My way or the highway!

A day after the Supreme Court dismissed a plea challenging J&K government’s order restricting civilian traffic on the national highway, the state government relaxed the restrictions it had imposed giving primacy to the movement of security forces. Strange.

The movement of security forces had been necessitated neither by external aggression nor internal rebellion but to democratically elect representatives of people. Almost 80 per cent of the eligible voters boycotted the exercise. Ironic!  

Two days after the Banihal highway was closed for civilian traffic, the Uri route for cross-LoC trade was stopped, ostensibly for maintenance and repair of “Aman setu” (“peace bridge”, how symbolic!). Barely a week later, the cross LoC trade itself was suspended. Coincidence?

A day later, after relaxing the restrictions, the National Highway Authority of India, starts levying a toll on vehicles on the same highway. Happenstance.

All these measures need to be seen in the context of concerted efforts to rescind Article 35A and abrogate Article 370. Seen thus, these decisions are neither strange, nor coincidental nor by chance or by accident. But by design. A pincer is being constructed with political pressure from above and economic squeeze from below.

It is impossible to miss the symbolism that goes beyond roads and routes. These are mind games that flank the underlying power play. The message is too direct and obvious to be missed: My way or the highway!  This is the new Kashmir policy.

The closing down of the trade route is a tangential assault on the constitutional special status. J&K is the only state that has a local trade route with a neighbouring country. All other border states have international trade routes. Not just that, this road and route was accessible only to the “state subjects”; a category that is under threat of obliteration. It was a privilege as well as a differentiator. And in the new paradigm of nationalistic politics these must go.

The blocking of roads and suspension of routes are not vanilla policy decisions; they are meant to send a message to the people inside and outside the state.  

It is not just about controlling the highway or the roads. It is about controlling the narrative. For there are small but significant histories etched in the geographies of these roads. Those who decided on restricting the access of civilians on the Banihal highway, may not even know that this route to Kashmir, up until 1922, was meant only for the ruling elite: the royal family. It seems to have come a full circle about a hundred years later!

Thus far, in the thirty years of insurgency, the highway has never politicised except briefly during the Amarnath land row in 2008. With this provocative gesture of security control, the highway stands paved with politicisation. A new beginning has been made. The highway has been used as a tool of domination; now it will be used as a scene of protestation. This will be the new history of highways.

At what cost?

What links producers to markets, wholesalers to retailers, workers to jobs, students to school, and the sick to hospitals? Roads! In a manner of plain speak roads are vital to any development agenda. The fact is that roads are arteries through which the economy pulses. Not that it matters for now, eventually the jackboots will pinch the foot that tramples. 

The valley of Kashmir, whatever else it might be politically and strategically, it is also an economic unit and a market. The total incomes generate this year by the J&K economy will be Rs 1.57 lakh crore, which is 0.85 per cent of the national income. In US dollar terms, the state domestic product, estimated on income originating basis, is $ 22 billion making J&K equivalent to Estonia, a republic in Northern Europe. 

J&K contributes 10 per cent of the total income generated by neighbouring states of Punjab, Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh.  Assuming a savings rate of 20 per cent (i.e savings as a percentage of state income which is around 30 per cent nationally), the market size of the state is Rs 1.2 lakh crore. This is the consumption of both final and intermediate goods. On conservative estimates (less than the national per capita consumption), the final consumption expenditure alone will be in the range of Rs 80,000 to Rs 1,00,00 crore.

With an import intensity of 0.60, we are looking at imports from neighbouring states of around Rs 4,000 crore per month. The 10,000 vehicles which ply every hour on the highway are carriers of this commerce and livelihood outside of J&K. Not to make too fine a point of economic interdependence, if the multiplier is taken to be 3, (RBI estimates that 1% increase in spending raises incomes by 3.9%), then we are talking of an income generation dynamic of Rs 12,000 crore in the neighbouring economic ecosystem.  Reverse multipliers may not be as strong but do operate. 

How does this operate on the ground? Take the case of eggs. On last count the state consumed 1.2 billion eggs annually. Of which only one third is produced locally. At Rs 5 an egg, Rs 600 crore was spend on eggs, of which Rs 400 crore became the income of poultry businesses in Punjab and Haryana. Annually, 7.5 crore kilograms of poultry meat, about Rs 1,000 crore, is consumed. Of this, Rs 500 crore is income for poultry business in neighbouring states.  

Annually 50,000 tonnes of mutton is consumed every year. At Rs 400 per kilogram, it is an annual business turnover of Rs 2,000 crore (factoid: assuming that all this mutton is consumed in the valley, all that the valleyites consume per capita per day is around 30 grams, which is not much compared to the gluttonous reputation we have!). In physical terms, about 11 lakh sheep and goat are imported, mostly from Rajasthan.  

The point being that the size of the valley market may be small from the macroeconomic perspective of the Indian economy. But for a thousands of suppliers from outside of the valley, the size is substantial.

More importantly, the vehicles that ply the highway carry not just goods but also a network of trade and business relationships. Trade is a precursor of trust, of bonds of livelihood and shared prosperity.

The horticulturists of Shopian and the commissioning agents of Azadpur have for decades shared good times and survived bad times together.  These trucks that ply the highway are carriers of trust and credit. These have proved to be the strongest linkages between valley and the mainland. It is these that are getting disturbed, if not snapped just yet.

With the NIA nibbling at the heels of trade and business in the valley, scrutinising their transactions and accounts, it potentially opens up their business partners in rest of the country to questioning. No one would want to trade with them anymore for the fear of transactional enquiry. Already traders are seeing their working capital requirements increasing as their dealers and suppliers want advance full payment before they supply the goods. Earlier these would be delivered on credit; on trust.

More than the goods trade, it is the disengaging of the business networks that will not only make the valley even more insular but will isolate it further. In doing what they are doing, the Government of India seems to have been hit by a bout of road rage.