Blockade Devastation

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Switching off the internet and mobile communication has not hit the software development and BPO alone but has rendered thousands jobless in other sectors too in the third month of crisis, reports Umar Mukhtar

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

On August 12, workers at the AEGIS BPO in Rangreth (Srinagar) were given two days off, for celebrating the Eid. On August 15, when they returned to work, they found the company had called off its operations.

Imran, 23, a customer care executive was working in the centre for last three years. Baffled over the decision, he straight away went to the manager’s room. There, he was told “the unfortunate circumstances and no work to do, company does not want to run in losses.”

The centre was being manned by dozens of young boys and girls. Their misfortune started on August 5, when the governor’s administration shut all the telecom operators and switched off the internet. It coincided with the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and its downgrade into two Union Territories.

Glued to the TV sets in which the move was justified by more developments and more jobs, the AEGIS’s abandoned staff was crying over their job loss. They said during 2016 unrest when Kashmir was shut for around six months, their employers did not cut even a penny of their earnings. They worked without tensions.

AEGIS in Srinagar was being managed by around 500 workers. They were taking care of the customer care of Vodaphone customers. When the cell phones were shut, there is no traffic. No traffic means no work.

“The CEO of the company was on video call and he announced this decision,” Imran said. “He told us that the company will pay us salary for one and half months and asked us to find new jobs citing reasons that there is no business to transact.” After he faced resentment from the staff, he extended the compensation to three months salary.

Standing inside the courtyard of the AEGISs sprawling premises, a girl customer care executive who wished anonymity said that the two day off from the company on Eid was bit suspicious for staff members. “We were never given two days off since we have started working with this company. This was a sudden decision and we were not given any information about this,” She said. “All business establishments are shut here for almost two months now, where will we find the job in this situation.”

Unlike Srinagar, the company’s outlets at Lucknow and Bhopal are working. One thought process is to shift the Srinagar outlet’s operations to these units.

The company finally gave them two options; either choose transfer or put in the papers. In the latter case, the company will pay them three months salary. “But transfer is not a better option as they are not going to hike our salaries,” said Tariq, another employee. “It would have been difficult for us to sustain on this salary”.

The routine monthly packages are between Rs 10,000 and Rs 13,000. Some top executives, however, get more.

But the crisis, already in third month is not hitting the fate of AEGIS alone. Aamir Shafi Sheikh is a software developer at Shara Info. After August 5, he has literally no work to do. “We just open our laptop play games and watch movies,” Aamir said. They are completely dependent on the internet, which they do not have access to. The company in an effort to sustain for more time has halved their salaries. The company has told them, if the situation would not improve, they will close the operations.

“We are coming to office everyday but could not do any work due to non availability of internet. The company may likely follow the AEGIS’s. If they will do this, we have to sit at home,” added Aamir.

Rangreth is home to Kashmir’s only software park and the IT related units are wearing a deserted look. More than a dozen companies operating from here earned millions of dollars a month. It is home of a company that is one of the highest paying software development units in Jammu and Kashmir. Hundreds of young programmers working in sprawling halls and giving life to the Rangreth are calm as the area is almost a ghost town.

Imuqeet Systems has been there for six years with 30 people of staff. For last two months it is closed and no work.

An internet service provider (ISP) was reportedly detained by police for six days for keeping lines open for a few hours to help a client, a software developer, in his building that has clients in the United States. After losing more than a US $2.9 million, according to AFP, the promoter has laid off “two-thirds of its 370 employees”.

The crisis is not restricted to the operations which require internet. The hospitality sector is hugely hit by the crisis. Finding no income in the last nine weeks, hotels and houseboat owners have laid off major chunk of their staff.

With more than 1200 houseboats registered in Srinagar, each houseboat was having two helpers for managing the guests and the upkeep of the infrastructure. A rough estimate, around 3000 people were earning bread from this industry.  Now, mostly they are sitting at home with no work and no salaries.

“I was working at HB Fairy houseboat. With no work left, my employer told me to go home,” said Aijaz Ahmad Bhat, 33, a resident of Buchwara. He has a family of five to feed and he finds it very difficult to have both ends meet.

Unlike Tariq and Bhat who are aware of the fact that they have lost their jobs, there are hundreds who even do not know their status. One car seller employing a good number of people has stopped seeking attendance of his employees.

“There are rumours that half of the staff may have to go home,” one employee said. “To be honest, we are waiting for such a move.” The car market is otherwise facing a slump across India.

Once upon a time: AEGIS workers during good old days. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Once upon a time: AEGIS workers during good old days. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

Even the media is facing the music. While most of the media outlets relying on the private advertisement revenue are either not paying or paying with huge cuts. Some have even sent part of the staff home. A few are in the process of implementing “no work no pay.”

Apart from print editions, the online media is hugely suffering. The communication blockade has prevented them from disseminating news as they face huge problems even in collecting news. Though the fixed phone lines are working, the mobile phones had already marked the end of the fixed lines.

On their part, the authorities are apparently unmoved over the restoration of the basic communication services. There were reports in media that the cell phones may start ringing anytime soon but it seems too early. The government is working overtime to see the voluntary strike coming to a close. Though in parts of Srinagar, the markets exhibit some kind of normalcy during peak hours, most of Kashmir is still closed.

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