20/11/2019 7:45 AM IST | Updated 20/11/2019 8:10 AM IST

'Choked & Crippled': How The Internet Shutdown Is Devastating Kashmir’s Entrepreneurs And Innovators

The unprecedented internet shutdown is crushing Kashmir's entrepreneurial spirit.

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Hands of a journalist holding a laptop and a placard during the protest on 12 November, 2019.   

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir — Kashmirbox.com, the largest online marketplace of Kashmiri art and craft products, stopped taking orders online from 5 August following the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The subsequent communications blockade, including the shutting down of both broadband and mobile internet, which has lasted for more than 100 days, has crippled Kashmir’s Information Technology (IT) businesses and internet dependent startups.

“Since we are dependent on the local market and an uninterrupted internet service, we had to completely shut down our office after 5 August,” said Sajid Nahvi, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Kashmir Box described as a “one stop shopping destination for anyone who wishes to purchase from the vale of Kashmir.”

Thousands of art and craft products made by about 10,000 Kashmiri artisans are displayed and sold on the site which acts as a facilitating medium, connecting artisans directly with the customers. 

The products would be made by the artisans as per the specific requirements sent by the customers who would place their orders first on the site, which had business in 55 countries including from members of the Kashmiri diaspora in the Middle East, Europe and America. All the orders were placed online on the shopping site and then processed by the Srinagar based team who would package them for the customers. 

The site employed about 40 people before 5 August. 

“We had to face huge losses as more than 3,000 orders of different items were canceled on the site since 5 August,” said Nahvi. “We would do about 70 percent of our business and sales at the time of Diwali.” 

According to recent estimates by the trade body Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the losses suffered by the Valley’s business community is more than $1 billion (100 billion crore). 

In addition to their monetary losses, the nearly four-month long internet shutdown, which the United Nations finds disproportionate and in violation of human rights, has been mentally and emotionally devastating for Kashmir’s new generation of entrepreneurs who have been trying to innovate and grow in a region marred by conflict. 

The online startups started emerging in the valley more than a decade ago. With the increased use of the internet, and penetration of mobile internet, many young IT professionals, who had returned to Kashmir over the years, and other entrepreneurs saw a business opportunity in starting internet-dependent businesses and startups. The dearth of government jobs also pushed many young people in their 20s and 30s to take up jobs in the emerging IT sector and come up with startup ideas that were dependent on internet connectivity.

Nahvi, who estimated Kashmir Box has lost one crore rupees in the past three months, said, “In the past seven years, Flipkart became a billion-dollar company. But we in Kashmir are still struggling to survive even after eight years as the situation has never been stable here.”

Although landline phones were restored in a phase-wise manner in late August in the Muslim majority Kashmir Valley, and the ban on postpaid phones was lifted in the second week of October, prepaid phones, SMS service, and both broadband and mobile internet, continue to be banned for more than three months now.

Kashmir is no stranger to internet shutdowns. From 2012 to 2018, the Indian government has imposed a total of 180 internet shutdowns in the valley and this year alone, there have been a total of 55 internet shutdowns till now, according to internetshutdowns.in which tracks internet outages across India.

Unlike in previous years, this time shutting down of all communication lines, including mobile phones, mobile internet and even broadband internet crippled the business community in the valley . The internet dependent businesses and IT companies were severely affected, losing contact with their clients and customers both in the state and outside the state.

In the past seven years, Flipkart became a billion-dollar company. But we in Kashmir are still struggling to survive ...

First week of the shutdown

Nahvi, 34, had returned to Kashmir from Mumbai in 2012 after quitting his job in a private hospital to help establish Kashmir Box.

Kashmir Box was doing good business, he said, having overcome difficult times in the previous years, including the 2014 floods and 2016 summer uprising, when the internet was suspended for months following the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani.

In the first week of the lockdown after August 5, Nahvi couldn’t even reach their office in downtown Srinagar due to the restrictions in place. He couldn’t contact his staff and artisans as all communication lines were down. 

Describing the internet service as “choked,” he said, “We had to send two people to Delhi after the shutdown began. They put up a banner message on the website informing our customers that we can’t take more orders on the site and function normally until the internet is restored in the valley.” 

Nahvi, who hasn’t taken any salary from the company since August, moved out of Kashmir in September to see what they could do next and talk to some of their investors to help revive the site. He is dependent on his savings. 

Sajad Ahmed, an employee of Kashmir Box in their Srinagar office, said on an average they would process and package about 100 to 150 orders every day at their office before 5 August.

Having pinned his hopes on the Modi government restoring the internet soon, Ahmed did not look for alternative employment. He too is relying on his savings. “I’ve got to pay pending school fees of my kids and buy textbooks for them,” he said. 

I’ve got to pay pending school fees of my kids and buy textbooks for them.

‘We were beginning to do well…’

Another online shopping startup LalChowk.in was similarly “choked” after the communication shutdown was imposed on 5 August. 

Started in 2017 by a team of five computer science post-graduates fresh out of the University of Kashmir, the portal sold books, groceries, and other household items. The shopping portal also provided home delivery services in and around Srinagar.

Unlike many of their friends and classmates who left the valley after graduating from the university to take up jobs outside the state, the five youth had decided to stay back in the valley and start their own IT-related business venture.

The site employed seven people directly, including five partners. With an inventory of 50,000 items, including books and other merchandise, the site was known for its creative social media marketing and prompt home delivery service in the city. Before the 5 August shutdown, the founders of the site were thinking of expanding their operations in several districts of the valley.

“We were beginning to do well and we would also ship some items and books to our customers in foreign countries,” said Sheikh Usman, 27, one of the partners of the portal. “But the sudden shut down of internet has crippled our venture. All our previous orders were canceled and we also had to initiate refunds for the orders registered on the site and on our app before 5 August.”

We were beginning to do well and we would also ship some items and books to our customers in foreign countries.

When the internet service was not restored for more than a month, Usman and two other partners had to move to New Delhi to see if they could process some previous orders on their portal and app.

Most of the people associated with the portal, including their core team, are now looking for jobs outside the state. 

“We had started this portal after a lot of hard work by investing our own savings in the venture. We had also developed the app ourselves,” said Usman. “But now all that work is lost and we might have to shut it down.”

Usman said running the portal again if internet services are restored will be a difficult task now. “We have to start from zero again and even if we manage to run the portal again, we will still be faced with the same uncertainty in Kashmir,” he said. “The authorities can stop the internet anytime they want. They’re not concerned about what happens to us.”

The authorities can stop the internet anytime they want. They’re not concerned about what happens to us.

A baker goes out of business 

Sana Imtiyaz’s homemade, cake making venture named “Sweet temptations” was entirely dependent on the internet. 

The 20-year-old would take orders from her social media pages or on Whatsapp. She would send sample photos of her designer cakes to the customers and also share them on social media. The customers would then select and order cakes as per their requirements.

“After August 5, I couldn’t take a single order as even broadband internet was shutdown and phones were also not working,” said Imtiyaz, who’s done professional courses in baking from New Delhi. “I couldn’t even Google pictures of cakes or share them on my social media accounts. I was unable to get raw material for making cakes…”

Sana had a tie-up with a local delivery company that would deliver her home-baked designer cakes to the homes of her customers. But after 5 August lockdown and communications blockade, the delivery company also stopped working.

Before 5 August, Sana would take about four to five orders daily from her social media accounts. The restoring of postpaid mobile phone services in October is no substitute in the internet age. 

“After the mobile phones started working, only one or two orders came and that too in a week’s time,” she said. “It’s disheartening and disappointing to work in such conditions.”

It’s disheartening and disappointing to work in such conditions.

‘Internet is the lifeblood for any IT company’

Yafer Nazir, the founder of Codeus, a small IT company based in Srinagar, had a leased line, broadband, and a JIO fiber internet connection at their office Srinagar.  But the government, he said, even shut down leased line internet connections critical for the functioning of all the IT companies based in Rangreth IT Park in the city. 

Nazir suddenly lost contact with all his overseas clients resulting in business losses for his company. The 24-year-old could not even tell them about the communication blockade. He had to shift some of his employees to a temporary office space in Gurgaon that he had taken a few months before the lockdown and then explain the problem to his clients. 

“Internet is the lifeblood for any IT company as most of the revenue is generated from overseas clients,” he said. “Even a minute of internet shutdown means losses for the companies.”

Even a minute of internet shutdown means losses for the companies.

IT companies like his can explain connectivity issues of a few days, but not a four-month long internet shutdown to their clients who can simply move on to better IT service providers, said Nazir.   

“On the one hand, the government talks about digital India and startup India but on the other hand, they’re cutting the lifeline of IT companies and online startups in Kashmir,” he said.

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