Srinagar, Oct. 5: When industrialists such as Ratan Tata and Kumar Mangalam Birla had their first-ever interaction with the student community in Kashmir today, one question seemed uppermost on the audience's mind: why didn't they invest in the Valley?
The interaction was an initiative by Rahul Gandhi, and was joined by HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh, Bajaj Auto MD Rajiv Bajaj, and Indian Institute of Job Training MD Ashok Reddy.
It took place at Kashmir University, a hub of pro-independence student activism where dozens protested today's event and shouted slogans such as "Go, Rahul Go". Still, hundreds came to listen and cheer, unlike political gatherings where massive restrictions are put in place and not many turn up.
The university had made elaborate arrangements to ensure a sizeable attendance, although the students said they were not forced to participate.
The guests explained why industry couldn't grow in Kashmir, praised Kashmiri students for their intellect, recollected their memories of Valley visits, and made several commitments. The media was barred but The Telegraph could access details of the interaction, which lasted around an hour and a half.
Given the time constraints, only a handful of students got the chance to ask questions. A management student asked why Valley youths didn't get an opportunity to work with India's corporate sector.
A student from the National Institute of Technology regretted that after young Kashmiris complete their degrees in sectors such as IT, they do not find any big company waiting for them. Another management student outlined how industry could be a profitable venture in the Valley.
"This is how you could nurture our state and, from contributing just 1 per cent to the Indian economy today, we could increase it manifold tomorrow," she said.
Rahul said businesses thrive in places that are stable. "If there is stability and a long-term relationship of trust, things will start moving. Let's start to build that," he said.
Birla echoed him and said a conducive environment and stability are a must for investment. He said the improvement in the situation over the past two years would help Kashmir bag a lot of investment soon.
Tata seemed to receive the heaviest applause. He spoke of how Indian industrialists' "ignorance" about Kashmir kept the Valley industrially backward, and how "instability comes from lack of prosperity", arguing that if there were prosperity, stability would have followed.
"Industry, I have to say, has not looked consciously ' not unconsciously but consciously ' at the wealth of intellect and capability that exists in Kashmir. We need to correct that," he said.
Tata spoke of doing something "discreet" and offered an internship programme for Kashmir's students, which he said would lead to permanent jobs with the group.
He offered to "foster" start-up companies that had ideas and would help develop industry in Kashmir, and proposed the creation of an innovation centre in coordination with Kashmir University. He said he would look into workable suggestions from the students.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah today asked Tata to be part of the state's efforts at economic growth and development in a bigger way by investing here and persuading other industrialists to do the same.
At the interaction, Birla, who is vice-chancellor of engineering college BITS Pilani, pledged to start an exchange programme between his institution and Kashmir University and sponsor research here.
He said he was taking over a cement factory in Kashmir, which would be expanded. "The biggest challenge for us is to look for talent. We welcome Kashmiri youths to work shoulder to shoulder with other youths of the country," he said.
Birla, who said he had childhood memories of the Valley, referred to Miracle Couriers, an NGO he works with and which is run by people with impaired hearing and speech.
He said it was started by five Kashmiris and their work helped him understand their "commitment and passion" for work.
Parekh said he was upgrading his certification jobs programme in Kashmir, which would help many youths get banking jobs. He promised to talk to the Indian Banks' Association, the representative body of banks in India, to see that more Kashmiris benefit.
Rajiv Bajaj offered jobs at his company's facilities in places such as Pune, Europe and Africa. "After landing at the airport, the first four motorcycles (I saw being) driven by youths were Bajaj Pulsars. I want you to make some of them," he said.
Rahul Gandhi's meeting with the agitating panchayat members, who are demanding more powers and perks, turned out to be a disappointment for the village heads, though. They rued that Rahul merely offered assurances.