Kashmiri traders struggle to get back on track

A majority of them have returned home unable to afford rent accumulated over time

The pandemic has left Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, which once prided of being the prime tourism hubs of Kerala, ghost heritage towns.

Among the few hundred traders for whom tourism was the sole source of income in these towns are 90 traders from Kashmir who settled down here during the past three decades. They sold curios, jewellery, handicrafts, garments, shawls, and other items that guests, especially foreign tourists, were fond of, through their emporia.

Rows and rows of closed shops in the two locales that these traders from the Paradise on Earth once manned, are a sore reminder of how the pandemic wrecked the livelihood of 90 families from Kashmir who made Kochi their home. Less than half-a-dozen of these traders own houses here. The rest live in rented homes.

“Unable to afford the rent that got accumulated over time, 95% of the traders returned to Kashmir, beginning from May 2020 when the pandemic showed no sign of receding any time soon. Most of them are neck-deep in debt and hence unable to return,” said Sajid Khatai, president of Kashmiri Traders Welfare Association, who owns a craft shop at Mattacherry.

Those who returned to Kashmir found that it was simply not possible to pay rent for their houses and shops, in addition to school fees, taxes, monthly loan repayment, and power and water tariffs. Most of them have still retained their shops but are faced with rent that got accumulated over the past 16 months when there was no business. “Our staff too were left without a source of income. Having made Kochi our home for three decades, we are out of the purview of the welfare schemes of the government of Kashmir. We thus have no option but to knock at the doors of the Kerala government, which will hopefully announce a relief package to help us,” Mr. Khatai said.

Muzafar Hussain and Arshad Ahmed, traders from Kashmir, spoke of the precarious situation facing traders in the heritage locales, 16 months since the pandemic-induced slowdown. “I settled down in Kochi with family in 2009. We hope the government steps in with help, so that we are able to rebuild our life and help retain the interest of tourists in the locales,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Many traders here are pinning hopes on the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) reopening monuments like the Dutch Palace at Mattancherry in the coming week, following which the heritage locales will hopefully rid their ghost-town image.

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