From a humble schooling background in a remote North Kashmir village to becoming a medical doctor to a celebrity civil servant, and now Harvard, Shah Faesal has had a fascinating and inspiring journey. In this in-depth interview with Ziraat Times, Mr Faesal, for the first time, talks about globalisation, South Asia’s future, climate change, energy challenges, emigration from J&K, economy and his vision for education and economy of Jammu & Kashmir.
Ziraat Times: Thank you so much Shah Faesal for taking the time to talk to Ziraat Times. To begin with, we want to ask you about your experience at the Harvard. Coming from a humble schooling background in a remote north Kashmir village to becoming a medical doctor to a celebrity civil servant, and now Harvard, it must be quite a journey.
Shah Faesal: Getting accepted to Harvard was a dream fulfilled. I had no idea what Harvard or for that matter entire international education was all about, not even till I joined civil service. You will agree that we were never taught to look beyond Kashmir. In fact, when it was my chance to opt for Indian Foreign Service, I didn’t do so consciously, because in my mind I reasoned that I will have to leave Kashmir. And I was not ready for that.
It is only a few years ago when I realized that my journey of life would be incomplete unless I went out of my comfort zone to get some international exposure. It is a very humbling experience to be in the same classroom with some of the best minds in this world.
Ziraat Times: This cross-cultural learning is always fascinating. While at one level it does underline the dynamics of cultural and knowledge globalization, we also live in a world where economic globalization is taking a back seat. Protectionism is back. How do you see the future of South Asia? Will it be able to cope with these new realities?
Shah Faesal: True, we can’t overlook the inter-connections between societies, cultures and economies. Our neighbour matters and it is not quite enigmatic that the economic complexity of South Asian neighbours is so like one another.
We have similar challenges of political instability, governance failure, demographics, poverty, inequality, energy security and climate change and South Asian countries have all the reasons to cooperate and coexist. But as you said it, we are now at a stage where developed economies are going back on globalization and we will also soon be left to fend
for ourselves. As of now we often discuss in Harvard that China, India, Bangladesh etc are emerging as outlier economies in South Asia when it comes to maintaining high GDP growth rates. But these are being called ‘growth miracles’ because no economist has been so far able to decipher with certainty what exactly is driving this growth. How long will these miracles continue needs to be seen, because we must understand that nothing at the level of policy suggests that major South Asian economies are even now serious about reaping the demographic dividend, about diversification of their economies, about creating jobs, about sustainable public infrastructure, about fulfilling the climate change obligations and about looking at regional cooperation. The time is running out and the need for action is now.
Ziraat Times: The recent UN report about the perils of the CO2 emissions and climate change looks quite scary. The region we come from faces mammoth challenges of population growth, increasing natural disasters, food security, environmental degradation and specie loss. How do you see South Asia’s future?
Shah Faesal: It is a very unfortunate thing that South Asian economies are not realizing the dangers of climate change. We don’t realize that if we don’t die of drowning, we will die of water scarcity, and in both cases, we die! Environmental concerns are least important when it comes to policy making in our part of the world. The UN report has been alarming. It has called for immediate serious action. And unless governments see the danger that is ahead, it is unlikely that immediate mitigation measures will be implemented. Governments will have to take a lead here and new emission reduction targets will have to be set that will have to be reflected in the developmental planning process. Lot of people say environmental regulations in India are very strict. I don’t see any problem in that. I wish if the regulations were as strictly implemented then things would have changed for good. There is a gap between cup and the lip.
Ziraat Times: Jammu & Kashmir is known to be highly susceptible to climate change. Natural disasters, loss of biological endowment, human migrations look imminent if the global warming effect isn’t reversed. How do you think J&K should be coping with climate change? We don’t seem to have many options.
Shah Faesal: You will be amused to know that there has been only one mention of Jammu and Kashmir in my sessions at Harvard all these days and that was about a policy analysis discussion over rainfall data from the Himalayan region. Entire world understands that we are in an eco-fragile zone, but we don’t understand it ourselves. At JKSPDC, we were looking at the river discharge data of all major Jammu and Kashmir rivers and the fluctuations in last ten years are more than what can be explained by coincidence. The climate change is real. We have seen springs drying up in Bandipora, streams disappearing in Kupwara, power projects going defunct in Jammu, extreme weather events in Ladakh and serious drinking water shortages in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
J&K will have to invest a lot into climate resilience strategies. We are extremely vulnerable. Yet, when it comes to environmental protection, we are very laidback. The enforcement part is weak. But more than that the awareness part is miserable. Our new generation will have to be the agents of change. Till yesterday we were obsessed with Russian poplars. We look at forests and meadows as expensive real estate. We won’t hesitate constructing religious structures over river banks and lake shores. We are perhaps the only people in the world who wish to construct our universities and technological institutions in wetlands and then expect that those who were educated there will change the world. This is sheer ignorance and on this path there is nothing but destruction.
Ziraat Times: Let us talk about energy now. As you know, the world is making a rapid and large scale transition to solar energy. Hydel-based energy has suddenly become somewhat obsolete for the high development, maintenance and environmental costs associated with it. J&K still seems to be under the hangover of hydel power. You were heading the state’s key power development institution – SDPC. Do you think a time has come for a goodbye to hydel power and a big transition to solar in J&K?
Shah Faesal: There has been huge policy dilemma for us whether we should persist with new projects or not. Around 9000 MW projects are at various stages of investigation, design and development in the state at this moment. But globally the hydropower sector is under challenge and it has brought clouds over the long term plans of JKSDC. It is an irony that for last seventy years we have been talking about 20000 MWs of power and when we woke up to do something about it we realized that the world has already moved on.
The average cost of production of hydropower in Jammu and Kashmir this time is minimum Rs 5 – 6 per unit. The same power is available in the open market for around Rs 3/ per unit. Now you can imagine what kind of horrible financial model would it have to be to still invest in a hydropower project. And then the problem of solar power which is getting cheaper every day.
All I can say is that there is extreme disruption in the power market this time and no one can tell for sure where shall the sector go as new storage technologies emerge. No doubt we are unable to meet our power demand now, we still have unelectrified villages, winters in Kashmir still experience horrific power outages, but the policy question remains. Should we buy power from the open market or should we make our own expensive power, I think it will take some more time to get clarity on the subject.
Ziraat Times: You are known to be very concerned about Kashmir, your birthplace. A deep feeling of dispossession and situational distress have left the place is a perpetual state of pain and hopelessness. Its youth are highly enterprising, but the quality of education is abysmal. Jobs are fewer. How do you think J&K can provide its youth a future of hope and well-being?
Shah Faesal: I am very obsessed about Kashmir and I just can’t get it out of my mind. Wherever I go and whenever I see something working well, the next natural question in my mind is, can we replicate this in Jammu and Kashmir? Education is our Achilles. Kashmiris have done well once they moved out to West. We have one of the most prosperous diasporas in the world. But that doesn’t eliminate the challenge back home. Kashmir has around one million children in government schools who are not getting education of the quality they deserve. Our education is in dire needs of a radical reform. We have now Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Block Chain technologies disrupting the systems everywhere. Our education system has no idea where the world at this moment is and this will have serious repercussions in coming years unless we agree to immediate reform of our school system which is an extremely politically challenging thing to do.
Ziraat Times: A lot of youngsters are leaving J&K and opting for studies and jobs elsewhere. There are two theories about this emigration. One theory contends that this will be good for the region in the long run. Another one sees this phenomenon creating a vacuum in the state. How do you see it?
Shah Faesal: It is an established economic principle that diaspora not only support home economy by sending remittances but also by importing know-how from the advanced economies. I support Kashmiris going out for study and work. But I want them to maintain the connection with Kashmir. If you don’t want to come back and work here, because you find enough opportunities to do so, you can still share your ideas with the people here, guide others with your experiences, pass on the progressive values which you have learnt outside and help more people negotiate this journey.
I believe one of our greatest contributions to this world would be sending a larger number of students to world-class scientific and research institutions. I assure you it will be one of those who will be the first Kashmiri Nobel Laureate one day.
At the same-time we will have to work for creating better opportunities back home so that this movement is not perpetual.
Ziraat Times: And lastly, how do you think J&K should be harnessing its economic potential, especially in the agriculture sector?
Shah Faesal: If you go to a grocery in America or Europe, you get spoiled for choice. You will see five different types of eggs, ten types of milk and curd, rice grain of multiple varieties, vegetables of unbelievable fresh quality, processed food items with amazing taste diversity. Back in our place agriculture means growing rice and maize and keeping one cow. We need to redefine the scope of agriculture and look at the changing market needs. As of now a farmer ears around 6000Rs from one Kanal of land in Kashmir. I wonder what incentive is there to stay in agriculture. Organic is the new buzzword. Let’s start with developing fifty organic food villages and then see how the world captures our attention. We need to learn from rest of the world if we want to increase the surplus of our farmers.
Ziraat Times: How do you see Ziraat Times? Do you think it is meaningful at all in these times of intense distress and pain in J&K?
Shah Faesal: Ziraat Times has been raising some fascinating questions about the economy of Jammu and Kashmir in recent times and I really appreciate the work that is being done. It is spreading awareness about the issues which were never of mainstream concern in Kashmir. We had left those issues to academia and policy makers. More importantly Ziraat Times has been consistently trying to generate a public debate over the need for sustainable development. The bar for reporting economic development has been raised in Kashmir. Global best practices are being discussed. Conventional thinking is being challenged. And I am sure that is how the solutions will come out.
Ziraat Times: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you!
Shah Faesal: Thanks