Business thrives amid Kashmir war
After 17 years of violent separatist conflict, Indian Kashmir has become a high-tech business success story.
RANGRETH, INDIAN KASHMIR
Four years ago, when Jehangir Raina, an Indian businessman based in the United Kingdom, decided to start an information-technology company in Kashmir instead of in hot spots like Bangalore and Gurgaon, business analysts thought him a fool.Skip to next paragraph
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But Mr. Raina saw in this conflict zone what only a few others did: business potential.
"Initially, our clients were reluctant to do business with a company not based in a metro, but in a conflict zone in the Himalayas," he says with a smile. "Once they saw potential in us, their reluctance disappeared." Over the years, I-Locus, Raina's market-research company, has managed to woo more than 200 international clients, including Microsoft and Wipro.
In a way, Raina's success story demonstrates the growth prospects of a region that, for years, has been a crucible of terror and fear. Kashmir's economy has been sluggish compared with India's national average GDP growth of about 9.2 percent. But at nearly 5 percent growth, Kashmir still manages to defy the myth that armed conflict, which has raged here for 17 years, necessarily stymies economic potential.
Instead of the images normally seen in active war zones – bombed-out houses, empty shops, and abject poverty – what's conspicuous in Kashmir, says Adil Nisar, a manager at HDFC, Indian Kashmir's first private bank, are its opulent mansions, markets full of produce, and a burgeoning population armed with formidable purchasing power.
Despite years of militancy, Kashmir's poverty rate is the lowest in all of India. Only 3.97 percent of rural Kashmiris live below the poverty line, along with 1.98 percent of city-dwellers, according to government statistics. In the rest of India, those figures stand much higher, at 27.09 percent and 23.02 percent respectively.
Mr. Nisar moved two years ago to Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. It was a business move that made many far-sighted Indian financial analysts blanch.
"No private financial institution was then willing to risk investing in a conflict zone often roiled by bomb attacks," Nisar says, seated in his elegant office in a busy Srinagar shopping area. "We dared."
That daring is now earning the bank rich dividends. HDFC is today one of the many private banks in Kashmir. It has more than 8,000 accounts and has fetched business worth nearly 2.5 trillion Indian rupees ($58.5 million).
This year, the bank plans to start five more branches in the state, two of which will be in the notoriously violent Baramullah and Pulwama districts. The move, although potentially dangerous, demonstrates instinctive business acumen. HDFC hopes to cash in on a wealthy orchard-owning clientele that has long felt the vacuum of a full-service bank.
Thanks to land reforms nearly five years ago, a majority of Kashmiris own land, a fact that has contributed to the population's wealth.
Ironically, Kashmir's raging conflict has also enriched the region. Over the past 17 years, the local government has benefited from special treatment from the central Indian government, allowing it to manage a large conflict-oriented economy. Since the insurgency first began in 1990, the central government has financed 100 percent of Kashmir's budget. That's an exception in India: Generally, the central government funds only 20 percent of the cost of federal state development, requiring the states to raise the rest.
Also, even though tourism, Kashmir's main revenue-earner, declined during years of militancy, the huge expansion of India's armed presence in the region has since made up for the loss, say local businessmen. Over 600,000 Indian military personnel, all potential consumers for local products, are currently based in Kashmir.