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Kashmiri Entrepreneurs Push for Growth in Region's Agriculture

  • Rebecca Byerly

A Kashmiri Muslim man sorts freshly harvested apples at Shopian, south of Srinagar, 05 Oct 2010

The Kashmir Himalayan region has been a hotly disputed area for decades, with both India and Pakistan laying claim to it. But some Kashmiris see their homeland not only as an area of conflict, but also as a land of agricultural opportunity.

Indian-controlled Kashmir is a predominately agricultural region that produces fruit, grains and vegetables for the Indian market. More than 60 percent of the country's apples are grown there.

Khuram Mir says there is money to be made growing apples. He built one of the region's first controlled atmosphere systems, so that farmers can get better prices for their fruit.

"A significant number of people in Kashmir are related directly or indirectly to the agriculture sector and this is the only sector, I believe that is not prone to turmoil. If we can move in the right direction in this sector it will empower Kashmiris more and more economically," Mir said.

Mir is changing the way Jawad Ahmed and other apple farmers harvest their fruit. Instead of using these wooden boxes, farmers are now using crates, and taking their apples to Mir's facility within 24 hours of picking. Mir says this brings farmers a greater return.

"I will give other farmers the advice and techniques to improve the quality of their apples," said Ahmed.

Kashmir's political struggles, and the violence that accompanies it, overshadow its abundant natural resources. More than 100 Kashmiris died in clashes with security forces over the last several months. Schools and businesses were forced to close and tight curfews were imposed across the valley. Many farmers who made the drive to Mir's facility say security forces beat them for defying curfews and protesters damaged their trucks. Mir says the success of his company is important for the future of Kashmir.

"This project is not about me. It's about the entire region, it's about the valley of Kashmir," said Mir. "It's important that if we succeed and there are 10 other entrepreneurs who come and build a facility like this."

Ferdous Ahmed is another entrepreneur who is trying to develop Kashmir's agriculture with the help of the international relief organization Mercy Corps International. He is working with farmers to grow a viable potato seed so that Kashmir can become less dependent on potato imports.

"Out of a total requirement we import about 83 percent of potatoes from Indian states," said Ahmed. "That's worth about like $19 million. And in addition to that, we consume about $4 million worth of processed potatoes. So, this is a huge market, which we can capture."

Ferdous hopes this industry will attract young Kashmiris who want to be stakeholders in the agriculture industry in the future. Both he and Khuram Mirwould like to see Kashmir's future be more about apples and potatoes than about soldiers and political violence.