Can Omar Turn Around J&K's Investment Scene?

13 January 2009
The Times of India

Srinagar: With high voter turnout in the elections and militancy on the wane, India's leading business tycoons are looking to make a beeline for Jammu & Kashmir under Omar Abdullah. But will their newfound interest in the state last, or will it, as on previous occasions, dwindle given the peculiar political issues in the state and its lack of infrastructure? While Omar has been pledging at every opportunity that he would bring private investment into J&K his zeal buttressed by the presence of India Inc's top honchos like Bharti Airtel's Sunil Bharti Mittal, Leela Group's Vivek Nair, Jindal group's Naveen Jindal, JP Group's Sameer Gour, Zee TV's Subash Chandra and Batra Group's Narendar Batra, during his swearing-in he might still have a tough time convincing investors. True, as Batra says, 'There's a need to build a knowledge-based economy and we would invest in setting up new professional colleges in the state.' But what about infrastructure? And the powder keg socio-political situation? After all, thousands of crores of rupees went down the drain when J&K offered concessions to business houses to establish their base in Kashmir in the mid-1980s. Former CMs from Sheikh Abdullah to Ghulam Nabi Azad have tried but failed to bring industrialization. 'Big business left behind huge empty structures in the Valley after the rise of militancy in 1989. They lost hundreds of crores of rupees,' said an officer of industrial development corporation. Sunil Communications, Essem Coated Steels Ltd, Makaster Transmission, Tengam Components and Swiss Jewels were some of those who fled in 1989, leaving J&K's financial institutions badly shaken. Interestingly, even the re-opening of Hotel Grand Palace was made possible only after Jammu & Kashmir Bank extended a loan of more than Rs 100 crore to Lalit Suri who bought the property in the name of his relative Narender Batra from Karan Singh soon after Farooq Abdullah took over as CM in 1996. 'The re-opening brought employment to hundreds of young men besides indirect employment to equal number of people in the Valley,' says Batra. After taking over as CM, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed in December 2002, too, had urged entrepreneurs to invest in Kashmir as it amounts to 'investing in peace'. He received proposals worth Rs 1,000 crore during his interactions with the country's captains of industry during an interactive session organized by CII in New Delhi. But it never took shape. In January 2003, Mufti addressed a special session on ‘Kashmir: A new ray of hope’ organized by FICCI in New Delhi as part of its platinum jubilee celebrations. It was a spectacular failure. Potholed highways and power shortages have been the bane. Absence of rail link from Jammu to Srinagar is another handicap. What Omar needs to ensure first is infrastructure so that the investors he seeks find attractive reasons to be in J&K.