Disrupted communication

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SMS services have been banned without a whimper, while home ministry’s snub to telecom operators threatens cellular services again. Ikhlaq Qadri reports on the impact of curbs on communication imposed in the name of security.

In a brightly lit room in his old city residence, 30-year-old Naseer Ahmad is busy contacting his clients on telephone. But a month or so ago he wouldn’t have spent a major of his working day calling them up individually. Instead, he used to type a common message and send it to all his clients in one go and at a minimal cost.

“This time I lose both the time and money in doing these phone calls. It has made my work cumbersome,” says Naseer.

Naseer has been working as an insurance executive in Life Insurance Corporation of India for almost eight years. On average he needs to contact around 200 customers daily to inform them about their insurance policies and the new schemes launched by his company. Prior to ban on text messaging in Kashmir the practice would cost him barely a few rupees. But now he is spending more than Rs 100 a day for the same.

“If the ban continues for long I may have to consider switching over to some other profession because I can’t afford such a heavy cost for a long time,” says Naseer.

Naseer’s plight owes to the ban on Short Messaging Service (SMS) in Jammu and Kashmir by the state government for, what it describes “security reasons”. The ban came on June 25 as tensions erupted against the killing of teenagers in police action on protesters. Since June 11 at least 17 youth have been killed – 15 in direct police and paramilitary action. Hundreds of protestors have been injured.

Besides blanket ban on the SMS service, most of cellular telecommunication in north Kashmir has been snapped.

“Most of the networks are down here. Only BSNL is intermittently available,” says Showkat Ahmad, a resident of Sopore.

Residents are forced to use landline phones to contact their friends and relatives.

The curbs on the cellular telecommunication, particularly SMS service which experts say amounts to 20 percent of telecommunication business is affecting one and all in Kashmir. The drastically hit are the SMS news service operators, STD owners and retailers and the general public who were benefited with bulk SMS services provided by telecom operators at cheaper rates.

The SMS news service providers had sought permission from authorities for making an association of all service providers but the imposition of ban has shattered their plans.

“We used to avoid the controversial stuff, and people were benefited from our services,” says Jasim of Valley Media Services.

The normal subscription fee for service was in range of Rs. 50 – 200. The ban has snatched the livelihood of people associated with it.

“With me were five more people in Valley Media Services. It was a good source of income by which we were able to meet our expenses,” added Jasim.

The ban on value added services have also impacted the owners of recharge outlets.

“We owe everything to subscribers. They are the worst sufferers. In north Kashmir the condition is more critical. This is the mental agony for we people as well as for the customers,” says President STD, PCO owners association, Bashir Ahmad.

He also said that this has been the regular phenomenon with the government now. “Instead of causing inconvenience to people in general, they should point out who miscreants are?” he said.

Customers of all age groups have shown strong resentment against the decision. Many consider the ban to be a fruitless exercise aiming only to put the people in awkward position.

A senior citizen told Kashmir Life that the attitude amounts to humiliation.

“‘Tum Sab Dahshat Gard Ho (you are all terrorists)’, is what the people living in other states say about us and rightly so because the government doesn’t have faith, how come the common man,” he explained.

Reacting to chief minister Omar Abdullah’s statement that “the SMS was banned to prevent miscreants from spreading rumors”, he said, “This is like punishing decades for the mischief of seconds.”

Kashmiris living outside have also condemned the government action. They relate it with the failure of the system and alienation which instead of helping will make things worse.

“Curbing media, shrinking news bulletin, thrashing  journalists, crack down on Facebook and other social networking users, snapping the cellular service in north Kashmir and blanket ban on SMS is the blot on the name of democracy” said  Pir Ovais a software professional, working with  a multinational company.

Telecommunication services are routinely snapped on 15 August, and 26 January every year, besides the day of VVIP visits to  the valley, like that of the prime minister.

“We have basic and fundamental right of expression, speech and right to information. Government is denying us our fundamental rights,” says Harris, a mass communication student.

The telecom players operating in the valley refuse to comment on the situation except stating that the curbs were being put in the “national interest”.

Reacting to the description of “National Interest”, a management student, Murtaza Shafi said, “In other states they never resort to such tactics. There interest is in the suffering of Kashmiris.”

For many the ban means losing an inexpensive means of keeping  in touch with people.

“I can’t afford to pay bill as my father is a daily wager but SMS used to keep me in touch with friends and relatives. A recharge of Rs. 21 served me the purpose for one month,” said Umar a teenager from Shahri Khaas.

Cellular services and SMS facility have been banned in the state several times in the past as well. During the Amarnath land row agitation in 2008, the service was barred for several months.

A ban was imposed on prepaid cell phones in November last year, but was revoked in the January this year with stringent riders and conditions. In April this year, a ban was imposed on SMS, but revoked immediately.

Recently the union home ministry has pulled up telecom operators again and asked to intensify the process of verification of customers. In response, the telecom companies have started terminating distributorship agreements.

Farooq Ahmad, a STD Shop owner was doing a good business from the dealership of Vodafone, Airtel and Aircel. The ban on SMS had already affected his revenue, but now his dealership has been terminated. A good chunk of households was associated with the trade.

Bashir Ahmad, president of association says that almost 80 per cent distributorships of private companies have been cancelled.

Asked about the re-verification process, an executive of a leading company said “we are at it”.

“First their will be internal screening to identify the users who have more than one connection, only one will remain functional, rest will be discarded. After that the matter will be taken with other providers to see if anybody is availing services from other providers on the same name, that too will be barred,” the executive added.

He added that no household will be allowed to keep more than six connections, as per home ministry guidelines.

Industry insiders say that telecom companies had lured their distributors to make more and more sales, even more than one in a name, despite government riders.

“They (companies) are in rat race. They encouraged distributors to bypass rules (home ministry riders), they asked them to sell as many SIMS. Now they have been made the scapegoats,” said an industry insider, wishing anonymity.

Bashir says many people used to get connections for their female family members in their own name.

“Now they will be impacted. And because many of our (elderly) female folk don’t have identity papers, they won’t be able to get a SIM,” he said.

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