Srinagar: The much-anticipated G20 meeting started in Srinagar on a controversial note after five members of the powerful grouping, stayed away from the gathering.
While it was known that China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would not be joining the working group meeting, The Print reported that Egypt and Oman too skipped the meet. Beijing has also voiced opposition against hosting the event in Jammu and Kashmir.
While China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are G20 members, Egypt and Oman are special invitees. Egypt was even the chief guest at republic day this year. Oman is one of india’s closest Gulf allies. Indonesia did participate, but only at the level of the diplomatic mission from Delhi.
Union tourism minister G. Kishen Reddy and India’s G20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant, among other officials, received the foreign visitors at the Srinagar airport on Monday (May 22) afternoon. As the visitors made their way out of the airport lounge, they were made to wear saffron-coloured turbans and greeted by traditional song and dance, and other cultural practices.
Defying past conventions, the J&K administration has kept the names of the visiting delegates and their designations under wraps. During the European Union delegation’s 2019 visit to Kashmir, the administration not only provided names and designations of foreign visitors to the media but also encouraged journalists to interact with them.
After the welcome ceremony at the airport was over, a cavalcade of nearly five dozen bulletproof, special utility vehicles ferrying the delegates, two ambulances and remarkably fewer escort vehicles zipped down the barren road from the airport in Budgam district to Sher-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre in Srinagar (SKICC).
At least two different photos circulating on social media show security personnel deployed along the road hiding behind the G20 hoardings as the cavalcade passes by, apparently to avoid becoming a distraction for the foreign visitors at a time when the Union government and J&K administration have pulled out all the stops to project normalcy in Kashmir.
The Wire could not immediately confirm the authenticity of these photos.
A multilayer security cover was thrown along the road to SKICC which put locals as well as commuters in Srinagar at great inconvenience while drones and sharpshooters mounted aerial vigil. Intelligence agencies have reportedly warned that militants might try to stage a major attack in Jammu and Kashmir to divert the attention away from the event and officials said that the security measures were necessary to prevent any disruption.
“All the link roads to the route used by delegates were blocked since Sunday night to prevent any untoward happening, but the restrictions were removed as soon as the cavalcade reached its destination,” official sources said.
In the meantime, as the foreign delegates, reportedly numbering 60, local officials and media persons took seats inside one of the auditoriums of the SKICC, which is flanked by the iconic Dal Lake, Union ministers G. Kishen Reddy and Jitendra Singh, and G-20 Sherpa Amitabh Kant, separately told the gathering that the event was going to “create job opportunities for the youth of Jammu and Kashmir”.
However, hundreds of poor vendors, who earn a livelihood by setting up makeshift shops and sell food and other items on pushcarts along the 16-km road from airport to SKICC, were missing on Monday. Some schools in Srinagar were also closed due to “security concerns” linked to the G20 event.
“It was a bad day, as if a curfew had been imposed,” said Manish Kumar, a vendor from J&K’s Udhampur district who sells panipuri on the Bund in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s largest marketplace. “A few customers came my way only when restrictions were eased late in the afternoon.”
Malls, shops and other businesses in the city centre Lal Chowk and adjoining areas were open, even though many shopkeepers and salesmen complained that customer footfall was abysmally low due to heightened security measures. Although restrictions have been imposed around Dal Lake and SKICC, traffic was plying normally in other parts of the city on Monday.
Earlier, authorities had verbally asked the traders in Lal Chowk to open their establishments early in the morning and close later than the usual time in view of the first major international event being held in J&K after the erstwhile state’s special constitutional position was struck down on August 5, 2019.
A shopkeeper in Lal Chowk said that his business has taken a hit in the aftermath of the redevelopment of Srinagar under the Smart Cities Mission which has been going on for several years. “Every new announcement by the government has brought misery for the traders in Lal Chowk. One can only hope that our misery comes to an end,” he said, wishing to remain anonymous.
Momin Ahmad, a hotel management student from Pulwama district of south Kashmir, said that the redevelopment of Srinagar and the installation of lighting systems along the Jhelum bund, which was completed before the arrival of G20 delegates, has infused new life into Srinagar city.
“I used to be scared while walking along the bund. But it looks different now. There is no fear. The government has done a good job. Srinagar looks like Delhi now and youngsters here too can enjoy night life,” said Momin, who lives in a rented accomodation in Srinagar’s Raj Bagh locality.
After a day of deliberations in the third meeting of the G20 Tourism Working Group, which revolved around the promotion of Kashmir as a film tourism destination, the foreign delegates, who will be staying at two five-star hotels in Srinagar till May 24, were given shikara rides on Dal Lake under the watchful eyes of navy commandos and members of the Special Operations Group, J&K Police’s elite anti-terror unit, on Monday evening.
Last week, former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said that J&K was being “presented as a trophy” at the G20 meeting in order to give an impression to the foreign delegates that “all is well”. The Hurriyat Conference has also opposed the event.