Reporting from Srinagar, India — As the death toll mounts in this summer of discontent in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, government planners are turning to an old standby in their bid to calm the storm: jobs.
Officials say they hope that if young male demonstrators can be kept busy and off the streets, they will lose their fierce anger over Indian control of the disputed region and alleged human rights violations by police and paramilitary forces. At least 62 protesters, mostly youths throwing rocks, have been killed by armed security officers since June, including one Friday.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a blue-ribbon panel this month to spur job creation and economic development in Kashmir. Five days later, the state's highest elected official, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, pledged to create 50,000 government jobs in the next few months.
However, a closer look at the history of unrest in the pristine Kashmir valley, over which Pakistan and India have fought two wars, suggests that the problems are so deeply rooted that throwing jobs at the volatile situation won't change much.
A prevalent view among Kashmiris and analysts alike is that economic development can succeed only if it's preceded by a political settlement, as it did in Northern Ireland. Without some measure of stability, companies are loath to invest, workers to commute, entrepreneurs to innovate.
"Every time violence erupts in Kashmir, they want to give an economic package," said Aasif Sultan, a student among a crowd of protesters. "We don't want it. We need a political package that reflects the wishes of the Kashmiri people."
Few doubt, however, that a high unemployment rate, constant school interruptions and limited diversions make the situation worse.
"The economy is war battered," said Usman Ahmad, regional director with Mercy Corps, a civic group nurturing new ventures to grow potatoes, develop software and operate call centers. "Even without political instability, it's a great challenge."
The biggest employer in the Kashmir economy, distorted by years of conflict, is the government, with about 550,000 workers in a workforce of 3.2 million; many more private-sector jobs are heavily dependent on government contracts.
Kashmir's bloated state sector, which some have termed "post-Soviet," not only undercuts social stability, because most government workers get paid even during strikes, curfews and riots, but also tends to discourage innovation.
"The men in Kashmir don't necessarily want to work," said Sana Javed, a social worker in Srinagar on leave to raise her children. "There's a psyche that government should be the benefactor, everything should be free and others should pay."
Private employers are limping, at best. Agriculture has suffered as farms have been divided by inheritance to the point that they're barely productive, while irrigation projects and new growing techniques have been ignored for decades. Farm productivity, according to government figures, has declined 30% since the 1980s.
"The private-sector economy has certainly not flourished," said Teresita Schaffer, South Asia director with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's the black economy that does reasonably well."
Tourism, another big earner, is in decline as travelers shun the valley in light of bad headlines. "Here we are at the peak of the tourist season and there are no rooms booked," said Raja Danish Aman, the head of Royal Trading Co., a building materials importer.
Although Kashmir has a history of entrepreneurship dating to the Silk Road days, talented risk-takers have left in droves, looking for better opportunities.
"One faces a lot of problems in starting a business in the valley," said Mohammad Irfan Dar, founder of Quality Innovative Software Solutions. "I knew there would be a lot of bribes involved and that they have to be done in a particular way."
For businesses operating here, patience and ingenuity are the watchwords.
Furniture maker Shakeel Qalander said he had to take out loans to pay other bank loans because interest payments and other costs continue even when business stops.
"The Indian government has failed to address unemployment, to recoup the trade deficit, to enhance our economic growth," Qalander said. "On every account it's failed."
Over the years, J&K Bank, the largest in the troubled valley, has been forced to hone "conflict-banking" skills to keep cash and credit flowing during long periods of unrest, Chairman Haseeb Drabu said. These include setting up mobile ATMs at bus depots so people can finance a quick departure when things get too violent.
For those too poor or rooted to leave, there's only hope.
"If there is peace, the jobs will come," said Raj Ahmed, a salesman. "First, we need peace."
Rana is a news assistant in The Times' New Delhi Bureau.