Losing Connections

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A section of the society having the luxury of functional fixed-line phone tried making good money, reports Shams Irfan

A small worn-out bench inside a stationery shop in Srinagar’s uptown Jawahar Nagar area has never hosted as my visitors in last two decades, as it has in last two weeks.

The reason for this unprecedented footfall was a working landline phone; a luxury in Kashmir after the Governor’s administration snapped entire communication including phone connectivity and internet on August 5.

Inside the dimly lit shop, a bearded man in his early fifties keeps close watch on his landline phone’s small two-liner screen. He notes down exact call durations down to the seconds. For a five minutes call he charges Rs 50. There is no room for bargaining.

“This is what I charge, take it or leave it,” he tells a customer straightforwardly.

But he is not alone. Almost every other PCO owner is milking people’s miseries in Srinagar and other small towns, where fixed-line phones have started working recently. A one minute call outside Kashmir is charged between Rs 5 and Rs 15. There are no fixed rates.

“They know people are helpless and will pay any amount to reach to their loves ones,” said a local journalist who made a six minutes call from a Jawahar Nagar PCO on September 4, a day prior to the restoration of all the registered landlines across Kashmir. “The shop-owner shamelessly charged me Rs 60, when I know BSNL landline offers almost free calling service to any number in India,” said the journalist who refused to be named.

The only other option available to journalists like him is the Media Facilitation Centre (MFC) in Sarovar Hotel at Gupkar, Srinagar, which the Information Department runs. Even it has problems. “First MFC is over-crowded. For over 200 local and non-local journalists there is just one phone. Second, they don’t allow you to talk beyond a few minutes,” said the journalist. “One has to register before making a call.”

But that option too is restricted to journalists only. For common masses, these PCO’s and private landline phones are only means of connectivity.

So, with limited means of communication available, people are forced to wait endlessly outside these PCO’s.

“You should see how these PCO owners behave now. As if we will be always without phones and they will always have the luxury to loot us,” said an angry customer who was asked to try some other PCO by a shop-owner in Ikhrajpora, Srinagar.

“Just because he has a working landline phone right now doesn’t mean he can treat people like slaves,” he said before boarding his car angrily to find another working landline phone. However, everybody is not giving vent to his anger over the systems that have evolved post-ban. A majority of people simply wait outside half-shuttered shops or even closed ones hoping to connect with their loved ones.

“My son is studying in Bangladesh. He left on August 17, and I have no idea if he has reached safely or not,” said Hamid, 55, a resident of Pulwama who has been waiting outside a PCO in Srinagar since last three hours. “I will call my friends in Delhi and try to connect to my son via a conference call if possible.”

Before August 5, Hamid used to talk to his son on video call almost daily. “I am not the only parent who has no information about his son’s whereabouts. There are thousands of parents like me in Kashmir right now,” said Hamid.

But Hamid is pained by the way PCO owners are behaving with helpless parents like him. “They should at least understand our pain and be compassionate towards us,” he said with a hint of disappointment in his voice. “We should learn to help each other in such testing times.”

Aftab, 45, a trader from Shopian travelled all the way to Srinagar to coordinate with his business partner in Delhi about an incoming cargo. “I have three phones and one landline but none is working. I felt helpless while waiting outside a PCO in Rajbagh,” he said in a low tone. “I cannot afford to visit Srinagar every single day to talk to my business partners. One single phone-call consumed my entire day,” he said sadly. “One cannot even imagine that this is for real. I still feel like this is some horrible nightmare and I will wake up happy again.”

In Sonwar area, a PCO owner tells an old lady with an expressionless face that she has to pay Rs 5 per minute.

“I offered free phone calls for first three days but then people started making long calls,” he said trying to justify his rates. “They would cry and create emotional scenes inside the shop, so I had to put a price to maintain order.”

As connectivity is still a luxury in large parts of Kashmir, these PCO’s are the only source for people to stay in touch with their loves ones who are outside Kashmir.

“I was ready to pay anything to hear my ailing brother’s voice who has gone for treatment to Delhi,” said Hajra, a 50-year-old lady from Srinagar’s downtown. Hajra has managed to reach Sonwar by crisscrossing half-a-dozen barricades.

“But not everybody can afford to pay especially in such bad times. These PCO owners should have empathy towards their fellow citizens and not take advantage of their miseries like this,” Hajra said talking to her brother successfully.

Rohit Kansal, Principal Secretary Planning, who is also the spokesman for the government said all the telephone exchanges are functional in Kashmir. The landline network was restored on September 4, night.

“The situation is being monitored on daily basis and soon the mobile telephones would be considered area wise,” Kansal said. “Situation is improving so are the services.”

However, not everyone is behaving insane and trying to turn people’s helplessness into profit. A number of private landline phone owners in Srinagar and other small towns are offering free calls to whosoever is in need. “If we cannot help each other in such times then humanity is already dead,” said a local resident whose phone is used by over 100 people every day.

Even though the landlines are restored, the crisis is that cell phone revolution had encouraged people to close down the archaic communication system. Jammu and Kashmir that has more cell phones than the people living here, has fewer landlines. So the tensions on communication front still exit. This is despite the fact that at a few places some sections of the security grid have also started their free call facility as part of their post-370 outreach.

By December 2018, Jammu and Kashmir had mobile penetration of more than 10237929 GSM cell phones. For every 100 people, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) statistics suggest, there are 109.19 phones. There are 13.84 million phone subscribers in Jammu and Kashmir which means it has crossed the number of people living in the state, according to TRAI that has numbers to suggest that Jammu and Kashmir hold 1.14 percent share in India’s total subscriber base. With so huge reliance on the cell phone, the restoration of the landline is unable to make a big difference. But, for the time being, it is helpful.

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