Edit/Op-Ed

Self-employment Scenario in Kashmir before and during COVID-19 Lockdown

Rabiya Yaseen Bazaz & Professor Mohammad Akram

“COVID19 is no longer a global health crisis only, it is also a major labour market and economic crisis that is having a huge impact on people,” International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) chief Guy Ryder said in a statement recently. “Full or partial lockdown measures are now affecting almost 2.7 billion workers, representing around 81 per cent of the world’s workforce,” said ILO in its recent report on COVID19 and the world of work. The agency also added that “the increase in the global number of unemployed at the end of 2020 will be significantly higher than the initial projection (25 million) in the ILO’s first Monitor”. The study also indicated that the repercussion of partial and full lockdown will not produce uniform results on the labour market and some sectors and groups will be severely impacted by COVID19 measures. The report says that declining economic activities can have a devastating impact on the medium and small enterprise, migrant workers, informal and casually employed workers, youth and women.

In response to COVID19 pandemic, the Government in India is following the policy of complete lockdown and social distancing in almost all states and union territories (UTs). The lockdown is also extended to the UT of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). JK was previously in the state of almost complete lockdown for more than seven months after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August 2019. J&K has witnessed such lockdowns many times even before this, although the intensity was different during the last one. Previous lockdowns and insurgencies have not only increased the unemployment rate (particularly among youth) but also impacted the employment sectors of the valley. They have given a jolt to the self-employment sector of Kashmir which is often considered vital for the economic development during financial crises. Youth in Kashmir have lost their interest in choosing self-employment as their career choice and remain reluctant and insecure for investing in this sector. They have also deterred the growth of private sectors and many were compelled to shut their firms due to regular strikes and lockdowns. Moreover, shrinking public investment and government jobs have further aggravated and intensified the unemployment rate in the valley.  

Amidst all these uncalled for developments, it is the traditional sector associated with handicraft, handloom, papier-mache and other traditional sectors of Kashmir which time and again have come into the rescue and provided employment and income to people of all classes including the middle and lower strata of people. During the lockdown imposed in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, Mr A.H. Bhat (in his mid 40’s), a resident of Madin Sahib, Kashmir was asked by the author, “How do you manage your business amid complete lockdown?” He replied “I am engaged in papier-mache work. It involves skilled workers who can sit with me at home and perform such work. These workers live in my vicinity and are known to me personally. During the lockdown, very often, they join me at my home and complete the work. Further, I sell my products also to businessmen who have a market outside Kashmir and in this way I manage my business despite during insurgency and lockdown.”However, the situation during the present lockdown is very different. Physical distance, social isolation, quarantine and ‘stay at home’ are the defined tools and mechanisms to contain the spread of COVID19. This lockdown is certainly going to have a never-before kind of impact at the employment and work profile of people.

In the absence of any large scale vocational training in Kashmir, most of these traditional skills are learnt at an informal level where agencies like friends, neighbourhood, sect, and caste play important role in imparting these skills. Thus, through social networking and personal connections (generally identified as social capital), individuals and groups learn these traditional skills at the community level. Thus, work is mostly performed at the community level where workers sit together with the master and perform this work at home/firm. Several other self-employment like embroidery, carpet weaving, painting and other artefacts and handicrafts are also performed in similar ways.

However, the ongoing crises of COVID19 and its associated measures can impact these enterprises of Kashmir which are the backbone of Kashmir’s economy and have generated work for the people even during the tough times of insurgency and lockdown, very adversely. The ongoing COVID19 crisis and its associate measures of lockdown, quarantine and social distancing can halt the growth of the various traditional sectors of Kashmir which largely involve skill work and such work is largely learnt and performed at the community level. It can also create livelihood crises for the workers working in these enterprises. Thus the previous insurgency and lockdown align with the present crises can put a devastating impact on the economy and self-employment profile of the people of Kashmir. 

As pointed out by ILO, recovery from lockdown will largely depend upon the approach adopted by the government to combat economic crises and at present government should come up with policies which can address the livelihood crises of the people and enterprise which is severely affected by the COVID19 measures by providing them immediate relief. The increasing rate of unemployment can push people into poverty and further create livelihood crises. Besides economic crises, it can also impact the psychological well being of people in Kashmir and result in further alienation. The government needs to focus immediately on the economic implications of the lockdown in JK and engage people politically and socially also while applying the principles of social distancing to combat COVID19. An immediate release of economic support to all needful people in JK is the urgent need of the hour. The central government must come forward for this, immediately.

Rabiya Yaseen Bazaz is a senior research scholar at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

Prof. Mohammad Akram is Professor of Sociology at Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.

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