Kashmir’s Internet Exodus

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 Almost six-month-long internet shutdown led to the migration of businesses, students, research scholars, outside the valley.they had to uproot their bases and start afresh to survive and sustain the blackout. Most of them have decided to say back citing uncertainty, as 2Gservices get resumed, reports Umar Mukhtar

KL Artwork by Malik Yasir

Samar, 25, is in Jammu since October 2019 to keep her Instagram page Ribbons by Samar Shawl running. She arranged a broadband connection there to not lose her customer base that she had built in Kashmir after a lot of struggle.

“Public memory is very short-lived,” Samar said. “If you have to survive in business, you have to get noticed.”  Now the page gets an order a week or sometimes not even that. “In January, I got only eight orders.”

Samar had managed almost 2900 followers in just one year. “The page was doing good in fact, fetching likes on a daily basis till August last,” says Samar.  “I was also getting around 80 orders a month”.

On August 5, the central government scrapped the special status of erstwhile J&K state and bifurcated it into two union territories, enforcing a blanket ban on communication including the internet.

Though some restrictions were eased after many months, for Samar, this is not enough to return to Srinagar. “How can I access my page on 2G data,” questions Samar.

In April 2018, Samar had started Gift Hamper Service involving “adorably wrapping the gift items” as desired by clients. Samar did her masters in business administration (MBA) from the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST). During studies, Samar thought of having her own business venture and not joining any service. “Had I known that Kashmir would become the gag capital of the world, I would not have even thought of starting my own business.”

In October, after two months of communication gag, Samar realized that there is no chance of resumption of the internet here.

“That is where the thought of migration came to my mind,” she said. “Following day she arranged a ticket and left for Jammu”.

Most of the orders Samar gets is from the Kashmiri diaspora community. She checks her page in Jammu, arranges the orders, wraps them beautifully and sends them to Valley. Samar has tied up with a Sumo driver who ferries her gift items to Srinagar  where another guy then delivers them to customers.

“Until the internet is not fully restored, I will stay in Jammu only.”

Lalchowk.com is another online platform and it deals with books. In 2017 five MCA students, Mohammad Usmaan, Zubair Ahmad, Haseeb Ashai, Mubashir Bashir and Asim Mehraj, got together to start this venture. Little did they know they will be searching for jobs just after three years of the start-up.

After the internet shutdown was enforced, they waited for two months for the service to be restored. But when nothing happened, they migrated to mainland India in search of jobs. Four of the five have left the Valley.

“We thought the internet will remain shut for 15 days or a month.When we started Lalchowk.com, we knew there will be days when there will be no internet.,” says Zubair Ahmad who is currently working at a company in Bangalore. “But this long. We had never imagined”.

Lalchowk.com is now a blacklisted website.

In January when the government lifted the partial ban on the internet, around 1400 websites have since been white-listed for viewing through 2G data. In e-world, there are an estimated 1.5 billion websites.

In 2019, there were internet shutdowns for as many as 55 times in J&K, the highest in any state or Union Territory of India, according to internetshutdowns.in that tracks the Internet outages across the country.

Also, other small scale e-startups that used to get orders from the WhatsApp found their ventures vanish after 120 days of internet shutdown. WhatsApp has a policy that any group that remains inactive for 120 days loses its members. This mass exodus from the key platform made global headlines.

The internet shutdown has impacted and hit businesses in the valley hard forcing them to relocate. According to an estimate by The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I), Kashmir has lost Rs 18 thousand crore rupees in economic output in the five months since August 2019.

Student Migration

Business apart, the migration included a lot of student community. Their dependence on the internet is very vital to their preparations, especially for competitive exams.

Almost a total of 50000 students compete each year in different national and state-level competitive examinations.

Noman, 17, is preparing for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET). He had already attempted once and missed the score by a very thin margin. So he enrolled himself with the online  coaching institutes. Shutdown of the internet forced him also to leave. He went to New Delhi,rented a room for Rs 6000 rupees a month and is now there since September last.

Another student Waseem Ahmad from Budgam is preparing for Indian Administrative Service (IAS) examinations. “My studies mostly rely on the internet. Without the facility preparing for such an exam is an uphill task,” Ahmad says.

In November almost three months after internet shutdown, when he could not foresee any resumption of the service, he booked a ticket to a relative’s place in Mumbai. “I am here till my exams.”

Toiba, 22, is pursuing her masters in mass communication at the University of Kashmir. She had registered herself for an online course on ‘religion, peace and conflict,’ in July last year on a platform ‘Havard EDX.’  But after August she could not attend the online course. She too is now in New Delhi.

But once there she got to know that her course lapsed in mid-October and had to renew the course for continuation. She deposited another Rs 8000 to continue.

In the Hospitality Sector

Tour and travel industry brings revenue in crores of rupees to the government exchequer by facilitating the tourists to visit the Valley. Association of Travel Agents of Kashmir (ATAK) suggests there are almost 15 to 20 thousand people associated with the industry and almost 70 percent of them have migrated outside J&K to keep their services going.

Al-Kareem Tour and Travel, a Srinagar based tour agency was operating from Delhi for almost four months. Owais Kareem, the owner of the agency said that they totally rely on the internet. “Internet is our bread and butter and we can do nothing without it.”

Initially, he waited up to November but when there was no restoration insight, he also decided to leave. “I had to take a room on rent in Delhi and arrange internet there.”

Al-Kareem is eight year old agency, according to its owner. “We are used to internet outages in Kashmir and remain prepared,” said Owais. “But none of us was prepared for what hit us after August last”.

Another tour operator Shayak Ahmad operated from his makeshift office in Jammu for almost three months. On January 15 he returned home when tour operators were given access to internet. “We had to sign bonds and give undertakings before getting the access,” Ahmad says.

IT sector

Just like the entrepreneurial start-ups, Kashmir’s IT sector though not big enough in size but was equally hit by the crisis. People associated with the IT sector estimate that about one lakh people are a part of the industry. The sector is also estimated to be worth Rs 500 crores. A local software company based in the downtown area of Srinagar which provides IT and software services for the banking sector has relocated to Delhi soon after the internet was shut here. “We deal with banks, provide the services. So for us, it was necessary to move to a place where there will be no disruption of the connectivity,” says Ikhlaq (name changed), vice president of the company.

Arranging boarding and lodging outside proved very costly. “How come a bank based in another state or another country would understand the non-availability of the internet,” says Ikhlaq. Now the company has shifted to Jammu to minimize the costs.

With the resumption of the 2G mobile data after six months, Ikhlaq is of the opinion that it is too little and too late. “We are now thinking of shifting our business to a place that will not be witness to frequent internet shutdowns.

Tesla Corporation is another IT company that provides IT services and has a strong client base in the valley. After August last, the company had to move its operations to Delhi. It is now operating from a makeshift office there.

Tajamul, CEO of the company, said that their services are all dependent on the internet.

“We need almost 40 MBPs speed to operate. The recent partial ease of restrictions is no way useful to us,” says Tajamul who is in Delhi till the internet is fully restored in the Valley.

Valley produces around 500 IT trained graduates annually and the sector is yet to be recognized as an industry. Alamdar Software is another company in the industrial area of Rangreth Srinagar that develops software. They too are managing their website from Jammu, not for the business but just to be in touch with their clients.

“We do not have huge resources to enable us to shift our whole staff and processes from here.” said the owner of the company.

“Last year there were working on a project worth the US $ 30000 and had completed 95% work when the internet was gagged. We fear  we might lose the payment from our client”.

Unwilling to return

With resumption of the internet, a number of migrants have returned but others are not ready to take the restoration of the internet at its face value. They doubt the restoration will last long.

Basharat Ahmad, 25, is preparing for the National Eligibility Test (NET) exams through the online mode. Last year in mid-June he completed his masters in Chemistry from Dolphin Institute at Dehradun. After that he returned home and started his preparations.

“I was not keeping good health so I decided to go for online coaching,” he said.

Ahmad got himself registered online via J Chemistry- an app that delivers paid online lectures. Ahmad paid Rs 7000 rupees as subscription.

But after August 5 when there was internet shutdown, Ahmad waited for almost four months for the service to restore. That is when he decided to move to Delhi. He took a room on rent.

“I will be here till my exams in June. Who knows when the internet will be snapped in our part of the world. So I will not risk going back,” he said.

Ahmad is accompanied by two other friends who are staying there for the same purpose.

In the IT sector, a local software company which has shifted its operation from Kashmir to Delhi is also unwilling to return.

Said Ikhlaq, the vice president, of the company: “Though a part of the team has returned to Kashmir, we have still half of the management in Delhi. We are not sure how long the internet will last”.

He said the company can hardly afford disruption once again in its operations.  “So, we are planning to have a permanent base outside”.

The situation is the same in the virtual world. Most of the people who started using the VPN and have paid for the service are unwilling to get to routine browsing!

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