Kashmir is BURNING! How Indian Startups Can Bring the Much-Awaited Peace to the Valley

Kashmir is mostly spoken about as a glorious and “visually pleasing” destination or as a piece of land over which two neighbouring countries (India and Pakistan) have been fighting for decades. But, it is much more than that, even though I did not realize it till I had my first encounter with its mesmerising beauty in March 2016.

The truth is stranger than fiction and, to be honest, the actual beauty of Kashmir is far greater than one could imagine by looking at pictures and videos of it. Till you experience, feel, and breathe the air of Kashmir, you cannot understand the real beauty of this region!

In fact, when I informed my relatives and friends about my plans to visit Kashmir, which has been a dream destination of mine since childhood, they were a bit worried since I would only have my wife for company on the trip.

It was our first time in a state where almost every corner (especially in Srinagar) had a military van or jeep patrolling the area. The sight of Indian security forces on the roads was as common as the sight of police in Mumbai, where we came from. However, we had expected this.

What amazed us even more was the hospitality of the local Kashmiris. It made us forget about everything else in the world and enjoy every moment that we spent in that stunning place. The Kashmiris have a heart of gold. The way in which they welcome you and help you move around is bound to leave you feeling honoured.

Also, our closeness with the various local Kashmiris, from our car driver, to the local tourist guides, to the hotel staff, made us acquainted with the fact that it is a land of talented and honest individuals who have extremely limited opportunities to grow.

Limited Work Options and Opportunities

I used to moan about the hurdles I faced while making a career in Mumbai, but hearing the stories of Kashmiris and seeing their state of affairs left me completely astonished.

Despite the countless hurdles and lack of opportunities, the local Kashmiris, especially those who live outside Srinagar in Sonmarg, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, give their 100% in whatever they do and face life with a big smile.

Highly educated or creative Kashmiris living outside Srinagar only have two options. One of these is moving to Srinagar (which, according to them, does not have the same lucrative opportunities as most other Indian cities and states) or out of Kashmir to an altogether different Indian state.

The other option is to become a guide or a car driver (even a horse rider) and wait for tourists to arrive. This option allows them to stay with their families in their hometown.

Yet, there is a union for all tourist guides and car drivers. So, they get their turn to work only after a few days and part of whatever they earn is shared with all their work colleagues.

This is why they kept asking for additional monetary tips over and above the fixed charges; doing so is the only significant way in which they can earn a decent income for themselves and their families.

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I got the shock of my life about this method of work. Most of the guides and drivers are forced to wait patiently for several days for their turn to work. Of course, they still earn money during these idle times, as a portion of their fellow workers’ earnings is distributed to all the workers.

But, just imagine how much they earn on such days, as the union consists of more than 100 workers! It is a meagre salary to say the least.

If that was not enough, we literally got tears in our eyes when we learned that one of our horse riders was a double graduate. But, he did not go for a lucrative job in another Indian state because he could not think of leaving behind his aging parents.

Moreover, the Kashmiris do not see much scope for improvement in Srinagar, because it is highly saturated and there are several hurdles to start any business there. Hence, the people feel it is better to live peacefully in their hometown, even if it means a continuous struggle for money.

Upon our return from the memorable Kashmir tour, I did a lot of research into the state of affairs in Kashmir for budding entrepreneurs and skilled personnel. Most of what I heard while in Kashmir from the locals were indeed true. They either have to make do with low paying secure government jobs in Srinagar or fight hard with the already saturated businesses based on tourism and handicrafts.

The dearth of jobs in the valley is such that many Kashmiri youth try to join the Indian army as a secure job option for themselves and their families (in case something happens to them). During the recruitment rally at JAK LI training centre (Srinagar) in March 2015, around 40,000 Kashmiris turned up for just 50-odd vacancies in the army.

Is that not overwhelming?

Reasons for the Lack of Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Kashmir

As mentioned earlier, Kashmir has always been in the news for the wrong reasons, whether it was due to bomb blasts, fights between terrorists and the Indian army, refugee camps, and so on.

It has been a region that has always been full of unrest. And, the media has played a big role over the years by portraying Kashmir as an unsafe place to visit or stay in, even when the situation has not been that critical.

Such an image of Kashmir among Indians and foreigners has resulted in multi-national companies being afraid of setting up operations in Kashmir. Even major coffee outlets or restaurant chains restrain from opening franchises in the region.

This is due to the mindset that Kashmir is only good as a tourist attraction and the political volatile state of affairs in the region are not conducive for the growth of a business.

But, most of us forget that this is just an illusion! And, when no major companies emerge in Kashmir, the job scene is bound to go from bad to worse for the qualified Kashmiris.

If major companies and businesses are unwilling to establish centres in Kashmir, then it should at least be possible for Kashmiris to work in startups. Every state wants progress and Kashmir is no different. It just needs support from the rest of India to emerge as a breeding ground for professionals and business people alike.

While the whole of India celebrates the government’s dream project, “Startup India”, Kashmir has been left behind, despite it being simmering with positive and restless entrepreneurial energy in recent times.

This was made more evident when only one Kashmiri entrepreneur made it to the Startup India event held at Delhi in January 2016.

The Kashmiri entrepreneur was Muheet Mehraj, founder of KashmirBox that sells Kashmiri products online. He explained that the lack of an appropriate ecosystem is a major hurdle for budding entrepreneurs in Kashmir.

Also, the tedious paperwork involved in starting a business in a region like Kashmir is a deterrent to the motivation of upcoming business people. There is a clear lack of incubation centres that can potentially provide the right directions and support with regard to the information and infrastructure required.

Startups – A Necessity for Kashmir

The unemployment in Kashmir has grown to more than 1 million unemployed people. And a lot of these people are youngsters!

When the youth is unemployed for too long, it becomes easy for their minds to wander, get brainwashed, and think against the welfare of the region. It could give rise to more protests and create more Burhan Wanis.

As per a TOI article earlier this year, one of the police officers in the J&K region had this to say:

In Kashmiri society, there are about 30,000 released militants who’ve either completed their prison time or are out on bail. And they have both the ideological conviction and the ability to mobilise youth into violence. They do radicalise youth and propagate anti-state views among them.”

Should we not help our Kashmiri brothers rise from such a situation of oblivion?

If there is a problem, such as Kashmir’s lack of employment and business opportunities, we need to come together and solve it, rather than ignore it completely and allow things to get out of hand.

A startup boost could even help resolve more than one problem by using the enormous amount of talent, getting business for the region, and giving hope to the next generation!

Examples That Prove the Abundance of Startup Talent in Kashmir

People often believe that the Kashmiri people do not attempt to break the shackles and get their talent noticed! But, the reality is quite the opposite.

The current generation in Kashmir is ready to go beyond the conventional setup in the region, where people are content with limited opportunities.

They are willing to take the plunge and pursue their dreams with a strong willpower and tenacity. I was spellbound to hear and read some inspiring stories about the journey of a few Kashmiris who managed to overcome the obstacles and carve their own path of success with sheer determination. Let us take a glance at a few such stories:

The Story Behind The Other Side Cafe

As per an article published in The Hindu, Mir Muneeb, the founder and owner of The Other Side Cafe chain of cafe outlets in Kashmir, had initially planned to open a branch of Barista Lavazza and even pitched his idea to them.

However, he got an outright rejection because they believed that Kashmir is not a lucrative option for business and is only good for its natural beauty.

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[Image credit: The Other Side Cafe]

But, Mir Muneeb thought that, if an entrepreneur like V. G. Siddhartha can start his own cafe brand (Cafe Coffee Day), why could he not also kickstart his own venture?

Finally, he managed to find a path and established his own cafe lounge, The Other Side Cafe, in Srinagar. As the business grew, he planned for expansion by opening several outlets across the beautiful Kashmir valley.

Story of Sheikh Shahbaz Funding His Own Startup

Most entrepreneurial ideas of the people in Kashmir die due to a lack of support, especially monetary support, for startups. The numerous venture capitalists or angel investors do not find Kashmir in their scheme of things, which is a major problem for budding Kashmiri entrepreneurs.

However, the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI) enables budding entrepreneurs to loan money from the banks. But, according to many Kashmiri entrepreneurs, including Muheet Mehraj of KashmirBox and Abid Rashid of the Pipe mobile app, it is impossible to create a successful venture if you start by owing money to the bank.

As per a DNA India article, Sheikh Shabaz managed to overcome such monetary obstacles and created his own WiFi and hotspot solution company, FireFly. He started the company without investors and the money earned by the business was put back into FireFly.

This self-funded startup has managed to grow and now receive support from companies outside the Kashmir region. Is that not a great achievement?

Other Startup-Based Stories of Kashmiris

There are many other inspiring stories of Kashmiris overcoming the odds and establishing their startups.

For example, Abid Rashid and two of his friends wrote the entire code and founded Pipe, an Android app that reveals information to users that is relevant to them and in which they have some interest. The app was downloaded numerous times in India and across the world, including by those in Germany, the USA, and the Middle East.

 

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Also, Advitiya Sharma was one of the 12 co-founders of Housing, a real estate portal based in Mumbai. He moved to Mumbai to complete his graduation at IIT Bombay, which ultimately led to his meteoric rise from just being a college graduate to being an entrepreneur.

The commonality among such a new breed of young entrepreneurs emerging from Kashmir is that they are enthusiastic, bubbling with new ideas, and willing to fight it out and make things work!

They are fully aware of the magic of Indian “Jugaad” (which means that you can emerge successful through workaround solutions, if your path is laden with obstacles). They have proven that it is possible for them to innovate and contribute towards the rise of the next Flipkart or Uber of the world.

If such talented Kashmiris has shone through, despite all the difficulties they faced, imagine how much they could have achieved had there been fewer roadblocks! They are also likely to value their opportunities even more, after living in such a difficult environment.

So, why should startups not use such intelligent minds? It is important that Kashmiris are allowed to grow because, once they grow, the startups and businesses will eventually grow too.

It is a win-win situation for everyone. It is also necessary to encourage talent from every corner of the country, including Kashmir. After all, geographical boundaries should not limit the path of progress. It is about India as a whole and Kashmir is an integral part of it!

Exploring the Creative Side of Kashmir

Kashmir is known for a variety of products that are grown or manufactured in the region, including pashmina shawls, cricket bats, and saffron. The quality and finish of each cricket bat that is created here makes it a popular export item to other states of India.

The same holds true for the pashmina shawls, rugs, carpets, and other handicrafts.

In fact, Kashmir has been the second largest exporter (after the UK) of cricket bats across the globe. Several top Indian cricketers, including the master blaster Sachin Tendulkar is believed to have used willow bats specially made in Kashmir.

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The below statistics support the popularity of the abovementioned items:

The region may have been in turmoil for several years, but that has not hindered the emerging creative talent in Kashmir.

They just need the right platform to reach out to every corner of India and even overseas. In the age of “Digital India”, startups need to leverage the creative talent of Kashmiris by providing them with a place to express themselves, digitally or otherwise.

When talent is encouraged, it can certainly do wonders for any startup, sometimes even beyond imagination! That is where startups, such as KashmirBox, can play a major role.

The Need of the Hour

The current situation of unrest in Kashmir is due to a small portion of the youth being driven in the wrong direction.

J&K Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti herself confirmed that only 5% of the Kashmiri youth has been involved in the recent attacks on security forces and the subsequent encounters. She firmly believes that the remaining 95% are in favour of peace and harmony.

So, it would be unfair to deprive all Kashmir youth of opportunities because some of them strayed down the wrong path.

If we repeat the earlier mistake of seeing the entire state as an anti-peace region and isolating it from the rest of India, then the history of turmoil in this region will continue. In fact, it could result in more protests.

These are critical times when the Kashmiris need support from the rest of India. It is important to make them feel wanted.

Hon’ble Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh did exactly that, during his visit to the valley in August 2016, by stating that he does not foresee any future of India without the future of Kashmir. He mentioned that the safety and security of the Kashmiri youth is the responsibility of every Indian.

So, how do we ensure that the youth of this valley does not get torn between the beauty and the beastly?

Well… we can offer them support and employment opportunities. And, I strongly believe that the best way to create jobs is to remove the roadblocks for entrepreneurship in the region and make it easier for startups to hire Kashmiri talent.

Another reason why I feel that Kashmiris should be hired and given startup platforms to express themselves is that, despite not having the friendly startup ecosystem of other Indian cities, this state is still going through its own startup revolution.

So, when the Kashmiris are provided with the right opportunities, they would value them even more and make optimal use of the same.

Road Ahead for Startups

You might be wondering why the onus is on startups when the behemoths are hesitant to do business in the Kashmir valley?

If that bothers the startups as well, then they can apply the typical Indian “Jugaad” here and get Kashmiri talent involved without having to set up offices in the region.

How?

The following are just a few options:

  • If the “Digital India” campaign aims to establish internet connectivity in every corner of the country, should it not be possible to allow Kashmiris to work from home in their remote region? Of course, it is a clear cut option, especially since we have many big IT companies, including IBM, already implementing the “Work From Home” culture.
  • Another possibility is to identify good Kashmiri talent and allowing them to work for startups and businesses on a freelance basis. Freelancing is a trend fast catching up in urban areas and it could be heavily promoted in this region as a great workaround solution for companies which do not wish to establish centres in Kashmir.
  • As part of India’s development process, we talk about getting rid of unnecessary reservations. However, to solve the grave problem of unemployment in Kashmir, it might not be a bad idea to have some Kashmiri reservation in place so that the talented and well-educated Kashmiris can get their due opportunities.

The first two of these options will help startups save costs, get the work done, and solve India’s problem of helping the Kashmiri youth rise above adversity.

More importantly, startups can drive their energies and talent in the right direction – a social advantage!

What do you think about the potential of Kashmiris from the startup point of view? Can it potentially tackle the Kashmiri unrest situation?

Please share your views and opinions in the comments section below.

Featured image credit: Flowcomm

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not in anyway represent the views of FlopHit or its editor(s). 

Tejas Savla is a freelance content writer, digital marketer and owner of blog key2onlineshopping.com, who is working on his passion for creating an online empire of websites and eBooks.

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