‘I want to be part of a genuine change in Kashmir’

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Salman Anees Soz, 42, returned from the United States after 18 years. He worked in the World Bank in Washington, DC for over 13 years, most recently as Senior Urban Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia region.  Son of a prominent politician, Professor Saifudin Soz, he wants to contribute for the welfare of people of Kashmir even if it means joining politics. He shares his thoughts in an exclusive interview with Greater Kashmir senior reporter Abid Bashir. Here are the excerpts:

Why did you leave United States?
I went to US to study, learn and to gain experience. After completing two Master’s degrees (in Economics and Business Administration) and working in the World Bank for 14 years and in the private sector, I believe, I achieved what I had set out for. But, my ultimate goal was to use that knowledge and experience to help improve the lives of people of Jammu and Kashmir. That is why I am back.

How can you do that?
Our society faces immense challenges. The last 20 years have been extremely tough for us, particularly our children. In terms of development, we have been unable to keep pace with the rest of the country, or the world. Not only has our economy become structurally stagnant, but we have also suffered severe setbacks in our evolution as a modern society. The turmoil here has created a fertile ground for all sorts of ills, most notably in the public sector, be it in the form of poor governance, corruption or lack of transparency in our government and almost zero accountability in public life. We appear to have no long-term planning horizon and I don’t think many people are seriously thinking about the long-term adverse impacts on our youth as a result of prolonged turmoil in Kashmir. My substantial experience in development can certainly help here. Of course, this is not a one-man job. We all have to contribute if we want our future and that of our children and grandchildren to be substantively better than current trends indicate.

Many people say you would follow your father in politics. It that true?
I did not give up a comfortable life in the US and uproot my small family from there to simply join politics. I have returned to be part of genuine change here. I earnestly want the lives of people here, especially our children, to improve in measurable ways. My dream is that kids here, I mean all of them, have the opportunity to become whatever they want in life, provided they are willing to work hard, with integrity, and with dignity. For my dream to come true, many things have to happen and a lot of hard work is ahead of us. But, if this dream requires me to join politics or engage in social work or do something else, I will do so happily. I am clear about what I want for Kashmir and for the rest of the State. I am not yet clear on how to go about it. But, I have not ruled out politics.

Do you think change really is possible in Kashmir? People don’t feel things will change here.
 My mother, and everyone else I meet here, says that change in Kashmir is not possible. I can appreciate that people here have become somewhat despondent and pessimistic given how difficult the ground reality of Kashmir is. But, I want to draw your attention to two things. First, in spite of everything, change has occurred in Kashmir, although positive things are outnumbered heavily by negative things. This means there is space for positive activity here. I am glad to hear about entrepreneurs developing businesses and creating employment opportunities. I also want to commend the work of those government employees who are working honestly and diligently to improve things here despite opposition from entrenched interests. We need to promote these types of initiatives and unleash our creativity, which is no less than what we find in other places around the world. We need to focus our energies on positive things and, with time, positive results will emerge. My second point would be that change has come to many societies, some of them extremely complicated. If you look at what has happened in Turkey since the Justice and Freedom Party took over about ten years back, you will see a sea-change in that country. Closer to home all sorts of places in India are developing rapidly and integrating with the rest of the world. We need to ride this change and become part of it. Our future generations depend on our initiative. If it can happen elsewhere, it can definitely happen here. I am very optimistic that Kashmir can also change for the better. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here talking to you. 

But, can Kashmir change while the political question remains unresolved?
 I respect the sentiments of those who are seeking a resolution of the political problems associated with Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, we should all promote efforts to seek a long lasting resolution that would bring peace and dignity to our people. I believe this is possible only through open-minded dialogue and discussion. Having said that, we must also recognize that we and, more importantly, our future generations cannot stand by and wait for that time when we have a political settlement. Peace and development are not mutually exclusive issues. On the contrary, they are very much integral to each other. While we strive for a political resolution, we must ensure that our youth and children remain abreast of developments in the rest of the world. We cannot let them fall behind. We cannot let our society continue to lag behind others or see this gap widen. I urge our people to focus on improving their lives within our constraints. Hopefully, as we develop, efforts to promote a sustainable peace will be reinforced. Otherwise, if we insist on a political resolution being a condition for our development, we may be saddled with a new generation of Kashmiris who are unable to contribute effectively to our society’s development and to lead fuller lives. Please do not underestimate the challenge Kashmiri society faces in the form of youth who may not have the kind of education and skills that can help them compete for jobs and other opportunities afforded by the modern world. 

Based on your experience, how can change come to Kashmir?
First, let me just say this from the outset: change takes time. Positive and deep change takes decades. So, we should not expect miracles. Second, change requires a collective acknowledgement that we have deep-rooted problems that can only be overcome through concerted thought and action to overcome. If people really want change and are willing to contribute in word and deed to make that change happen, then we will see a transformed Kashmir and J&K. It will then be a matter of time. Of course, there are some important, common sense initial steps that we need to take. We must develop a vision for our society’s long-term future. I have yet to come across anything resembling a long-term planning document developed for our State. If you go through annual district planning documents, you cannot make sense of them. I am not sure how our elected officials sign off on them. We need to look ahead and see where we want to go. Having a vision is not enough, however. We need a plan to accomplish the essential elements of that vision. This plan will have multiple components and will focus on key themes and sectors for which we need policy frameworks. I know this sounds very academic but, frankly, there is no easy path to socio-economic development. If our people want a better life for themselves and for their children and grandchildren, then we all have to work hard for that to happen.

In concrete terms, how can policy work help in J&K?
Let me give you a simple example. I am not sure what our energy policy is. If we did have an energy policy in place, we would not be facing power shortages even in summer months. As far back as I can remember (and I am 42 years old) we have always faced power cuts. But, these were typically in the winter season. Now, power curtailment is seamlessly woven into different seasons. Why do we accept such a situation? Why don’t we do something serious about it? I think it is insufficient to say that we should renegotiate our power agreements with NHPC. That is one aspect of what could be a comprehensive energy policy. We need to look at all available options to develop sustainable generation, transmission and distribution systems. We need to review both the demand and supply sides and we need to think big and we need to think long-term. If we do that, I am confident our energy woes will end. This is one example; there are many others.

 Do you see a governance problem in J&K?
I see a “government” problem in J&K. The size of government in our State is simply too large. Government is omnipresent and omnipotent. In relation to the size of the economy, government expenditures probably account for 60-70 percent of the total. That is simply far too much. That means the formal private sector is very limited. In my opinion, the path to prosperity for our state lies through curbs on the size and scope of government. The government in our state is involved in far too many things, it wastes precious resources, creates a system of patronage that keeps the status quo going and is overwhelmingly geared to benefit those who are part of the “system”. I am also disappointed that people who typically are critical of government inefficiency spare no effort in leveraging the government for their own benefit. If you don’t want to pay a certain price for commodities or services, you can always call on the government to regulate markets. This encourages government interference in our lives, something that we should not wish upon ourselves or our future generations. If you want improved governance in the state, reduce the size and scope of government.

What then is your opinion on the role of government?
I think we have to strive for a government that is very focused on those things that only a government can do leaving the rest for the private and nongovernmental sector. In my view, the government’s role is to first create an enabling environment in which a society can flourish. For example, if a government provides a secure environment, businesses can operate without fear. If a government creates an investment climate where businesses are easy to register and operate with adequate supply of power and road infrastructure, then private enterprise will flourish. If the government supports scientific research and development, the private sector can leverage that to create new business opportunities and jobs. If contract enforcement is done in a transparent way by the government, the entire society will benefit. If the government provides basic infrastructure for tourism (e.g., road connectivity, electricity, water availability, etc.), then the private sector can develop different tourist sites. You simply cannot have a situation in which the government’s wage and pension bill is about Rs. 15,000 crores and the revenues generated by our own taxpayers are less than half that amount. This is not only unsustainable but also unhealthy for our society. I used to be fond of saying at the World Bank that if we reduced our staffing by 25%, our productivity as an institution would go up substantially. Now, the World Bank is one of the finest institutions of the world and our government machinery has a long way to go before it can achieve those high international standards. So, if I think that the World Bank is bloated, then you can imagine what I feel about our own government. I understand that reducing government can have profound implications for our people, but if we trim our government carefully and over time, our future generations will benefit tremendously and even we can see some benefits in the short-term. This has been done in other places and we can do it too. Dependence on government which in turn means dependence on Central Government assistance, is promoting corruption, eroding our work ethic and threatening our future.

Your views on government may not make you popular here. Are you not worried about it?
 I did not come here to hide my views from people. I am a very open person. I am convinced that my views can promote peace and development in our state. If I ever feel that someone holds a view that can prove more effective in dealing with our issues, I will gladly accept those views. My only interest is that we begin to discard some of our bad habits, trust each other, and set ourselves some meaningful socio-economic goals and work together to heal the damage to our social fabric. I am optimistic we can do much better as a society and create a wonderful future for ourselves, our children and their children.

Did you like enjoy living in the United States? Do you miss it?
I loved living in the US. In many ways, it is a wonderful country and we have a lot to learn from it. Of course, they have their own problems that they have to deal with and they need a far more balanced foreign policy. But, for the most part, it is a terrific country to live in. I personally admire the work ethic and integrity of ordinary Americans. American society is very diverse but it has done a good job of integrating people from different national, religious and ethnic backgrounds. I would say they have done a far better job than the Europeans have of integrating different sections of society. I also like the openness with which they discuss sensitive issues such as racism or immigration. Open debates within society let people blow off steam without resorting to violence etc. There are many other things to like about the US. Life for a common person is orderly. People follow traffic signals, you don’t have to wait weeks for ATM cards, you don’t need to know anyone influential to get basic things done, bribes won’t get you anywhere (for the most part), and there is a lot of entertainment, especially for kids. So, yes the rest of the family and I miss it but, at the same time, home is home. I think we can make our own society wonderful and attractive for our children so that they don’t feel they need to look elsewhere for a good, decent, prosperous life. I hope to play a part in making this happen.

Feedback at abidwani@gmail.com

Lastupdate on : Sat, 3 Nov 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sat, 3 Nov 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sun, 4 Nov 2012 00:00:00 IST




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