Migrant workers flee Jammu and Kashmir as tourist arrivals fall amid escalating conflict

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Migrant workers are fleeing India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir and tourist arrivals have fallen to a trickle amid an escalating conflict with Pakistan, badly hurting businesses in the Himalayan region known for its scenic beauty and fruit harvests.

Hundreds of taxis stood idle at the main railway station of Jammu, the winter capital of the state, after Pakistan said it carried out air strikes in India and shot down two Indian jets on Wednesday, a day after Indian warplanes struck inside Pakistan for the first time since a war in 1971.

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“My wife is really scared and has been calling me back,” Brajesh Prasad, who works at a white limestone factory near Jammu, told Reuters outside the emergency ticket counter at the railway station, as he sought to catch a train back to his village in Uttar Pradesh state.

“I first came here two years ago, but decided last night it’s no longer safe to remain here. I know there would be no work back home for me, it’s not even the planting or harvest season to get some farm work.”

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Prasad was leaving with a group of seven other men who worked together in Jammu and Kashmir.

At the adjoining taxi stand, taxi drivers’ union leader Ravinder Singh said March to September was usually the busiest season but this year prospects were looking grim.

He said taxi business was down by more than 80 percent compared with two years ago, as very few people were in town to visit the famous Hindu shrine of Vaishno Devi, 62 km (38 miles) north of Jammu, which usually attracts millions of people every year.

“The situation is very bad for us taxi operators,” Singh said. “I think the time has come to settle this India-Pakistan conflict for good.”

Outside Singh’s office, a group of three Hindu pilgrims from the western city of Pune waited for their husbands to return from the railway station with tickets, after their flight was cancelled when India temporarily shut half a dozen airports in the region following the aerial clashes with Pakistan. They did visit Vaishno Devi but cut short their stay in the state by a few days.

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Such truncated trips and a fall in the numbers of visitors are particularly bad for hotel chains, both local and international.

Ratandeep Singh, owner of a 40-room four-star hotel in Jammu, said he had only eight customers left last night at a time of year when the property would normally be booked out. Tourism accounts for more than 7 percent of the state’s economy.

But the President of Jammu’s Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Rakesh Gupta, said its members were willing to “lose business for the sake of the country”.

He said India rightly avenged the killing of 40 paramilitary police in the state on Feb. 14 in a suicide attack claimed by a Pakistan-based Islamist militant group.

“Such tensions can never be good for any business but nation comes first,” he said.

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