Of the many developments that have become a fad thing here is the mushroom growth of residential colonies, shopping malls and other such business centres. As has always been the case with most of things, this sector too is growing in the most unplanned manner. And this is indeed where the biggest worry lies. The devastation caused by the floods of September 2014 would not have been of such a magnitude if residential colonies and business centres would not have come up in flood basins and natural wetlands. But as the situation is, it is not only the ordinary people but even the government agencies vested with the responsibility of ensuring planned development of the Srinagar city and other towns have been found culpable of constructing shopping malls and residential colonies not only in flood basins in some cases right inside the rivers. Srinagar’s biggest housing colony at Bemina laid by Srinagar Development Authority in what was once a natural flood basin called Barthana is an example of the former, while countless structures, both government owned and private ones on the bosom of what was once a portion of Doodganga flowing right through Srinagar from Barzulla to Chattabal is that of the latter. While the devastation caused by the floods should have acted as an eye-opener and set the alarm bells ringing, nothing of the sort seems to have happened. The unplanned constructions continue unabated throughout the length and breadth of the Valley, Srinagar city in particular.
Another area of concern is that of the huge surge in number of shopping centres and malls. We may no doubt be able to construct the most sophisticated and modern shopping centres and other related infrastructure, but in the absence of the required spending capital with the people, will these shopping centres by viable? One wonders if anybody has paid any heed to this crucial factor. Not only the private citizens and business establishments, but even the government agencies like Srinagar and Jammu Development Authorities as well as the Municipal Corporations in both the capitals of the state and in the towns have busied themselves in constructing shops and malls without actually pondering about the factors that would be needed to sustain them for the purpose they are being created for. The failure of Sangarmal Shopping centre in Srinagar is an example of a failed mall.
Looking at the growth of shops and shopping centres across the length and breadth of the state, particularly in the Kashmir Valley, an obvious inference is that in order to sustain these business centres, there must be an increase in the per capita spending as well. And some detailed economic analyses concludes that the state will have to double its annual per capita retail spend to make the newly available retail space viable. If the state is to sustain its massive increase in retail Gross Leasable Area (GLA), there needs to be a corresponding increase in the peoples’ per capita incomes which will then have to translate into the increase in their per capita retail spending as well. Even if there is increase in peoples’ income and instead of spending they choose to invest in shares or mutual funds or other such banking ventures as has been the trend of late, the shopping malls and other such retail spaces which are being constructed will, instead of being an asset, become a liability both for the owners as well as those who may have got them on lease. Obviously the retail boom which the state may be anticipating, if ever it comes, may not sustain itself for long nor will it be of any help to anyone.
The way the state’s economy is poised to grow for the next decade or so, particularly if the political uncertainty owing to the conflict gets prolonged, it is anybody’s guess that there is not going to be any substantial increase in peoples’ earnings, at least not to the tune of what is required to sustain the retail GLA. The only hope, however, is in case of there being improvement in the political situation somehow so that there are new ventures to diversify the state economy to decrease its primary dependence on government jobs, agriculture and horticulture. And of course, if we are able to attract more and more tourists – and then induce them to spend here, it can surely help our retail GLA. Fortunately for Jammu and Kashmir, the state has every potential to be the tourist hub of the entire world. And if the concerned authorities as well as the people themselves, through their reformed attitudes and behavior, are able to repackage Kashmir in modern tetra-packs for the international tourists, things can certainly change for good.
On its part, the government may well have to think of some creative ideas like making Jammu and Kashmir a tax-free zone for international shoppers as is the case with Andorra, for instance, in Europe. This will not only bring in more tourists but also make them spend more which will in turn not only sustain and justify increased GLA here but also improve the state’s economy and peoples’ lives.