Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hard Work Over Sycophancy?

Finally, the Indian economic tiger is beginning to roam in the valley. Introducing a new style Kashmiri entrepreneur named Abdul Hamid Bhat

In Kashmir, Entrepreneurs and Educators Preach Optimism and Self-Reliance

Dropping out of high school may have been Abdul Hamid Bhat's best move. After failing the examination to earn his matriculate qualification in 10th grade, roughly the equivalent of a high school diploma, Bhat was on his own. He went on to work as a scooter mechanic, earning a few U.S. dollars a month. But he had big plans even amid the hardest-hit days of militancy that roiled Kashmir, India's northernmost state, in the 1990s. "My passion is to do something for society," says the 45-year-old Bhat. "I have the will. If you have the will, you can do anything."

Bhat is now CEO and managing director of the Rahim Group, which consists of three companies including a Maruti car service center, in the Kashmiri capital of Srinagar. The group turnover is US$4.5 million. Bhat has also spearheaded tree-planting and green technology initiatives.

It all stems from an interminable zeal that animates his elfin figure. Bhat's ubiquitous white sneakers, worn even to weddings and conferences, are a testament that he's constantly on the move. There's little time for pause on his mission to promote private enterprise and break what he sees as an over-reliance on a government sector that has ballooned in the past two decades. But as Bhat encourages a new crop of entrepreneurs to learn from his example, he also tells them to integrate what he calls "common-man social responsibility" from the very beginning.

In this Himalayan valley, when it comes to inquiring about someone's employment, the perennial question is whether he or she works "in government or private." The look on the questioner's face reveals local perceptions; the answer "government" gains approval, while "private" elicits a frown. During the past 20 years, some private industries such as retail and tourism and banking have held up. But government postings are a safety net amid ongoing political anxieties, with those on the state payroll guaranteed a paycheck even when strikes and curfews hit. Instability has also failed to inspire outsiders to invest in the valley.

Students Turn to MBAs

Meanwhile, the ripple effects of India's economic rise can now be seen in the flocks of Kashmiri students pursuing their MBAs and earning coveted placements at major companies. In this case, "private" is no longer viewed with disdain, and the esteem granted a business degree is climbing up there with medical and engineering degrees. Yet, this appears to hold true mostly for those who land a job anyplace outside Kashmir, be it Delhi, London, or Seattle. Within the state, the aspiration or only option for many remains bagging a government job, even if that means, say, a young man joining the police forces against which he or his friends might have pelted stones.

However, there is an emerging contingent of business graduates and other young people taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. Initiatives helping them include the Start Up Kashmir Youth Entrepreneur (SKYE) Development Project, run by the international NGO Mercy Corps and funded by the Scottish government's South Asia Development Program. The project aims to establish 200 youth enterprises across Kashmir and a network for young entrepreneurs.

A detailed July report from SKYE assessing youth entrepreneurship found that many young Kashmiris are interested in entrepreneurship, but 90% of them think that becoming an entrepreneur is either "challenging or very challenging." With some 600,000 educated yet unemployed youth populating the valley, the study suggests that entrepreneurship could help combat growing unemployment by making room for self-employment tracks.

The government has also gotten into the game. The state-run Jammu & Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute offers entrepreneurs training and educational loans for professional and technical courses as well as loans for projects in areas such as tourism, agriculture and handicrafts. Other government departments also have some public-private partnership schemes in which the agency provides funding or resources. For instance, the fisheries department works with individuals to harvest trout in private farms, with the fish then being sold in the market.

Educators Preach Entrepreneurship

At the academic level, some educators are trying to do their part in advancing entrepreneurship. Parvez A. Mir, an associate professor in the School of Business Studies at the private Islamic University of Science and Technology in Awantipora, Kashmir, counsels students looking to start small businesses. Mir tells them: "It is better to be an employer than an employee." To parents, he stresses that with globalization and increased privatization elsewhere, the government won't be the center of livelihood in coming years. The future is in the private sector. "I am trying to groom my teachers to tell their students to only go for entrepreneurship so that our economy as a state will be independent," he says.

Despite his optimism, Mir says that young people often feel they are stuck. On top of the uncertainties of entrepreneurship, the social apprehensions about private jobs and uneasy geopolitics, budding entrepreneurs are discouraged by red tape in the form of clearance certificates needed from the state government to create a new business. The prolonged wait time for such documentation has forced some of his students to give up their plans. Mir says that compared to the states of Gujarat or even neighboring Himachal Pradesh, entrepreneurs in Kashmir face exceptional hurdles on cultural, governmental, political and educational fronts. Students need role models, he adds.

Established businessmen such as Bhat view their success, especially during volatile times, as a sign of the possibilities for innovation in the economy. But in narrating how he started from the bottom, Bhat emphasizes that he has remained independent of the government. For one, he has never taken subsidies to run his companies. Although he dodges political issues, he isn't shy about echoing the oft-repeated charge Kashmiris lodge against the government -- boundless corruption. Bhat hopes to wean people from the crutch that the public sector has become and advocate what he calls a "self-made system."

In 1996, while working as a mechanic, Bhat wanted to start a repair shop of his own and asked his father to provide him some of their farmland in Hyderpora, an area once filled with paddy fields on the outskirts of Srinagar, which has since become a bustling suburb. His father refused the request. "I [said], 'I will do something, please give me a chance,'" Bhat recalls. The skeptical father eventually relented and the son built a tin shed and hired two workers. Soon after, he joined Maruti Suzuki, India's largest automaker and a subsidiary of Suzuki Motor Corporation, as a service provider. There was next to no profit in the first year.

Building a Large Shop

Rahim Motors, an enterprise that Bhat named after his father, is now a large complex that includes a tidy body shop and other stations catering to vehicle upkeep as well as offices that handle car insurance and warranties. Bhat's operations also include two additional companies at other sites, Rahim Automobiles and Rahim Engineering Works. There are currently 225 employees under him.

At the service center's waiting room, customers can watch their cars getting fixed through wide windows or peruse the "library." The mustached Bhat, in jeans and a green polo shirt, proudly exhibits a cupboard with glass doors, with titles ranging from U.S. President Barack Obama's "Dreams From My Father" to books on Kashmiri history.

Although he left school, Bhat maintains that he continued to read. He credits religious traditions, specifically texts that he read on Islam's Prophet Muhammad -- who, it is said, started out as a merchant -- with building his business acumen. "I have no formal education, but I have a seerateducation," he says using the Arabic term for the stories covering the Prophet's life. From these teachings, he plucked virtues that he translated into his business practices. Otherwise abstract or lofty principles, some seemingly simple, become serious corporate methodologies in his mind.

For instance, Bhat expounds on the necessity of being honest, first exercising it himself, and then telling his employees to be honest. Then he talks about discipline, strong work ethic and being sincere with customers. For him, a manifestation of this can be seen at his call center, where workers ring up clients listed in hefty records, inquiring how the customer's service went and following up on any complaints. He says such efforts have resulted in him being recognized as the only Maruti "service master" in the state of Jammu & Kashmir, denoting the highest satisfaction label possible.

The Dignity of Work

In his workplace, Bhat recognizes employees for their performance through salary hikes and other gestures of appreciation. There are also prayer spaces for Muslims and followers of other religions, such as Sikhism, and a bus service for workers. A training center on the top-floor houses 20 desks and multimedia equipment. Such efforts cut against some of the hierarchical strictures of South Asian work culture that leave many laborers as unsung "peons."

A shelf in Bhat's office is crowded with plaques, trophies and awards from universities, NGOs and Maruti marking his achievements. Above, a mounted television juts from the wall, with the screen split into 16 panels, displaying surveillance video streaming from across the service center.

Over lemon tea and samosas [an Indian snack], the father of two explains how, by dipping into the same prophetic teachings from his faith, he also discovered notions relating to corporate social responsibility and giving back to society. "Everybody is responsible for social responsibility," he says. Out of this vision, a trust styled Rahim Greens was born a few years ago. Bhat says he diverts some 25% of his company's profits for his social responsibility projects. The adrenaline gets going as he begins ticking off his initiatives such as sponsoring underprivileged students, repairing ambulances for social service organizations, and forming a youth soccer league.

One of the trust's main objectives is nurturing young entrepreneurs. This takes Bhat to schools and colleges and youth gatherings where he duly dons his white tennis shoes and brings students and fledgling entrepreneurs to his headquarters. He talks to them about his experiences, garners some laughs, and encourages them to pursue private enterprise, often speaking in his native tongue of Kashmiri. The idea, he says, is to provide them with a "moral education" that covers self-sufficiency, the kind of values that anchored his own business understanding, and teaching them to be effective corporate leaders.

Bhat becomes even more impassioned while discussing Rahim Greens' other priority: environmental protection. The group has planted 46,000 trees around the Kashmir valley since 2009. His goal for next year is 70,000 trees, including in areas of deforestation, which has become a concern throughout the valley. At his service center, he has machines that check and control a car's pollution output. He has also donated 50 solar lights to be used for studying in the remote homes along the India-Pakistan border. "We are destroying the Kashmiri environment," he says, "in the name of development, industry, in the name of power."

Bhat says the valley has tremendous potential in using its natural resources for private sector enterprise, but big industry that creates more pollution or that harms the ecosystem must be avoided. In this vein, he launched the Rahim Green Solution in August, a for-profit, solar business. The offerings will comprise solar panels, solar lighting and solar water-heating systems. Besides helping the environment, Bhat says, the aim also is to create jobs.

The lines between CEO, entrepreneur and conservationist begin to blur. Bhat unveils his long-term vision: "I want to go into the pollution-free business. My dream is to make a car from solar." That might sound farfetched given the restrictions that come with the context of living in a conflict zone. But Bhat is already taking his cause to the international stage: He has been invited to the Asia-Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum 2011 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Bangkok in October; then he's also off to conferences in Korea and Colombia on international volunteering, and later to the U.K. for another climate change meeting.

Bhat has got places to go. And, just in case you fail to take note, he'll point out that he's got his running shoes on.

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