Kashmir up for grabs

Print edition : January 28, 2022

Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha. Photo: PTI

Union Minister for Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri. Photo: PTI

Security personnel during an encounter with militants at Gusoo village on the outskirts of Srinagar on January 3. Notwithstanding the government’s attempts to project a picture of growth and progress in Jammu and Kashmir, militancy has shown no sign of being contained. Photo: PTI

Omar Abdullah, National Conference vice president. Photo: NISSAR AHMAD

Mehbooba Mufti, People’s Democratic Party leader. Photo: PTI

A real estate summit organised by the government in Srinagar is projected as a major turning point that will change the economic dynamics of the Union Territory but local politicians are sceptical.

On December 27, the Jammu and Kashmir government organised a mega real estate summit in the winter capital Jammu, inviting several A-Lister corporates from the sectors of tourism, hospitality, residential and commercial real estate, warehousing and financing and representatives of the entertainment industry. The administration led by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha projected it as a major step forward towards ushering the Union Territory into an era of development and throwing open the troubled region to investors from the rest of India.

The mainstream political parties in Srinagar objected to the move, calling it a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) game plan to alter the demographic composition of Kashmir. The government’s decision to allow purchase of agricultural land in Jammu and Kashmir for non-agricultural purposes, which preceded the summit, was a bone of contention. The mainstream parties as well as the pro-resistance camp had questioned the legitimacy of the move at a time when the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has been challenged in the Supreme Court. (The apex court is yet to hear the matter.)

The consensus in Srinagar’s political corridors, and among the general public, is that the Centre is initiating a series of measures that would make it impossible for any future government to reverse the decisions of August 5, 2019, when Articles 370 and also 35A (which provided Jammu and Kashmir, among other guarantees, exclusivity in jobs and ownership of immovable assets) were scrapped.

Also read: J&K political parties gearing up to take on the Centre

The Jammu and Kashmir administration, on its part, dismissed such apprehensions, repeating its routine accusations against Kashmir’s two political families, the Abdullahs and the Muftis, of monopolising the erstwhile State’s resources and thwarting its all-round development. During the summit, as many as 39 MoUs (Memorandums of Understanding) worth Rs.18,300 crore were inked with well-known real-estate investors for development of housing and commercial projects. The MoUs were signed in the presence of Manoj Sinha, Union Housing and Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and Union Minister of State Jitendra Singh. The MoUs were diverse and promised to bring investments in the residential, commercial, infrastructure, and film sectors.

Official claims

Hardeep Singh Puri was confident that the projects would go a long way in boosting the regional economy. “Real estate, being the second largest employer in the country, will create innumerable opportunities for economic growth in Jammu and Kashmir. Development of local businesses is imperative in scripting the growth story of Jammu and Kashmir. Besides national players in real estate, local developers will also be the focus of this new dawn of development of real estate sector in the Union Territory,” he said.

Manoj Sinha said that the Model Tenancy Act, which was adopted by the government, aimed at balancing the interests and rights of both the landlord and the tenant and enabling the renting of premises within a transparent and efficient framework. “Owning a house is the dream for everyone and we are making a committed effort to bring it into reality. The launch of many portals including RERA portal, Housing Portal, integrated auction portal will facilitate a transparent and accountable framework in the real estate sector. Such initiatives will help both developers and homebuyers through a one-stop portal for all their needs,” he said.

Also read: Persistent militant attacks in Kashmir puncture peace claims

There was also a tinge of religious motivation. “There are Vrindavan-like locations in Jammu and Kashmir. Many people from Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh want to have a house or flat in Kathua so that they could come for a few days and visit the Mata Vaishno Devi Darshan. There are many places for people who adhere to Islam as well. We welcome you to Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. According to Sinha, 6,000 acres of land had been identified in Jammu and Kashmir for industrial investment and would be available to real estate builders from outside.

He lauded his administration’s efforts to create an enabling environment for investment. “The last few years have seen tremendous change in terms of good governance, delivering development and transforming the infrastructure of the Union Territory. Barriers to businesses have been removed. It is now an attractive place to do business and invest,” he said.

Ground reality

However, facts on the ground do not support these claims. All important parameters for measuring militancy—the number of local militant recruits, influx of foreign insurgents, and number of attacks launched on security installations or personnel—have remained steady despite the formidable surveillance machinery in the Kashmir Valley. In 2019 itself, as many as 594 militant attacks were reported. Although the corresponding numbers in 2020 and 2021 are not as high, it would be wrong to heave a sigh of relief considering that the COVID pandemic severely undermined all activities, including militants’ operations. Yet, 244 terror strikes were reported in 2020 and 196 in 2021 (as on November 15). The casualties witnessed in the security forces’ camp is significant. As many as 177 of them suffered fatal attacks at the hands of insurgents from 2019, with 80 of the casualties reported in 2019 itself. Sixty-two security personnel were killed in 2020 and 35 in 2021 (as on November 15).

There is a marked increase in civilian deaths as militants opt for targeted killings. Forty civilians were slain in 2021 as on November 15. This information was provided by Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai in the Lok Sabha. Most of them were either office-bearers of mainstream political parties or members of the minority communities. Hindus and Sikhs have been on the militants’ radar since October 15, leading to the returnee Kashmiri Pandits’ flight to the safe havens of Jammu.

Also read: Escalation of violence in J&K leading to alienation of Kashmiri Pandits

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had rightly tweeted some time ago that “...Terrorism has neither stopped due to demonetisation nor after the abrogation of Article 370—the Central government has completely failed to provide security.” Against this backdrop, the government’s big-ticket summit and litany of promises and proclamations seem to be meant for the consumption of people in the rest of India where seven States are scheduled to hold Assembly elections this year.

In 2012, Rahul Gandhi had helmed a similar business summit in Srinagar, with business magnets like Ratan Tata, Kumar Mangalam Birla, then the chairman of the Aditya Birla group, Deepak Parekh, the then chairman of HDFC, and Rajeev Bajaj participating in it and interacting with university students. Yet businessmen shied away from investing in the troubled region, even though the law-and-order situation then was not as grim as it is today.

Despite the government’s repeated claims of having contained militancy and “normalising” the region, the euphoria seen on most television screens is in contrast to what is actually transpiring. When Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status was withheld, there were street celebrations in the Hindi heartland, with crowds hailing the decision and announcing their intentions to buy plots in Kashmir. Two-and -a-half years later, only seven plots of land have been purchased in Jammu and Kashmir by people outside the Union Territory. This information was shared in Parliament by the Ministry of Home Affairs on December 15. All of the seven plots have been purchased in Jammu, and none in Kashmir.

N.C., PDP sceptical

Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah dismissed the real estate summit as an attempt to put Jammu and Kashmir on sale. “Once again the true intentions of the government have been brought to the fore. While offering to secure the land, jobs, domicile laws & identity of the people of Ladakh, J&K is being put up for sale. People of Jammu should beware, ‘investors’ will buy up land in Jammu long before Kashmir,” he tweeted. His party colleague Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, (additional) general secretary of the National Conference (N.C.), saw a pattern in recent government decisions: all were aimed at realigning the demography, he said. “The vacillating approach of GOI on domicile laws and State subject laws, the real estate summit and the proposed delimitation of Assembly segments have reinforced fears among local population about demographic changes in Jammu and Kashmir. Had GOI been sincere it would have not turned blind eye to local businesses. When the Government of India announced a Rs.21 lakh crore economic package to reopen the economy across the country, the Valley businesses lamented that they had been kept out of the package,” Kamal pointed out.

Also read: Jammu and Kashmir’s apparatus of repression

“It is never an event. It is always a process of several steps, at times far from one another, that slowly progresses towards the goal. And the process is always difficult to comprehend in real time. It’s deliberately built to confuse. This is what the ruling dispensation is up to in J&K: to fully implement the RSS’s [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] ideological and civilisational project in J&K,” Kamal explained.

Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) said on the real estate summit: “J&K’s special status was illegally revoked to dehumanise, dispossess and disempower the only Muslim majority State in India. GOI’s brazen loot and sale of our resources shows that the sole motive is to annihilate our identity and change the demography.”

She was also referring to the recent approval given by the Jammu and Kashmir Administrative Council (AC) for the change of land use from agricultural to non-agricultural purposes. Under the new regulations, the district collector has been empowered to grant permission for land of up to 12 standard acres against a fee of 5 per cent of the market value of the land notified under the Stamps Act. Most people in Kashmir view this as an attempt to enable business communities to own vast tracts of land there.

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