is a case in point. Nabi, a wood carver in Srinagar, is in a bind. His house is overflowing with unsold wooden furniture and handicrafts, and he has to look for more space to store many more of these. He has already asked 15 of his wood carvers to leave. The three employees he has currently are getting half the salary they used to get five years ago.
Gulam explains: "I have lost 80 per cent of my market and business, but I continue making furniture hoping that peace would come back." His profit has also nosedived thanks to the new economy that has thrived under the shadow of the gun. He pays bribes amounting to 20-30 per cent of his costs to forest and police officials. "Otherwise, I may be branded as a conduit for militants," he says.
Tourists also worked as market multipliers by propagating the state's specialities outside its boundaries -- thus creating more markets. "The state, thus, has lost five million buyers and few more millions of potential buyers," says Basheer Ahmed, head of Kashmir University's economics department and a consultant to the state government on economic affairs. Ironically, what has compensated this loss marginally is the presence of around three lakh security personnel. Offering hard cash for the products they buy, these personnel have saved j&k's economy from complete ruin.
In its days of glory, buyers for Kashmiri handicrafts -- particularly carpets -- came to Srinagar to place advance orders. The trend has reversed; weavers beg for orders from buyers now and get paid in instalments, sometimes ranging over months. Gulam Rasoli Tibu, a carpet loom owner, used to earn Rs 1 lakh a decade ago. "Now, I hardly get Rs 20,000 a year and that too for the carpet I sold last year," he laments.
Machine looms in Amritsar have taken away a considerable chunk of the market. Within a decade, wages of carpet weavers have come down to Rs 500-600 a month from Rs 1,500. Gulam Mahudin, a 54-year-old weaver, says: "My life is tough. I have to take care of my eight children with a wage of Rs 100 a day for close to just 60 days in a year."
The state cooperatives department, supposed to facilitate handicraft cooperatives, has siphoned off millions of rupees. Massive financial and administrative irregularities have been reported in the j&k Department of Industries and Commerce, or dic. Although most department officials attribute the losses to the decade-long militancy, a senior official held massive corruption and administrative failures at various departmental levels responsible. Nearly 61 per cent of 1,244 handicraft cooperative societies in Kashmir division and 78 per cent of 361 societies in Jammu division set up as of March 1997, are either defunct or under liquidation. The department has not maintained consolidated records and institution-wise details of investment in cooperative societies.
In the handloom sector, out of 137 registered societies as on April 1, 1997 in Jammu division, 73 societies with a membership of 1,606 weavers were sick/dormant or non-traceable. Of these, 51 had been paid assistance worth Rs 2.48 million under the programme of modernisation of looms, out of which Rs 1.12 million was recoverable from them at the end of March 1997. Details of loans and other financial assistance paid and recoverable from remaining 22 defunct societies were not available. A large number of these societies had become 'sick' immediately after receiving various incentives.
Clearly, drastic measures are called for to rejuvenate these sectors -- and peace and governance are the imperatives. Visitors to the state will return with the return of peace, and so will the booming markets of yore.