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

Dropping out of high school may have been Abdul Hamid Bhat’s luckiest day. After failing the examination to earn his matriculate qualification, roughly the equivalent of a high school diploma, in 10th grade, 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.

His ubiquitous white sneakers, worn even to weddings and conferences, are a testament that he’s constantly on the move. Bhat’s mission is 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. In this Himalayan valley, when it comes to inquiring about someone’s employment the common 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, tourism and banking have held up. But government postings are viewed as a safety net amid ongoing political anxieties, with those on the state payroll guaranteed a paycheck even when strikes and curfews hit.

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 closer to the level of 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 once 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% 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 joblessness 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.

Preaching 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, telling 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 notes 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 the Suzuki Motor Corporation, as a service provider. There was next to no profit in the first year.

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. He currently has 225 employees.

At the service center’s waiting room, customers can watch their cars getting fixed through wide windows or peruse the “library,” a cupboard with glass doors, with titles ranging from U.S. President Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father to books on Kashmiri history.

The Dignity of Work

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.”

According to Bhat, by dipping into prophetic teachings from his Muslim faith, he also discovered notions relating to corporate social responsibility and giving back to society. “Everybody is responsible for social responsibility,” he notes. Out of this vision, a trust called Rahim Greens was born a few years ago. Bhat says he diverts some 25% of his company’s profits for social responsibility projects.

One of the trust’s main objectives is nurturing young entrepreneurs. This takes Bhat to schools, colleges and youth gatherings where he talks to students and fledgling entrepreneurs about his experiences and encourages them to pursue private enterprise, often speaking in his native tongue of Kashmiri. The idea, he notes, is to provide young people 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 says the valley has tremendous potential in using its natural resources for private sector enterprise, but big industry that creates more pollution or harms the ecosystem must be avoided. In this vein, he launched the Rahim Green Solution in August, a for-profit, solar business. The firm’s offerings will comprise solar panels, solar lighting and solar water-heating systems. Besides helping the environment, the aim also is to create jobs.

The lines between CEO, entrepreneur and conservationist begin to blur when Bhat unveils his long-term vision: “I want to go into the pollution-free business. My dream is to make a car from solar.”

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