Kashmir has a business plan

When 28 year-old Arifa Jan started her handicrafts business last year, she got a lot of attention, some flak, much appreciation but not enough support. Growing up in Srinagar, Arifa was well aware of the wealth of indigenous crafts that the valley could boast of, yet, those around her constantly reminded her of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the valley.

A woman working with the Business Alternatives for Peace, Action and Reconstruction (BAPAR), an initiative that strives to find sustainable solutions to challenges faced by communities in conflict, weaves fabric on handlooms

It was after enrolling for an entrepreneurship programme at the Srinagar-based Craft Development Institute in 2009, that she acquired the skills and business-sense to run a successful company. The only thing she needed now was the courage to stand up to her parents who were worried about how their conservative society would respond to a woman owning a business. A year and a half later, Arifa, along with her business partners Mohammed Saleem Sofi and Farooq Amar Ganai oversees a team of 15 artisans, including seven women.

Arifa chose the languishing art of Numdha, a craft that works with pieces of pressed felt made of wool that originated in Yarkhand and is believed to be 175 years old. The rugs are decorated with geometric designs and while the process is labour-intensive, Arifa chose it since it was a commonly-known craft, especially among the widows in Kashmir. “People say that the handicraft industry has market problems. But in Kashmir, the problem isn’t with the market, it’s the product. There are people manufacturing sub-standard Pashmina shawls and passing them off as authentic,” she rues.

“Our Pashmina has a Geographical Indicator (GI) registration that helps a regional crafts with branding and keeps away fakes,” she says. Her company Incredible Kashmiri Crafts has helped artisans of a dying trade make ends meet, but she is now working on setting up a cooperative of women-only artisans where the profits will go back to the group.

“I was aided by Jammu & Kashmir Bank, who helped me pay the fees for my professional course and Gulshan Nanda, an activist of the Craft Council of India, who helped fund my Revival Numdha project,” she says.  Arifa is not the only one. Across the strife-torn valley, young entrepreneurs are taking the help of corporate and non-profit organisations to combat conservatism and skepticism and set up businesses.

The sky’s the limit
Take the case of Portland-based Mercy Corps, which set up its functionaries in Jammu and Kashmir in 2006. The global aid agency’s objective to help India’s most vulnerable communities confront their challenges and pull themselves from poverty has taken it to Darjeeling, Gujarat and Kashmir. Funded by the Scottish Government’s South Asia Development Programme, the 30-month Start Up Kashmir Youth Entrepreneur (SKYE) Development Project aims to catalyse a youth-focused start-up ecosystem in Kashmir.

Arifa (extreme left) oversees the pressing of felt to prepare Numdha rugs

The most recent initiative by SKYE includes a business plan competition where Kashmiri youth are encouraged to send in their ideas for a viable business, from which a panel of experts will select 200 entries. These 200 business ventures in fields such as agri-business, handicrafts, tourism, information technology, IT enabled services & business process outsourcing and green business will acquire guidance from the team at SKYE that will help them set up shop. “We don’t provide direct monetary support but will be aiding them with redeemable vouchers. For instance, a voucher will connect them with pre-defined web developers who can help them set up a website to start up their business. We will also provide them with relevant information regarding financial schemes available through government and private investors to acquire capital,” says Zubair Ul Rehman Lone, project officer of Business Development Services & Youth Outreach, SKYE. 

The project outreach began in March with an awareness campaign that reached out to 2,500 participants in the age group of 18-30 years across Jammu and Kashmir. “For youth in Kashmir, the concept of employment means a government job, so our first task was to change this mindset and let them see entrepreneurship as a viable career option. It was encouraging to see the level of participation and interest they showed,” says Lone. The project also provided participants with publications heavy with statistics from surveys previously conducted in the region. Business plans can be submitted online through the SKYE website or through drop boxes across 10 districts in the state.

Knitting a dream
Jammu & Kashmir Bank inaugurated its latest Rural Self-Employment Training Institutes (RESTI) programme in Kupwara on May 2, with a 10-day Skill Development Programme on Knitting with 30 participants. The programme aims to provide skill-based training to rural Below Poverty Line persons and other youth for self-employment. Following these intensive short-term programmes where industry experts are called on to teach, participants are given an aptitude test and interested persons are provided with information about government schemes with subsidies that will help them start up their own business ventures.

Artisans work on the Revival Numdha project in Kashmir

“At least 70 per cent of the trainees are from rural below the poverty line (BPL) category. Proper weightage is also given to candidates belonging to weaker sections like SC / ST, minorities, physically handicapped and women. The age group is 18 to 40 years and trainees are illiterate or have limited education, unemployed or working on wage basis for intermediaries in handicraft units. Fifty per cent of our participants are women,” says Layek Ahmad Jan, executive, Strategy & Business Development, Jammu & Kashmir Bank.

Common problems faced by entrepreneurs in Jammu and Kashmir are inadequate awareness, lack of institutes imparting training to potential entrepreneurs, funding problems, no access to power supply, lack of proper communication channels, inadequate marketing facilities, competition , outdated regulations, lack of raw materials, high cost of production, etc says Layek.

Opportunity in conflict
Some, like retired major Vivek Garg, toyed with the idea of helping rural entrepreneurs in Kashmir with their challenges since 2005, when he was posted in the valley. After serving in the Indian army for 11 years, Garg decided to start Business Alternatives for Peace, Action and Reconstruction (BAPAR), an initiative that strives to find sustainable solutions to challenges faced by communities in conflict.

In June last year, its first chapter was set up in Lilong in Manipur with 12 women who would weave fabric on handlooms. “The culture of the place is such that all women know how to weave, so the problem is not with the skill — it’s the fact that years of conflict have broken their market linkages. The lack of opportunities leads the youth to join militancy,” says Garg. After working with other communities in Nagaland in the north-east of India, Garg, along with co-founder Raashi Bhatia, turned his attention to Kashmir, where they worked with women artisans in villages in Baramulla. “The situation in Kashmir is better than the north-east because of the infrastructure. The local market is also productive because of tourism in the state. Here the major problem is the radical society that doesn’t want women to work, let alone run a business,” he says.

Speaking with elders, religious leaders and panchayat heads in these communities, Garg realised the limitations of the on-ground situation and planned his working methods accordingly. “While working with handicrafts artisans, I realised that the people are working very hard, but middlemen are exploiting them and the profits aren’t trickling down to the community,” explains the 32 year-old Delhi resident. BAPAR’s plan of action led them to form cooperative enterprises where women were in charge of the functioning and all profits were shared with the community.

“It was the talk of profits that drove the point home to the artisans. In a quest to raise people’s stakes in peace and development, the first step is to raise personal stakes through enterprise and increase their incomes, so living standard goes up and the cycle of development starts, leading to peace. We took the women artisans to Delhi, and set up the raw material chain, then let them handle the regional market on their own,” says Garg.

Saying it with flowers
Nusrat Jahan Ara was one of the first Kashmiri women entrepreneurs in 2000. After quitting her government job, she decided to get into the business of cut-flowers, a relatively unexplored market at the time. Today, she is the president of a 2,000-strong J&K Flowers Association. At a hi-tech facility in Pahalgam, she grows flowers and holds the franchise Ferns and Petals in Srinagar. “Working in Kashmir is difficult but you get used to it. By God’s grace I have a successful enterprise and am able to employ others,” says Ara. “The reason external investors don’t want to invest in a conflict area is because they aren’t able to track their investment. They aren’t able to have people on-ground who can do that, so we step in to give them that sort of credibility that a venture will survive and prosper,” says Garg.

Perceptions of entrepreneurship
Mercy Corps conducted survey with 1,000 participants, 100 from each of the 10 districts in Jammu and Kashmir aged between 18 to 30 years.

57% men said they would prefer to be self-employed

33 % women said they would prefer to be self-employed

59 % said a business environment in Kashmir will improve by end of 2013

(Facts courtesy of Mercy Corps)

The state has a ‘youth bulge’ which means that 71 per cent of the population is under the age of 35 years 48 per cent of the youth are unemployed
Government jobs are perceived as ‘stable’ since government officials are paid even when roads are barricaded and curfew is declared in the conflict-driven state, private jobs are seen as ‘risky’ and unattainable for most youth. Mercy Corps estimates that the 2008 unrest alone caused a loss of Rs 10,885 cr for the state, which amounts to 27 per cent of the state’s gross domestic product
(Facts courtesy of Mercy Corps) 

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