Jammu fights back: Economic policies of the Union Territory slammed

The economic policies of the Union Territory administration in Jammu come in for severe criticism from traders, small businesses, industrialists, lawyers and the tourism sector, and the region observes a bandh on September 22 seeking a better deal for local residents.

Published : Oct 07, 2021 06:00 IST

THE Jammu region reacted with caution when the Narendra Modi government revoked the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgraded the State into two centrally administered Union Territories on August 5, 2019. Apart from stray celebrations stage-managed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), some prominent traders’ organisations welcomed the unilateral move of the Central government, hoping that it would end regional discrimination.

Today, two years later, most of the local businessmen, who traditionally vote for the BJP, are struggling to reconcile themselves to the new economic realities in the Union Territory.

Resentment has been brewing in the region owing to a combination of factors that have primarily stemmed from changes brought about in administrative laws. But the trigger for the September 22 Jammu bandh was the reported opening of 100 stores by Reliance Retail Ltd, which claims to have the largest nationwide network of retail outlets. Although the company came out with a clarification hours before the bandh was observed in the region, it could not pacify the agitated business community.

The bandh was led by the Chamber of Commerce and Industries Jammu (CCIJ) and backed by 22 trade and industry lobbies, opposition parties and the Jammu and Kashmir High Court Bar Association Jammu, besides civil society groups. Incidentally, it was the first mass protest held in the region since Jammu and Kashmir came under the Centre’s direct rule after the BJP withdrew from the Mehbooba Mufti-led coalition government in 2018.

The bandh was held to highlight issues such as the downswing in the local industrial sector, problems with the new excise policy and the geology and mining policy, restrictions on banquet halls, the imposition of new passenger taxes on commercial vehicles, the new land laws that reportedly debar members of certain local communities from purchasing agricultural land, the “Kashmir centric approach” of the Central government, and the scrapping of the biannual Darbar Move, which is a 149-year-old tradition and involves the shifting of the Secretariat from Kashmir to Jammu for six months during winter.

After Jammu and Kashmir became a Union Territory, resentment has grown among residents at the manifold increase in tariffs for power and drinking water for both domestic and commercial use; a sudden spike in the prices of construction materials such as sand, gravel and stones; the setting up of toll plazas on the national highway; the increase in passenger tax (the Jammu and Kashmir Passengers Taxation Act, 1963, provides for levying a tax on passengers carried by road in motor vehicles) ; and growing unemployment. In 2020, the Union Territory administration had to withhold its proposal to impose a tax on immovable properties in municipal areas in view of the public opposition to the move.

Deepak Gupta, president, Traders Federation Ware House-Nehru Market, said at a press conference in Jammu on September 17: “When the Modi government abolished Articles 370 and 35A, we celebrated and welcomed it. But in these two years, we have seen small businessmen getting ruined. Big businessmen from India are taking over every business here. If Reliance goes ahead with its plan, at least 50,000 shopkeepers will be rendered jobless in the region.” He sought to impress on local residents against selling their land to Reliance.

Under the provisions of Article 370, Jammu and Kashmir was permitted to draft its own Constitution. Article 35A prohibited non-locals from buying immovable property and seeking government jobs in the region. It empowered the State legislature to determine the “permanent residents” of the State and granted them special privileges.

Addressing a protest rally outside the chamber house in Jammu on September 22, CCIJ president Arun Gupta said the statement issued by Reliance Retail was “misleading”. He said: “They are claiming that they are not opening the stores, but the situation on the ground is altogether different.”

Describing the September 22 bandh as “historic”, he said: “We will continue our struggle to safeguard the interests of the people of Jammu region where neither political opposition nor the ruling party seems visible today.”

“Our issue-based fight is not against the government. We are against the directionless policies of the government,” Gupta said in an interview later, asserting that the CCIJ was not opposed to the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35 as some political parties had been projecting. “In Jammu, Walmart, Big Bazar and other stores opened when we had popular governments.” Also read: Modi's renaming of places and institutions in the Valley

Charanjeet Singh, president, Jammu Wine Traders Association, said that with the implementation of a new excise policy and the introduction of e-auction of liquor vends earlier this year, more than 200 wine traders had lost their livelihood in the Jammu region alone. “We couldn’t compete with the liquor barons from outside J&K. Most of the bidding was done through proxy bidders. Now the government has gone after local bar owners with the formulation of new rules,” he said.

Requesting the Union Territory administration to revisit its policy, Charanjeet Singh suggested: “Either the administration should rehabilitate us or issue new licenses in the unserved areas. At least four wine traders have died so far owing to stress over financial liabilities after losing their business.”

Dying industries

Citing unhealthy competition from non-local industrialists, owners of the small- and medium-scale industries in Jammu maintained that the non-availability of the Central government’s fiscal incentives had led to massive retrenchment of industrial workers in the past two years.

They also regretted that departments of the Union Territory administration failed to accord preference to local small-scale industries in the Government-e-Market for procurement of goods and services which was set up in January last year under the new industrial policy.

Rattan Dogra, president of the Association of Industries Jammu, said: “Before Jammu and Kashmir became a Union Territory, micro and small units were protected by the grant of price purchase preference as per the industrial policy, 2016. But everything changed suddenly. They should have kept supporting the local industrial sector for some time to help it compete with others. Otherwise also, we can’t compete with outsiders as far as production cost is concerned in view of the geographic location of Jammu. Of the total 80-85 per cent functioning units [in August 2019], currently only 35-40 per cent remain functional owing to one or the other reason. For want of government intervention, remaining 30-40 per cent units will also get closed by March 2022,” he said.

He added: “While the Union Territory administration has been making best efforts to invite investors and industrialists from outside, it should not let the local industrial units die.” In a written representation to Lt Governor Manoj Sinha on September 12, 2020, the association had requested the readoption of Jammu and Kashmir’s industrial policy of 2004.

Unpopular decisions

Many decisions taken by the Union Territory Administration have not gone down well with civil society organisations. M.K. Bhardwaj, president of the bar association, said: “We supported the bandh call in keeping with our tradition of upholding the regional aspirations of people of Jammu.”

He stressed the need for restoration of rights bodies that were shut down by the government soon after Jammu and Kashmir was made a Union Territory in 2019. These bodies included the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the State Information Commission, the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, the State Electricity Regulatory Commission, the State Commission for Protection of Women and Child Rights, the State Commission for Persons with Disabilities, and the State Accountability Commission.

Lawyers in Jammu have opposed the government’s decision to divest them of the power to register immovable property. The authority to register immovable property has been transferred to revenue officials as per Central laws. “We want these powers to be restored to the lawyers as it has affected the income of several young lawyers besides causing problems to the people at large. We also want the Central Administrative Tribunal within the premises of the high court,” he said.

The newly launched Jammu and Kashmir film policy has evoked scepticism among local artists. Many feel that the policy is aimed at attracting “outside” film-makers and is bereft of any benefits for the local industry—which could not grow for want of investors and government patronage.

A recent decision of the Union Territory administration to develop the Mubarak Mandi Heritage Complex into a heritage hotel has evoked sharp criticism. The Mubarak Mandi Heritage Society has reportedly invited Expression of Interest as per the public-private partnership model on design, development, finance, build and operate basis.

Additionally, there is growing resentment among local residents over the imposition of a heavy fee for the registration of new motor vehicles and renewal of existing ones. Farmers have been hit hard by heavy taxes on agricultural implements and an increase in the registration fee of tractors. Also read: Jammu and Kashmir's apparatus of repression

Local residents associated with the business of river mining along the Punjab border have complained that the big players from Punjab are encroaching on their business. Similarly, brick kiln owners have complained in recent months that their business has suffered immensely as there is no check on trucks loaded with bricks entering the region from Punjab.

Maintaining that the Jammu Hotel and Lodges Association supported the bandh call over the discontinuation of the Durbar Move tradition, its president, Inderjeet Khajuria, said: “With this government move, the entire tourism sector [of Jammu and Kashmir] has collapsed. The tourism sector of Jammu was already on ventilator.” An official in the Estates Department of Jammu and Kashmir said about 8,000 government employees and their families would migrate between the two capital cities, Jammu and Srinagar, during the bi-annual shifting of the Secretariat.

Khajuria said: “While performing back-to-back experiments on Kashmir, they [the Central government] have ruined Jammu. The discrimination of Jammu, which started in 1947, continues to date.”

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