In the June of 2010, when the valley was seething with uncontrollable rage, 25 young boys from all three regions of Jammu and Kashmir regularly huddled in one of the classrooms at the Entrepreneurship Development Institute (EDI).
One of the students, Aijaz Ahmad Kachroo, son of a doctor, had been a frequent visitor to Srinagar's SMHS hospital at a time when Kashmir was reeling under curfew and shutdown. Hospitals were also struggling to meet the demand of surgical equipment.
"The surgical equipment were usually supplied from the Jammu region. After the economic blockade, the hospitals were struggling to import it from outside the state," Kachroo, 29, told Firstpost, at his residence in Kanikadel area of Srinagar.
Before the insurgency erupted in Kashmir, the business of supplying surgical equipment to all three regions of the state was the monopoly of Kashmiri Pandits. After the Pandits migrated from the valley, the business was transferred to Jammu temporarily, but it was never grew roots in Kashmir.
"I wanted to start the business of manufacturing surgical equipment but it required a lot of investment and I had no capital. Then I enrolled under the Sher-i-Kashmir Employment and Welfare Program for Youth and received training for one month at the EDI," Kachroo said.
Zareen Business Systems was born barely months after Kachroo completed his training. Today, the company not only supplies surgical equipment and other medical items to hospitals across the valley but to such facilities in Jammu and Ladakh region too.
The company employs more than 30 people and all this, Kachroo says, was a dream which he had thought would never come true. "But my life took a completely different turn after I finished my training at EDI," he adds.
The Entrepreneurship Development Institute not just financed Kachroo but trained and handheld him till the project took off. “It was an idea to make the valley self-sufficient and not dependent on Jammu for such equipment. Thanks to the EDI, our company is moving in that direction," he says.
When Kachroo learnt about the second attack on the EDI this year, he felt disgusted. The three-day gunfight that destroyed the hostel complex of the institute came as a "rude shock" for the young man. "It was very painful for me personally to see the institute going up in flames. I am what I am because of the support and mentorship I received there," he says.
According to officials at the JKEDI, the institute has trained around 4000 youths so far in Jammu and Kashmir while many others are looking at the opportunities that the institute provides to enable them carve out their own future. The institute not only provides resources but it has also been a great motivator for the unemployed youths to polish their entrepreneurial skills and set up their own businesses.
To start a venture, the institute first trains budding entrepreneurs in different courses. The EDI offers short-term programmes on handicraft, boutiques, shawl making, embroidery, training for pharmaceutical stockists, timber shops, bee keeping and other courses.
Once the training is completed, the institute arranges capital from banks as well as the state and centrally sponsored schemes to fund the enterprise. The Jammu and Kashmir government runs a number of schemes under the flagship Sher-e-Kashmir Employment and Welfare Programme for Youth for young startup entrepreneurs.
The institute also runs a youth startup programme and collaborates with the National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation to provide loans to marginalised sections of society at six percent simple interest for setting up micro-level enterprises.
While the unemployment rate in Jammu and Kashmir is one of the highest in the country and political turmoil of the last three decades has kept private investors out, the EDI became a game changer with hundreds of success stories to its credit since it started work in 2004.
Established in March 1997, the Jammu and Kashmir government mandated the EDI with developing entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial culture in the state. The success of the EDI has been its generation-next workforce, most of whom are either in their early thirties or less. The institute is seen as the new engine for change given the successes stories it has churned out in a short span of time.
The attacks this year may have dampened the spirits of the staff and the alumni of the institute but it hasn't stopped them from working altogether. For Haris Ahmad Dullo, who runs an Advertising company, City Sign Technology, in Srinagar, the siege at the EDI is an "attack on the symbol of economic freedom of Kashmiri youth."
Dullo, 24, had prepared an advertising company project but he failed to secure loan from banks. The project needed an investment of Rs 20 lakhs. In August 2013, after receiving training for a month, the EDI provided him with non-refundable Rs 3 lakh capital and 17 lakhs were given by a bank in loan which he has paid back.
Today he has more than 40 people, directly and indirectly, working for his agency in the capital Srinagar. "They (EDI) helped me realise my dreams. If I chose entrepreneurship instead of a government job, unlike most Kashmiri youth, it was because of this institute that gave me hope and also made it possible," Dullo says.
In a state where political class is known for its corrupt practices and bureaucracy for its lethargy, the institute is a one-window solution for young educated youths dreaming of setting up their own entrepreneurial ventures without getting caught in official red-tape.
"It is the only government institute in Kashmir valley which functions like a corporate house. No bureaucracy, no Chamchagiri. The attack on the institute is an attack on dreams and aspirations of those youth who want to do something in life without becoming a burden on the government," Dullo says.
(Read a counter by David Devadas titled Pampore attack: Has Kashmir's EDI actually promoted any entrepreneurship?)