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Is lack of development driving the Kashmir conflict?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 03-05-2017 Ragini Bhuyan

The current crisis in Kashmir is characterized as much by the mass protests of youngsters as it is by the militancy of Pakistan-backed terrorists. The signs of growing discontent were visible in the abysmally low turnout in the recently held Srinagar Lok Sabha bypolls. In a visit to the state last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to the Kashmiri youth to choose tourism over terrorism.

Is lack of development the reason for growing discontent in Kashmir?

A look at some of the key development indicators suggests that Jammu and Kashmir fares better than the rest of the country when it comes to most development indicators. In comparison to other insurgency-affected states, Jammu and Kashmir appears to be far more developed.

For instance, on the human development index (HDI)—a summary measure of income, educational attainment, and life expectancy—Jammu and Kashmir fares better than the average Indian state, according to a 2011 ranking of states by HDI, published by the erstwhile Planning Commission.

More recent data from the fourth round of the National Family and Health Survey, which was conducted in 2015-16 (NFHS 2015-16), also shows that Jammu and Kashmir fares better on development indicators when compared with all-India averages, or with insurgency-affected states such as Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Chhattisgarh.

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While the data suggests that there is no simplistic link between disaffection and development, it would be hasty to dismiss the role of socio-economic factors altogether.

Here’s why. According to the 2011 census, the share of 0-14-year-old population was slightly higher in Jammu and Kashmir (34%) than all-India (31%). Today, a part of this cohort would be in high schools and colleges, whose participation in anti-state demonstrations and stone-pelting has been widely recorded. Not only does Jammu and Kashmir have more people than the rest of country in this age-group, its youth population (15-34 years) also has a bigger employment problem. According to the 2011 census, Jammu and Kashmir had a much smaller share of main workers (who are employed for more than six months in a year) in comparison to the rest of India and other conflict-ridden states. This trend is in keeping with Jammu and Kashmir’s low share of main workers in the total population as well.

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These numbers show that the lack of quality jobs may be one reason for the frustration of Kashmiri youth.

Yet, a conflict such as that in Kashmir can rarely be pinned down to just one cause. Years of armed conflict and the heavily militarized environment has taken an emotional toll on the state’s population. The 2015 Kashmir Mental Health Survey conducted by the international humanitarian organisation, Doctors Without Borders, found that 45% of adults in the Kashmir valley display major symptoms of mental distress, with about one in five adults, or 19% of the adult population, displaying major symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The survey put the prevalence of depression in adults at 41%. In contrast, the National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16 puts the weighted prevalence of depression at the all-India level in single digits.

The period of this survey broadly coincides with the NFHS survey of 2015-16. So, at a time when Jammu and Kashmir was ahead of India in most developmental indicators, its population was suffering from high levels of mental stress and trauma. Kashmir needs development with a healing touch that creates good jobs and reduces stress levels in the valley.

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