- A record 15,000 applicants turned up for a recent army recruitment drive
- A 2008 survey noted 1,41,000 jobless registered at employment exchanges. Total jobless figure said to be 3.5 lakh.
- With virtually no industry in the state, there are few private sector jobs
- The state government is the largest employer. There are over 4.5 lakh government servants.
***I t was a mindless act, and one that came at quite the wrong time for the army, undermining the tenuous goodwill built over years. On February 21, in Sopore, 22 Rashtriya Rifles killed two youths it called militants. But many say the youths were innocent and the firing was unprovoked. Tempers have flared in the Valley over the killings just when the army was exulting that its recent recruitment drive in Baramulla had attracted a record 15,000 applicants. In May 2006, no more than 1,800 young men had turned up after the United Jehad Council, a PoK-based alliance of militant groups, warned Kashmiris against enlisting.
This year's turnout is seen as a manifestation of normalcy returning to the Valley—which is why chief minister Omar Abdullah was fuming over the Sopore killings, saying he would have expected such a thing from militants from across the border, not men in uniform. Indeed, there are all indications that militancy is losing its appeal among young men desperate for jobs and a future, and even the once-hated army is being seen as a viable option.
Hopefuls turned up days before the February 16-19 camp and spent the nights in local mosques. The minimum qualification was matriculation and the upper age limit 21 years, but among the applicants were post-graduates and some as old as 25 years. Col Uma Maheshwari, spokesperson of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, says: "It shows how peace is returning. The applicants hailed from all 10 districts of the Valley."
Underlining the irony of Kashmiris' changing equations with the army was the fact that the stadium where the physicals were conducted wasn't far from the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, where thousands had converged last year in response to the separatists' call during the Amarnath land agitation.
Any hard-nosed assessment would ascribe the attraction to army jobs to nothing more than the state's bane—unemployment. A 2008 survey counted 1,40,000 registrations with employment exchanges. It estimated true jobless figures at 3.5 lakh. Industry is virtually non-existent, investments being hard to come by. The state government has limited jobs on offer, so the salary of Rs 15,000 recruits get on enrolment as jawans is seen as a fortune.
Omar's Gupkar residence is so flooded with job-seekers every morning that he rushed to Mumbai to appeal to corporate India to make investments in his state. The Essar group has responded with a Rs 100 crore plan for two business process outsourcing centres in Jammu and Srinagar, expected to generate some 4,000 jobs. Omar says such ventures are the only hope for his state's problems.
Separatists, confounded by the high turnout in the recent assembly elections, are dismissive of the response to the army recruitment drive. "No doubt we have a huge number of unemployed men, but the government is exploiting the issue and using it to defame our freedom struggle," says moderate Hurriyat leader Nayeem Khan. "If the army claims to be a well-wisher of Kashmiris, how can it justify the Sopore killings?"
Indeed, it has to be acknowledged that the mood in the Valley—forever resting on a knife's edge—could well change, should there be any recurrence of army excess. What lack of development and industry, joblessness and weariness with militancy has achieved in terms of young men agreeing to join the army could all come undone. This is something both the army and the state administration can ill-afford. For if it's not militancy, jobless youths are taking solace in alcohol or drugs: nearly half the unemployed are believed to be struggling with addictions.