“The future of car business lies in rural Kashmir”

Irfan Ahmad is an engineer who has been into car selling for 27 years. As a principle player in Kashmir’s car market, he tells Masood Hussain the rise of the personal car and its migration towards the village in one of the first-ever revealing interviews about the automobile sector

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): How is Kashmir’s personal car sector behaving these days?

IRFAN AHMAD (IA): Kashmir market is totally an emerging one. There are lot of opportunity as the personal car per thousand of population is somewhere near 10-12, which is almost the lowest. There is lot of scope still but we need good roads for those cars to be driven on.

KL: How is the fragile situation of Kashmir impacting the sector?

IA: Fragile situation of Kashmir, to a lot of extent, does impact the sector, especially because of frequent closures. We also don’t have overall corporate environment that normally helps growth. It is very difficult for expansion modes as there are lots of hurdles. The fact of the matter is that there is no concept of single window clearance system as it in other states where the growth is tremendous.

Though I say the conditions of Kashmir are responsible, but they are partly responsible. I don’t blame they are fully responsible, but overall the working system in the state has to improve so that we move forward, the youth gets involved and get accommodated. This is the only possible way out to achieve growth in the rest of the world.

KL: Personal car sector is quite a recent phenomenon in Kashmir. But how has been its growth story, so far?

IA: The story of growth has been wonderful. When we started in 2003, we would not sell more than hundred cars in a month; today we sell more 700 cars every month. Non-availability of public transport is one of the key factors for our growth. At one point of time people who could afford a car would not buy one because of better facilities, but now people who cannot afford one, get one because its is now a basic requirement. This is what is fuelling our growth in last 14 years.

In all these years, all major car manufacturers have their dealers in Kashmir and they have the same growth pattern.

KL: But how far is it correct that the car has moved out of Srinagar both in case of sale and service?

IA: Yes. It is a fact. Out of 700 cars that we sell in a month, only 50 percent we sell in Srinagar and the rest goes to the rural Kashmir. Right now, we depend on rural Kashmir for growth. The future of car business lies in rural Kashmir. Now, urban Kashmir is replacement market where people upgrade their cars from one segment to another. But first buyers you find mostly in peripheral Kashmir.

KL: What could be your idea of people working in the personal car market?

IA: We have 1500 people in the valley who are registered with the labour department in our case. There are few hundred people who are in the training mode.

But if you see all urban dealerships, we have almost 15000 people working in these dealerships in Kashmir alone. In the unorganized sector there are another 20000 to 25000 people, which makes it a big number.

KL: An estimated fifty thousand people means a huge number?

IA: The whole industry from two-wheelers to heavy trucks, it is a really huge sector that feeds tens of thousands of people, mostly skilled.

KL: What could be the number of cars that the sector sells yearly in Kashmir?

IA: You can get the actual figure from the transport authorities but I think it is huge, may be more than 25,000. It includes all two wheelers, trucks, load carriers and other automobiles.

Roughly I can say when we sell 700 cars a month, similarly if we club them all, it is a decent good number.

KL: Which car tops the chart by the way?

IA: Right now, fuel efficiency of the car is the basic requirement for everyone. In our stable, it is Alto 800. Similarly, other manufacturers do have their own models.

KL: If we see the entire sector as per the market ranking whom would you place in different ranks in Kashmir market?

IA: Maruti is No 1 in all India. It has more than 50 percent of market share followed by Hyundai and Mahindra. But in Kashmir, Maruti has more than 65 percent share in the market.

KL: Since this sector accommodates such a huge number of people, are there supportive structures in the government because you need trained personnel where from you get them?

IA: In 2005, I was selected the Chairman of management committee for ITI Bagh-e-Dilawar Khan. It was the year my concern took off. In 2014, this ITI was declared No 1 ITI in the India. It was possible because we involve the manufacturer Maruti Udyog Ltd. They came and a Government of India scheme was implemented in letter and spirit. It led to a positive change. We need many such ITI’s all across. This is in addition to an estimated 10,000 youth whom I trained between 1999 till day in my own concern, in last 27 years, in automobile industries.

KL: But what is the support structure available within the government sector?

IA: We have lot of expectations from the government. There is support required at various levels. Right from training, it has to start. There is some support but its scope needs to improve. Lot can be done. Under labour laws, the state can extend lot of support.

The bank has done a great job, mostly the Jammu and Kashmir Bank. No other bank has done that much. Whatever vehicles we sell, 80 percent are financed by JK Bank. Contribution of all nationalized banks is minimal.

There is a possibility of all the concerned departments synchronizing so that the concept of single window needs to come up as we see in other states. Nowadays, registration in the industries department is very easy; you can go to the net and get it done. But lot still needs to be done.

KL: Is there a possibility of some kind investment by the car manufacturers in Kashmir so that we are part of their growth story?

IA: For that you need a conducive atmosphere, which I don’t think, is available right now. For any manufacturer the auxiliary units are setup just around the manufacturing line, the assembly. The assembly line has a stock of only six hours, rest of the components are manufactured, and quickly transferred to the assembly line. So, for that degree of synchronization, you need conducive industrial atmosphere, which will take some time.

KL: Even Jammu is not getting anything on that front, which is comparatively more peaceful and has less closure time?

IA: Yes. The fact is personal car manufacturing sector is not seeing J&K as potential investment destination. For them, it is just a potential market?

In Maruti, almost four years back, a labour unrest in Haryana took place where a senior general manager HR was burnt alive. Next very day, the chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation Osamo Suzuki took the next flight to India. But before he landed in Gujarat, the project was already sanctioned. It was just a visit for a couple of hours and he went back. Today if you see the Gujarat plant in just four years, the way it has come up, a state of art facility has been created. What has been lost by Haryana no further expansion has been done. So conducive atmosphere is needed for the industry to grow. If it could start in Gujarat, why not in Jammu, which is not in the hills, semi-skilled human resource is easily available; it is bordering the state of Punjab and Himachal. So someone has to walk that extra mile for the manufacturer to come to J&K.

KL: Is it correct that the worst condition of our roads in Kashmir is actually a boom for call sellers because bad roads kill cars and trigger demand?

IA: I disagree. When we sell a car, the warranty is for four years. For first two years, it is manufactures warranty but the customers buy the extended warranty for three to four years. So those four years are the hard time for us.

I can give you the example of Srinagar-Bandipora road where we have highest complaints from the customers because the road is in a very bad shape. So the fact is neither dealers nor manufacturer want bad roads. We would love to sell the next car as soon as possible rather than to repair it for the same problem caused because of the bad roads for no fault of ours.

KL: How you see a situation in which Kashmir gets a mass mobility structure, faster transport?

IA: There might be some rapid transport like railways in the periphery, but in Srinagar you have to rely heavily on cars. Rapid mass transport has come to all cities from Delhi to Jaipur but not to Srinagar. We must start working on that. If we start it today, it will still take a decade, so we are late.

KL: But we still are grappling with a small flyover project?

IA: You are absolutely right; no project is completed on time. But if we plan, nothing is impossible. With best engineers, if we have local contractors, we will work better because unlike non-local contractors, locals cannot flee at the drop of a hat.

KL: When there is traffic jam in Srinagar, there are two people who are being held responsible for that: banks for funding the car and the government for not laying the better road, despite taxes. As car seller, whom will you blame?

IA: The whole society has to take the responsibility. I would not blame the government only or the traffic police or the roads. The fact is traffic awareness is lacking. We need to go to schools at the primary level to inculcate these basic traffic values. We listen to the best sermons from the pulpits on Fridays. But I never hear in any mosque a cleric talking about traffic problem which is part of us, and part of society, we can’t ignore it.

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