Doodhpathri: Wearing the traditional Pheran, and a scarf on her head, 45-year-old Naseema Banu makes crispy fried Makai Chot (maize flour tortillas), with Noon Chai (salted tea), at a stall in Doodhpathri, a famous tourist destination in Badgam district. This is one of 50 such stalls in the area, 43 of which are run by women, some of whom co-manage the stalls with their husbands.

This micro initiative by the women of Doodhpathri is one way to get more women into the workforce in India, where the female labour force participation rate is one of the lowest in the world–at 20% for the July to September 2021 quarter, per the latest labour force survey. These women are also able to provide a better life and education for their children, and save for hard times, they said.

"Most enterprises are led by men in the tourism sector and women are underrepresented, and women in Kashmir find it harder to pursue entrepreneurship," said Lubna Qadri, who works in international development. "Women coming out and setting up makeshift food joints is an important milestone. It helps them own and run their own (usually micro-scale) seasonal tourism enterprises as entrepreneurs, and increases access to finances if not indirectly controlled by men."

What also stands out is that these stalls in Doodhpathri are near-zero waste--they sell freshly-made food in reusable plates, avoid selling packaged food to prevent polyethene waste, source most of the raw material from their own farms, and the waste tea leaves are either dumped in pits or on their fields.

"We have tried many things here. A few years back we started selling Lays [potato chips] packets here but after some time, polythene started accumulating everywhere,"said Naseema Banu. "I consulted other stall owners and we agreed to not sell any product that would pollute the environment."

Jammu and Kashmir, with about 1% of India's population, generated an estimated 3,134 tons of solid waste a day--or over 300 truckloads at 10 tons per truck, in 2016, as per the Jammu and Kashmir 2018 draft action plan for municipal solid waste management. The 2019-2020 report of the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Board says that the union territory produces 1,518 metric tonnes of waste a day. We reached out to the pollution control board for clarification on the data and for the latest data on the amount of waste generated each day, and will update the story when they respond.

Kashmir produces about 827 metric tonnes of solid waste a day, as per data from urban local bodies, of which Budgam district produces 35.2 metric tonnes, show data from the pollution control board.

How Naseema became an entrepreneur

Most of the women who run the Doodhpathri food stalls belong to farming households that cultivate maize, and the idea behind these stalls was to operate a self-sustaining business, they told IndiaSpend.

"I have been running this stall for four years now. Before me, my husband used to run it but the revenue was minuscule," said Naseema. Her husband used to serve packaged rotis which would often have turned stale, she said. "Since we produce maize for years, we thought that instead of using commercially packaged Makai chot, we would make it ourselves, marginally reducing the production cost", and reducing waste in the bargain."

"This is a relatively underdeveloped area but we can't let greed drive us," said Naseema. "We should endeavour to keep this place clean and not pollute it for selfish reasons."

The upper reaches of Doodhpathri, where locals still go in the summer to rear livestock, July 20, 2021.
Photo By Umer Ahmad for IndiaSpend

"Kashmir is witnessing a huge production of waste. Most of the places in Kashmir have waste lying on the roads and riversides," said Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, an environmental activist, giving the example of tourist places like Gulmarg and Pahalgam. "Zero-waste food stalls in Doodhpathri are indeed a positive development…eco-tourism is the need of the hour now."

At the inception, Naseema did not know she was going to become an example of a woman-run sustainable business in her locality, let alone manage the business. She was even hesitant to pitch the idea, thinking there would be a backlash from her husband. "But he melted all my fears with a smile and nodded his head in agreement."

Naseema, a mother of three children, dreams of providing them with the best education possible. Her children go to a private school in Budgam. "If it were not for my mother, I would have either been studying in a government-run school [which locals believe are inferior to private schools] or would have given up my studies due to poverty," said Aasif, 13, Naseema's older son. "My mother took it on herself and started working at a tea stall. This has not only improved our economic condition but her idea also helped us look forward to a better future."

Naseema is not the only woman stall owner in Doodhpathri; others got inspired after seeing and started working in tea stalls in the area. Thirty-five-year-old Mugli Begum's husband, Muhammad Ayoub, asked his wife to run the tea stall with him after seeing Naseema's stall buzzing with customers. "I was sceptical at first, but my husband, citing Naseema as an example, encouraged me," said Mugli.

As women already know how to cook because of the gendered division of work within the house, they find food joints an easier model of work to pursue, explained Qadri. In addition, broader "skills training for women--including soft skills, basic literacy and entrepreneurship--is vital for gender equality".

Article 370 and Covid-19 impact

Before August 2019, there were about 40-50 food stalls in the area. But, post the abrogation of Article 370, after which the Union government instituted a communication blockade, many of these suddenly shut down. The Covid-19 pandemic meant their reopening was further delayed.

As Naseema's family had no other source of income, they used their savings from the food stall's income to feed the family, she said. "In 2020 despite the pandemic, we opened tea stalls following all the protocols, but we barely made Rs 500 a day." Earlier, before August 2019, they would earn between Rs 2,500 and Rs 3,000 a day.

Now the situation is back to normal, locals said.

Mugli Begum started working in a food stall after her husband asked her to help him. Crispy Makai Chot displayed in her stall, March 26, 2022.
Photo By Umer Ahmad

A regulatory grey area

"These food stalls are operating without our permission," said an official from the Doodhpathri Development Authority (DDA) who did not want to be named. "As they are promoting local culture by selling homemade products without polluting the area, we are not taking any action against them."

The DDA is also working to develop tourism infrastructure in the area, and if the stall owners request the DDA, they might be given official permission, the DDA official added.

The growth of tourism in the area meant that those who would earlier smuggle timber, started ferrying tourists on ponies, the DDA official said. "Other people who still smuggle timber could start these food stalls and earn a dignified living."

The area where the food stalls are located also falls under the jurisdiction of the Doodhpathri Forest Division. Locals allege that the authorities have asked them to vacate the area. "Forest officials often ask us to leave the premises, assuming we may occupy this land permanently," Naseema said.

"Forest officials have never told them to leave the area," said Divisional Forest Officer, Mohammad Ashraf. "Some people tried to construct permanent structures there and we have demolished all those illegal structures and lodged FIR [First Information Reports] against the culprits," he added.

"As far as these stalls are concerned, the divisional commissioner had formed a team to look into the matter and in their report, the committee found that there are some temporary structures that run seasonally inside the forest area," Ashraf explained. "We have no problem as long as they are not constructing any permanent structures within the forest land…Food stalls are really a good idea to promote a sustainable form of tourism."

Sheikh, the environmentalist, suggested that the forest department should come forward to help and encourage stall owners.

Qadri said that the government should support these kinds of initiatives by women. "Gender equality policies in the tourism sector…must be backed by institutional and budgetary support so that women can be empowered politically and socially through tourism."

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