As the waters recede and the clean up finally begins, business owners, including those selling Kashmir’s most famous exports, are beginning to count their losses.
Srinagar: Caked with mud and soaked in putrid water, Qazi Mohammad Yahya’s ruined handmade carpets and Pashmina shawls reflect Kashmir’s economic devastation from the region’s worst floods in a century.
More than 450 people were killed when the floods, triggered by heavy monsoon rains, swept this month through the Himalayan region and into neighboring Pakistan, leaving hundreds of villages submerged and tens of thousands of residents homeless. As the waters recede and the clean up finally begins, business owners, including those selling Kashmir’s most famous exports, are beginning to count their losses “ at least $5 billion by conservative estimates. “My 35 years of earning is gone,” Yahya said outside his home in the picturesque region’s main city of Srinagar as water-logged carpets collected from one of his showrooms were unloaded from a truck. “The loss is incalculable,” a grim-faced Yahya added, staring at muddy bundles of what had been handspun fine cashmere wool to make Pashmina shawls. “Most of my finest carpets are lying elsewhere in the flooded city.”
Kashmir carpets have traditionally been a major earner for the region, whose generations of weavers toil for months on wooden looms to produce single intricate pieces that sell for thousands of dollars in the West. Scores of carpet showrooms now lie under water after Srinagar’s Dal Lake burst its banks, sending residents fleeing for higher ground. Many of the handlooms have also been destroyed and hundreds of people are out of work. “It may take one year to recover, it may take 50. It depends on Allah,” says 55-year-old Yahya who travels to Europe, Southeast Asia and the US every year to sell his carpets.
From carpets and saffron, another famed Kashmir export, to apples, walnuts and gold jewelry, business owners are returning to their flood-wrecked shops to find tons of goods gone or destroyed. “Our most conservative estimate of loss is at least 30,000 crore rupees ($5 billion),” said Ashraf Mir, president of the Federation Chambers of Industries Kashmir (FCIK). “Our main commercial hub (in Srinagar) was the worst hit,” Mir said, adding that the figures were likely to be higher because most of the Kashmir Valley’s 500,000 traders under-insured their stock. Mir himself runs a steel fabrication plant employing 100 people. “I can’t support my staff under the circumstances,” he said.
Mir said many business owners including farmers lost financial records, making it difficult for them to seek help from banks and other financial institutions. “Businesses need to rebuild fast for which liberal institutional help is a must,” Mir said. Many business owners were among the tens of thousands who also lost their homes. “Minimum documents, minimum time (to provide financial help) is the key,” he said.
In one of Srinagar’s main and oldest markets, Maharaj Bazar, mounds of ruined dried fruits and other goods line the road as shopkeepers begin the massive cleanup.