Constitutional crisis + coronavirus: How the pandemic exacerbated India's clampdown in occupied Kashmir
As the coronavirus spread across the world in 2020, governments in nearly all countries imposed lockdowns in one form or the other in a bid to stop the virus from spreading, leading economies to struggle and people to cope with a 'new normal' filled with restrictions.
For people in occupied Kashmir, though, a lockdown was all too familiar.
The region has been under a double lockdown — one imposed days before India stripped occupied Kashmir of its special status by revoking Article 370 of the constitution and the other imposed shortly after the first Covid-19 case was reported in the valley.
The coronavirus doubled the misery of the people in a region that already had more soldiers than doctors and was cut off from the rest of the world through a clampdown on the internet.
On the second anniversary of the revocation of occupied Kashmir's autonomy, Dawn.com takes a look at how the coronavirus has affected the valley's people and its economy.
The valley's first case was detected on March 18, 2020, in a woman who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia. The very next day, the Srinagar district magistrate announced that restrictions were being imposed in the city, and people were asked to stay home.
Since then, more than 320,000 Covid-19 cases and 4,300 deaths have been reported in occupied Kashmir.
"This year August came in March only," a businessman in Srinagar had told Indian publication Scroll.in, months after Covid-19 restrictions were imposed.
As the world shifted to a work-from-home policy and classes moved online, Kashmiris were at yet another disadvantage. The security clampdown in Aug 2019 had also included a complete communications blackout — telephones, cable television and internet were shut. When the coronavirus lockdown was imposed, the valley had not fully emerged from the blackout and only 2G internet was available.
"For all the news about Covid-19 in Kashmir, we have to wait for the 7pm bulletin. I could very well have had instant updates about the pandemic in Kashmir on my phone in real time. You can't even download a photo on 2G speed. How are we supposed to watch those informative videos about precautions from scientists across the globe? 2G internet is as good as useless," Sheikh Yawar, a resident, told Scroll.in.
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The internet blackouts also hindered the response to the pandemic.
"The shutting down of the internet is not new to Kashmir," said a Srinagar-based hospital doctor. "But, this time around, we were shocked that we had to work without the internet even during the pandemic for a week."
Health professionals at two major hospitals in Srinagar said that during the communications blackout, they were unable to consult with colleagues about coronavirus cases.
1 ICU bed for 27,000 people
Kashmir was also unequipped to deal with the pandemic. According to a report by Al Jazeera, there was only one intensive care unit (ICU) bed for every 27,000 people. In one of the valley's districts, only six ventilators were available for 400,000 people and even those could not be used because of a shortage of trained personnel.
There was also a shortage of doctors with only one doctor employed per 3,866 people. In comparison, the valley had one soldier for every 14 people, the report said.
Even as cases increased in the valley, the Indian government restricted medical staff from speaking to the media and stopped manufacturers from supplying oxygen to non-governmental organisations (NGOs), who had been playing an important role in combatting the pandemic.
As the coronavirus situation worsened, Pakistan offered help and called on international organisations, including the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the International Committee of the Red Cross, to set up an international humanitarian medical corridor to help provide medical support to the people of occupied Kashmir. However, Pakistan did not receive a response from India.
According to an analysis in Indian publication The Wire, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) estimated that the region incurred losses worth up to INR180 billion in the 120 days following Aug 5, 2019. This was exacerbated by the pandemic; in almost 50 days since the coronavirus lockdown was imposed, the region incurred further losses amounting to INR132 bn.
The combined losses due to the double lockdowns had reached INR312 bn by May, which was equivalent to 17 per cent of occupied Kashmir's gross state domestic product (GSDP).
"The Indian government justified its decision on the pretext of developing Kashmir. The losses borne by locals are a direct result of government's decision," KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmed said.
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The valley's apple industry, the lifeblood of its economy and involving 3.5 million people, was also badly affected.
Decline in tourism
When occupied Kashmir went into a coronavirus lockdown in March, tourism in the region had already been hobbled by eight months of tight security restrictions. Hoteliers, taxi drivers and others relying on tourism in the region say the pandemic has compounded the financial shock to the industry and they fear it could take years to recover.
The region's director for tourism, Nissar Ahmad Wani, said that between July and September 2020, 525 tourists visited Kashmir — an average of nine people per day.
In August and September 2019, more than 14,600 tourists had visited Kashmir — and that was a 90pc drop from the same period in 2018, before Kashmir's semi-autonomous status was revoked, according to figures from the tourism department.
Some of the owners of houseboats — an important part of Kashmir's tourism sector — saw their boats sink during the pandemic with no money to repair them amid the scarcity of tourists.
"For the world, the Covid-19 lockdown began early [in 2020] but Kashmir has been under lockdown since August ," Dunno, who owns three houseboats told Scroll.in.
More than 150,000 transport workers jobless
Following the easing of some of the restrictions imposed ahead of Aug 5, 2019, the region's transport sector was operational for barely 25 days before the coronavirus lockdown was imposed, bringing the livelihood of 150,000 transport workers to a halt.
Riyaz Ahmed, a driver in Srinagar, told The Wire he has been working in the transport sector for the past 28 years but he has never seen such bad times.
Chairman of the Kashmir Tourist Taxi Transporters Federation, Haji Abdul Rashid, said the federation had approached the government several times for financial relief but nothing had been done for them, The Wire report added.
Restrictions on religious gatherings, Eid rituals
Under a government order effective the weekend of July 4 in 2020, the regional administration prohibited all social and religious gatherings but allowed a Hindu pilgrimage to a shrine in Amarnath cave in the Phalgam area of south Kashmir, according to Anadolu Agency.
The following month, Indian forces fired shotgun pellets and teargas on a Muharram procession by Muslims, injuring dozens of people who had ignored it.
Last month, there were reports that residents of occupied Kashmir could not offer Eidul Azha prayers due to the continued military siege and restrictions imposed by authorities at major mosques in the region.
According to the Kashmir Media Service (KMS), officials barred Muslims from offering prayers in the historic Jamia Masjid, Dargah Hazratbal, Eidgahs and other big mosques by erecting barricades.
The faithful were also unable to sacrifice bovines freely in the territory.
Earlier, the Indian government had ordered authorities in occupied Kashmir to ban the slaughter of all animals in the Muslim-majority region for Eidul Azha.
A government communication addressed to civil and police authorities in the region asked them to stop "illegal killing/sacrifices of cows/calves, camels & other animals", citing animal welfare laws.
A day later, however, authorities said there was no ban on the sacrifice of animals, with a senior government official saying the earlier communication was "misconstrued", and the government had been seeking proper transportation of animals and the prevention of cruelty during the festival.
In Sept 2020, the region's governor Manoj Sinha announced an economic relief package amounting to INR13.5 bn. He had also earlier said a panel would be set up to work out modalities for the economic revival of Kashmir and to extend support to businesses, according to a report by NDTV.
While the authorities eased some coronavirus-related restrictions in occupied Kashmir in July and tourism has been allowed to resume subject to showing proof of vaccination and a negative coronavirus test, the region's economy has a long road to recovery.
Header image: Kashmiris stand in a queue to cast their votes during the first phase of District Development Councils election on the outskirts of Srinagar, occupied Kashmir in this file photo. — AP
Additional input by Reuters.