Raouf Rasool

It’s heads I win and tails people loose …

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This week saw Srinagar Mayor asserting that action will be initiated against all those who have violated construction norms, including commercial complexes that have come up in various residential areas of the city in violation of the Srinagar Master Plan, or encroached on the government land. Now if it really happens, it will be appreciable. But the fact that all these violations have, over the years, been carried out right under the SMC’s nose and with active connivance and patronage of its officials, the civic body must also say something about the rot within. It is also important to see why these violations were allowed in the first place. All those officials who have been involved in defacing the Srinagar city for pecuniary considerations must be taken to task. How each of the commercial complexes, which have come up in violation of laid down rules, got building permission from the concerned authorities must be explained. They have been enjoying power and water supply as also other civic amenities as well. Who gave them permissions to come up in residential areas and then facilitated them with electricity and water connections? There are countless questions that could, and should be asked and the concerned authorities are duty-bound to answer and explain

Over the years, Srinagar city and for that matter even the big and small towns of the Valley have seen mushroom growth of shopping malls and other such business centres. As has always been the case here, this sector too grew in the most unplanned manner, besides of course coming up in violation of the Master Plan which is actually the government’s vision and plan for the infrastructural development of the city. Although government should have been there to crack the whip right in the beginning, but this did not happen. Instead various government agencies only used the opportunity to earn quick and hefty bucks by bartering away permissions in lieu of money. It has virtually been a free-for-all kind of situation here. Whosoever wanted to erect a shopping mall did it without bothering for any rules and regulations for the same were on sale and could be easily managed. This is how Jawahar Nagar, Karan Nagar, Hyderpora, even Rajbagh, Munawarabad, Goni Khun and scores of other residential localities in Srinagar were overnight turned into commercial hubs.

That these commercial complexes came up in violation of the Master Plan is an established fact, but what is another worrying factor is that very little economic thinking was invested in erecting these buildings on such a massive scale. We may no doubt have been 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, shopping centres are not viable. The Srinagar Development Authority’s state-of-the art Sangarmal Complex is an example to prove the point. It is really amazing that nobody seems to have paid any heed to this crucial factor. Not only the private citizens and business establishments, but even the government agencies like SMC and SDA 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 were created for.

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 people 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 have been and 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. Again Sangarmal complex can be cited an example here  -- it has turned into a ‘haunted place’ for want of retailers who would run business from there. And same is the case with many other commercial centres as well -- owned both by government agencies like SMC, SDA and others, as well as for countless private properties as well. Majority of those who have invested in Sangarmal or other such complexes have done it not for retailing but as an investment in real estate, therefore defeating the very purpose for which these commercial complexes were constructed.

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 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 in Kashmir, it can surely help our retail GLA. However, as of now, there is not much hope about the political situation showing any marked improvement, which then infers that investing in commercial complexes does not make for good economic understanding.

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