The Internet Train

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As railways resumed its limited service, tens of thousands of Kashmiris spend their days in Banihal to avail the internet and upgrade their cell phone plans. Umar Khurshid joined one such crowd to the highway town to understand what the internet begging means and how much it costs to people who lack the voice and the facility

Passengers waiting to board Banihal train at Anantnag station. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

Passengers waiting to board Banihal train at Anantnag station. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

On one of those frozen early December mornings, an unending queue of passengers collecting tickets at Anantnag railway station gave a clear idea of the footfall Banihal town is witnessing these days. As fog and icy winds restricted people to their warm bedrooms, a few thousand people, mostly youngsters, managed their way to reach the rail terminal.

At the tail end of the line was a trio – two Pulwama residents’ and one from Kulgam, who were part of the huge crowd of students’ travelling to Banihal to avail internet services. The services are suspended in Kashmir since August 5, when Article 370 was abrogated and the Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its statehood. The gag, however, spared Banihal, and evolved the status of the highway town to a sort of Kashmir’s desi Silicon Valley. The broadband and the resumption of the railway service between Baramulla (Srinagar) and Banihal (Jammu) made it accessible to tens of thousands of Kashmiris for using the internet services.

The trio – Adil Ahmed, 19, of Qaimoh Kulgam, Dawood Manzoor, 19, and Rizwan Majeed, of Pulwama, were the first time travellers to the town. They had to fill their National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET), forms. Scheduled for March 2020, the NEET is a national level test for medical students, which is conducted on a particular day.

“I have been preparing for the test for one long year,” said Adil. “As the deadline was nearer, travelling to Banihal was the only option left for me now.”

Son of a labourer, Adil, stayed in Parraypora (Srinagar) for last two years with his friends Dawood and Rizwan for coaching and necessary preparations for the test. “With the meagre income, my father somehow managed to send me to the coaching for 2 years. How can I miss this opportunity now?” He said even if filling the form takes him a week in Banihal, he would stay on road but will not return without getting himself registered. Part of his panic is rooted in his belief that if his registration gets late, he might end up having his centre outside the state. “Going outside Kashmir at this time is little unfeasible for me,” Adil said.

Accompanying Adil is Dawood Manzoor, who left home at 7 am, just to ensure that he reaches the Panzgam railway station, almost 10 kms from his home in Litter, on time. “It took me two hours to reach the station,” Dawood said. “Not even a single person was on road when I left my home.”

Sceptical about his registration, Dawood said, some of his friends’ travelled to Banihal more than five times in last week but couldn’t register themselves. “The flow of students is so huge that it takes hours to get one’s turn on the internet facility centers.”

Minutes later, as the rail master announced the train’s arrival, around three hundred passengers somehow entered the already overcrowded coaches. The train had already stuffed with passengers from Srinagar and many stations in between. Interestingly, most of these were ‘broad-band beggars’ on way to Banihal to avail the internet.

A crowded internet facility centre in Banihal town. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

A crowded internet facility centre in Banihal town. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

“Most of them are students and businessmen requiring internet facility,” said a government employee who travels Banihal on daily basis. “Every day I see hundreds of new faces travelling to the town.”

After enforcing a communication blockade, the landlines and post-paid cell phones resumed working on or before October 14. Half of Kashmir population, however, is utilizing prepaid services that remain shut, like the internet. For most of the last fortnight, most of the train travellers comprising those seeking converting their prepaid SIM cards into post-paid services.

One of them was Gulzar Ahmed, 45, a resident of Pampore, who could not find a seat to sit on. The middle aged man, wearing a woollen cap and a stripped muffler, said he is travelling for the second time in a week to upgrade his SIM card. “I was earlier told the network would work within next two days but, as nothing happened, I’m visiting the shop again,” Gulzar said.

Gulzar, a professional labourer, left his one day work in order to get his service permanently done. “My one day costs Rs 500 and my today’s wages are gone,” Gulzar giggled, while looking at his small bar phone. He was accompanying his nephew Junaid Ahmed, 25, who needs an internet connection to re-download his videos requiring for his Graduate Aptitude Test for Engineering (GATE) examination. As part of his test preparations, Junaid said he had purchased 40 lecturing online videos, for Rs 40,000. Every purchased video gets expired after 40 days, and this is the second time he is travelling to Banihal to replenish his video lectures.

Scheduled to appear for the test in first week of the February, Junaid said these days the internet connection has became one among the basic human needs. “My studies depend on internet,” Junaid said. “If I lose connection for 29 days continuously, I would lose all my study videos.”

As the train arrived on Banihal station, passengers hurriedly jumped out and rushed towards the sumo stand to reach the main town, almost 15  minutes drive. The main market is crowded by young Kashmiris. There are long queues outside small shops and huge groups on the move, almost everybody carrying bags full of papers.

A long queue outside a Khidmat Centre, a quasi-government run internet facility in the main market indicates the rush the facility is witnessing on daily basis. “The customers visit in thousands in a single day,” said Bilal Ahmed, 38, who operates the facility. “That is the reason I have kept four more men here to assist me.”

Bilal opens his centre at 9 am and works till 7 pm. He said the rush is so huge that he routinely skips his daily meals. Before November 11, Bilal used to attend few customers. The rush swelled after the train service resumed. “Though a section comes in the morning and leaves in the evening but some of the students I met last week have taken the rooms on rent here,” Bilal said. “They are not leaving Banihal till they get their work done successfully.

As rates vary from other private facilities operating in the town, Bilal said being a government run facility; the centre is giving a decent discount to the student community.

Besides students, Bilal also deals with GST and other business related works. Pointing towards a queue, Bilal shows towards a group of men who had travelled from Srinagar and Anantnag districts to avail the facility. “See they have all come for the business related works,” Bilal said.

From Bilal’s centre, as one looks toward the left, a private internet café Al Huda is overcrowded. Around five men, all Banihal residents, are busy filling exam forms of students belonging to different backgrounds. “Most of the students are NEET aspirants,” said one of the operators at the facility. “I filled around 100 NEET forms since morning.”

The operator believes that the preference should be given to the student community first. “Businessmen would compensate their loss someday but if the students would lose their time they won’t be able to get it back,” he said.

Mudasir Ahmed, 27, a Banihal resident, whose Diamond Computers is also jam packed with students belonging to other side of the Jawahar tunnel. Sitting in the middle of the four people assisting him in internet related work, Mudasir said he facilitated around 800 people daily. “Most of them are students and rest are businessmen clearing their bills and other works,” Mudasir said. “The train is bringing lot of people here.”

In the queue at Mudasir’s facility is Malik Aakif, 24, a resident of Verinag village. Aakif said it was his 40th trip to Banihal to avail the internet services as his work is not being done successfully. “I used to travel even before train services began in the valley. But what to do, I’m still not done with my work,” Aakif said.

A post-graduate student, Aakif was a part time employee at a local Khidmat Centre in Verinag. Four years later, when he thought he has gained some experience, he set up his own private internet café, in the village, down south. “At my internet facility, I used to facilitate mostly students, as all kinds of study material was also available,” Aakif said. “But my work came to a halt since the communication blockade began in Kashmir.” In last one month, Aakif said he received the documents of around one thousand students opting for different government jobs.

On his 40th trip, he was carrying five examination forms belonging to his client students. However, he will have to make another trip as he could not manage all the registrations. “Unfortunately, the students whose documents I’m possessing right now are not understanding the crisis I’m going through,” Aakif said. “I don’t understand, to whom should I explain the situation now?”

Three trains of six coaches each bring hoards of people to Banihal for internet. While waiting for their turn to use the facility, they do not sleep – they eat, crowd the tea stalls, make purchases and even warm up hotels. This has brought a good business to the highway town that was barley being used by travellers as a stop-over.

One of the stores that is literally inundated by people belongs to Mukhtar, Libaaz, a clothing shop. Situated on the second floor, as one enters into the wide shop, there are around 12 people attending to the customers.

There, as well, the customers have to wait in the line. Mukhtar said his shop remains crowded normally but the student rush from Kashmir has added to the footfall. “Everyday around 10 to fifteen students from Kashmir turn this side,” said Mukhtar, who was awarded as young entrepreneur of Ramban district, by erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir’s erstwhile Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti in 2016. “They travel for different purposes but some of them shop too.”

Mukhtar, however, has a different gauge to communicate the business. He said he did less business in 2019 turmoil unlike the 2016 unrest. “In 2016, I did a huge business as most of the clothing dealers from Anantnag, Srinagar, Baramulla and Kulgam, were my customers,” Mukhtar said. “Now, Kashmir market remains partially open so only a fraction of business comes to me.”

Vegetable sellers at main town Banihal. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

Vegetable sellers at main town Banihal. KL Image by Umar Khurshid

Mukhtar is busy adding a dental section to his pharmacy Safe Hands. It is being thrown open in a few days.

Also crowded was JM Hotel and Restaurants, situated on second floor, promoted by Javid Ahmed, 40, a main town resident.

Negotiating rates with a group of female students who were in Banihal for availing internet services, Javid offers discount to the student community. By looking at their situation, Javid said he is charging discounted rate. In his restaurant with a 60-seat capacity, there were 20 Kashmiris taking their lunch.

There were too many customers at Nazir’s fruit outlet. Even shoe-maker Rehman, 42, is very busy. The tea stall that Ghulam Hassan, 40, runs in front of them needs a bit of wait to get a seat. Hasan said he attends to 300 customers daily.

Unlike foggy Srinagar and intensely cold south Kashmir, Banihal has pleasant weather and a bit of sunlight too. Good crowds are keeping the market bustling till the last train leaves the station at 3 pm.

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