Vinay Nair

Venture Capital

Can Technology help Kashmir overcome its Challenges?

Kashmir, the pristinely beautiful northernmost territory of India, is no stranger to turmoil. Ever since its accession to India all the way back in 1947, this region has found itself at the centre of a deleterious dispute between neighbours India and Pakistan, resulting in a damaging effect on this strategically located area’s security and consequently, its economy.
Instead of stealing the spotlight for its unparalleled beauty and the sight of its stunningly paradisiacal locales, the region has repeatedly made the headlines for the escalations of tensions, dastardly terrorist attacks and political upheavals.
While one would expect such an exquisitely idyllic area to have a bustling tourism industry in place, Kashmir has unfortunately fallen out of favour with both domestic and international tourists over the recent years owing to the fear of terror attacks and security concerns.
However, despite the long history of floundering in the face of fledgling security conditions, representatives of the tourism and hospitality sectors in the area are feeling hopeful all over again, as the Modi 2.0 Government has moved to abrogate Articles 370 and 35A, opening the valley up to private capital and potentially ushering in a new era of prosperity for travel and tourism in this newly created Union Territory.
As the region itself lies engulfed in a complete communication blackout in anticipation of further trouble, the central government has moved to realize its long-standing goal of national integration, by removing the “special status” granted to Jammu and Kashmir by Article 370 in what has been described as a “constitutional coup” by many.
As Home Minister Amit Shah has announced in the Rajya Sabha, Jammu and Kashmir will now be separated from the region of Ladakh and both of them will be administered as Union Territories from now on, the latter without a legislature of its own.
Even as the rest of the nation engages in a heated debate about the possible implications of this largely controversial decision, the representatives of the travel and tourism industries in the region have come out in support of the move, hoping for a substantial rise in the number of people thronging the valley as the dust settles.

The Prime directive from Abrogation of Article 370

With the abrogation of article 370, non-Kashmiris can now begin to settle and acquire property in the area and potentially contribute to the complete transformation of its variegated tourism landscape.
The entire region is capable of supporting several different kinds of tourism, including Spiritual Tourism, Ecotourism and Adventure Tourism.
With private players entering the region with their large pool of resources, it would become easier to tap into the possibilities lying dormant in this troubled land.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his televised address to the nation recently, he is hoping for a resumption of the lost glory of Kashmir, so that it can once again become a favoured destination for filmmakers, both Indian and foreign, as well as vacationing tourists.
He has also called upon tech majors to initiate development in Kashmir and foster an ecosystem for new economic opportunities to flourish.
This appeal seemingly indicates that the government is ready to provide support to private companies aiming to upgrade the tech landscape in Kashmir, hopefully with the help of streamlined tax regimes and other kinds of aid.
While injecting new technology into an area is likely to revolutionise the entire economic ecosystem, by fostering a robust startup culture and creating more jobs; the tourism industry also stands to gain some major advantages from such developments.
Now, while Modi’s apparent enthusiasm for development might be infectious enough to win over many insiders of tourism and hospitality industries, several questions about the future of the region remain unanswered.

Can technology alone resolve the long-standing issues inherent in the region’s geopolitical reality?

The short-term implications do not seem all that promising. Of course, the expansion of technology-based solutions can potentially draw in more tourists and give an overall boost to the regional economy in the same way tech innovation can transform any other state or region in the country.
The use of information technology to improve guest service, provider-client interaction or market hospitality services to potential customers has long been known in the travel and tourism sectors. Considering that tourism alone contributes to roughly 15% of Kashmir’s GDP, there is no doubt that the use of technology can significantly contribute to the recovery of the region’s economy and improve the condition of the Kashmiri youth, who are frequently plagued by the issue of unemployment.
Another tech trend that can be implemented in the area is the use of augmented reality options that allow enthusiastic tourists to get an enhanced experience and make use of interactive elements while traveling.
The use of blockchain to embrace a decentralized data system to assist aspiring travelers can also help cut down on costs, bring in better transparency in reviews, and make the whole process of travel bookings smoother and simpler. Smart contracts too can transform the management of digital identity systems within the industry, while blockchain-based loyalty programs can provide more innovative ways to retain customers. 
Clearly, the world of technology has a lot to offer to tourism, which Kashmir’s economy seems to be largely hinged upon.

But will the government’s tall claims about the region’s future really live up to the promises made?

If we are basing our solutions on technology alone, it is hard to answer that question in the affirmative. After all, Kashmir can only benefit so much from technology, and its potential gains, while incredible if realized, must still skirt around the thorny path of insurgency and terrorism to be successful.
Kashmir stands to benefit just as much as any other region or state in the country from the influx of technology, but the newly entering private players in the region must first effectively contend with the existing security threats of the region.
In the short or the medium term, it seems unlikely that the abrogation of article 370 will eliminate the threat of terrorism, stone pelting and insurgency in the valley.
If anything, the communication blackout, the arrest of popularly elected leaders, and the exclusion of the Kashmiri voice from the decision-making process will only incite some degree of restlessness, if not fresh violence, as a direct aftermath.
In addition, the deployment of troops, and the recent travel advisory issued to Amarnath pilgrims will hardly ease the air of breathless tension engulfing the region. Moreover, considering that Pakistan has already been vocal in its staunch opposition to the controversial decision, it would be naive to assume that the shelling or state-sponsored terrorist incursions from the other side of the border will stop any time soon.
In the light of these concerns, even the most spirited attempt to salvage Kashmir’s economy by the infusion of technology can fall flat on its face.
In any case, most of Kashmir’s development indicators are already above the Indian average, with some of them suffering primarily due to the constant threat of terrorist attacks and rising bilateral tensions in the area. 
Since these issues do not stand to be wished away by the government’s iron hand right now, the use of technology will have only limited benefits, if any.
The Kashmir problem is a longstanding issue in India’s contemporary geopolitical history, and while the band aid of technology can temporarily raise hopes of a recovery, it cannot be the be-all and end-all of the fractious issue. 
Of course, that is not to say that the infusion of technology will not help the valley improve its indicators even further. However, while forming your expectations, it is best to avoid naivety in the optimism and remember that technology alone will not be enough to overcome the obstreperous reality of the situation.
Technology and a greater degree of private investments in the local economy can definitely revive it to a certain extent, but it is crucial to ponder upon whether the removal of the legal barrier will be enough to encourage tech majors to step into the region
In the long-term, perhaps, but not right now.

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