Lockdown has made life harsher for Kashmiris in Fort Kochi


Shevlin Sebastian

Stakeholders in Fort Kochi and Jew Town, including restaurant and store owners, travel agents, businessmen and homestay owners are struggling, but hope is not lost

Fort Kochi
The deserted Jew Town

On most mornings, Sajid Hussain Khatai goes to his shop in Jew Town, on the road leading to the Jewish Synagogue. He switches on the fans and lights. He is aware no customers are going to come. But Sajid is doing this, to prevent fungus attacking his carpets, shawls and cotton textiles. He keeps it open till 2 p.m. Then he returns home.

But now, with rising rates of coronavirus victims, Fort Kochi is in lockdown.

Sajid stays three kilometres from his shop. And he has been unable to open the shop. But the situation in the shop is not alarming.

However, Sajid is wondering about the state of the goods in his friends’ shops. These have been closed for three months. “Most of the carpets will be spoiled,” he says.

sajid
Sajid Hussain

Sajid is from Srinagar. He came to Jew Town in 1998. He is one of the first Kashmiris to settle in Fort Kochi. Like most Kashmiris, he runs a handicrafts shop. He has another shop near the Mattancherry boat jetty.

Kashmiris have about 110 shops in the area. A total of 450 Kashmiris stay in Jew Town and Fort Kochi. But about 440 people have gone back. Sajid has stayed back because his wife works in the MG Road branch of The Jammu & Kashmir Bank. His two daughters study in Choice School. Now they are attending online classes.

“The economic damage is huge,” he says. “Our business depends on tourists. Now, there is nobody. We have been suffering for the past few months. The reason many Kashmiris left was to avoid paying the home rent.”

Interestingly, many of those who have gone back to Srinagar have started other businesses. One person has started a wholesale business in garments; another has become a transporter; a third one has become a distributor. “If they succeed, they might not return,” he says.

Sajid feels that nothing will happen in the upcoming tourist season which starts from October and ends in March next year. “The only way foreigners will come is if a vaccine is found,” he says. “Otherwise, nobody will take the risk of travelling. I believe this will be the case with domestic tourists, too.”

He has spoken to travel agents and they expect that things will return to normal only by August 2021. The problem is that since economies have gone into a tailspin all over the world very few people will have the money to travel. “They will be more interested in clearing their debts,” says Sajid. “Bread and butter issues will be paramount. So, the last thing on their minds will be travel.”

It is a cloudy morning. Junaid Sulaiman is standing in front of a building which he owns, just next to the Synagogue. “It looks like a full-fledged hartal,” he says, as he points at the empty street and the shuttered shops. “In the months of November to February, because of the presence of so many foreign tourists, I would feel I am in a European country. But now all that is gone.”

As for the Synagogue it has been closed for the first time in 452 years.

junaid
Junaid

Junaid runs the Mocha Art Cafe. His patrons have included the famed Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and the Vietnamese photographer Nick Ut who shot the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of children fleeing a bombed-out village in Vietnam.

He closed the cafe on March 14, when he heard that some foreigners in Munnar had been affected with coronavirus. He felt he could open on April 1.

But his plans went haywire. “We never imagined it would last for so long,” says Junaid.

Out of ten staffers, three have gone back home. At the cafe, there is a manager, an executive chef, two baristas (coffee experts), one sous chef, and a sweeper. Junaid continues to pay their salaries.

One day, Junaid got a call from Aneesh Sharafudeen, the Kerala state head of garment company FabIndia, asking for a cut in the rent. The company has a showroom in Junaid’s building.

He replied he would think about it. Junaid, who owns the most number of buildings in Jew Town, consulted with the other owners. In the end, they waived off the rent from March 15 to May 31. From June 1 to September 30, 50 per cent have been waived.

Junaid has his heart in the right place. One day the Kashmiris approached him for help to get a train from Kochi to Kashmir. So, Junaid met the Collector S Suhas and Agriculture Minister Sunil Kumar. Sunil, a member of the Communist Party of India, is in charge of Ernakulam.

kochi
No foreigners or domestic tourists visit the place

Five days later, the Nodal Officer for Kashmir RS Shibu called Junaid from Thiruvananthapuram. A train was arranged on May 20. About 400 Kashmiris got in at Ernakulam and another 400 from Thiruvananthapuram. Around 16 students from Mangalore also boarded the train. The last stop was Udaipur. Thereafter, they took buses to reach Srinagar, 1400 km away.

Junaid has another business of distribution of Fast Moving Consumer Goods. These include butter, ghee, flour, wheat, biscuits, jams, edible oils and cornflakes. However, he has not been able to deliver outside the containment zones. Other distributors are in a similar predicament. “People will suffer,” says Junaid.

Apart from the people the economy is suffering. Says Sunny L Malayil, the president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: “There is a severe economic impact in Fort Kochi. We had a flourishing tourism-related industry. But now, there is a huge dip in income. At this moment, there are no foreigners or domestic travellers.”

The Chamber estimates there has been a loss of income to the tune of Rs 100 crore in the past few months. He says that around 20 percent of the businesses will close down permanently. Those who were handling the Holy Land trips to Israel and Palestine have also suffered a blow to their business.

However, he says that if the Kochi Muziris Biennale takes place in December, there might be a revival, of sorts. Sunny says that last year the Chamber had conducted a seminar to analyse the economic impact of the art festival on homestays, hotels, restaurants, and the transportation sector.

In the previous Biennale, there were six lakh visitors. Out of that, around 60,000 were outsiders. Many of them stayed in premium rooms, of which there are 700 in Fort Kochi and Willingdon Island. The general sales tax for each premium room is Rs 2000 per day. “For the last Biennale, the state government invested Rs 7 crore, but the returns, through tax, was about Rs 200 crore,” says Sunny.

Everybody gained, including the handicrafts shops, homestays, restaurants, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers. “But now, the opposite is happening,” he says. “It is a loss all around. Those who have taken loans and are paying interest, their debt is growing day by day. They will find it very difficult to manage.”

The 2020 season is gone. “We are hoping by next year, there will be a semblance of normality,” he says.

Eldose Baby, who is a staffer of the Kochi branch of International Trade Links Tours and Travels Pvt. Ltd., confirms that no domestic tourists have gone anywhere for the past few months. Earlier, they would send people to Europe, the USA, China and Russia. “There are no group departures,” he says. “But since I work for a multinational company, we were offering support to passengers who were returning from other countries in evacuation flights from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The situation remains grim.”

sadiq
Sadiq Saj seen with tourists

It’s the same for Sajhome Homestay owner Sadiq Saj. His last guest was Darren and his wife, from the UK, who left on March 18, just before the lockdown. And Darren left a sweet review on Trip Advisor: ‘We couldn't thank Saj and his family enough for looking after us during our stay, organising our trips for us and recommending places to eat and enjoy the sunset. Fantastic breakfast, clean rooms and great service.’

Sajhome has won the Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice Award for seven consecutive years.

When Sadiq closed down his homestay, he had 30 bookings. But once international travel was banned, the guests had no option but to cancel.

Sadiq has been running his homestay for the past 12 years. There are five rooms on the first and second floor, while he stays on the ground floor with his wife and two daughters. It is located opposite the office of the Biennale.

“I have zero customers,” says Sadiq, who had worked in the Hyatt Regency in Dubai for 13 years. His guests usually come from Britain, USA, Australia, Canada and many countries in Europe.

He believes that things will change only when international flights are restarted all over the world. Thereafter, the World Health Organisation has to give the green signal. Then only will he think of opening his homestay.

And so the town, which is heading for a curfew, because of a rise in coronavirus cases, is lying comatose. But the residents are hopeful that after the dark times, the dawn will come.

shevlins@gmail.com

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