Slow Demise of Kashmir Tech and Media Firms: 180 Days of Shutdown
'Software companies like ours have broadband, but not the customers'
NEW DELHI: A move that was promoted by the Union as an exercise to bring the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir under the rich tapestry of development has failed, according to many stakeholders from the region. The fateful day of August 5, 2019 will not be celebrated as a stride towards unprecedented economic growth and development in coming years, at least by IT professionals and businesspersons in the Valley.
A report by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that businesses in the erstwhile state had suffered a jarring loss of ?18,000 crore till December last year. The figure was reached by using the GSDP of Jammu and Kashmir last year as the base for estimating loses suffered in the first 120 days of the clampdown imposed by the Indian Parliament.
In this period it estimates that the services, industry and agricultural sectors suffered losses worth ?9,191 crore, ?4,095 crore and ?4,591 crore respectively.
Rantech, one of the leading software companies in Jammu and Kashmir, told The Citizen that the internet shutdown “has affected our business a lot. Companies like ours are dependent entirely on the internet, so you can clearly imagine the situation we are in.
“A majority of the calls or enquiries we would get were from people who had looked us up on the internet, but now that has changed. Mobile internet services are completely shut and as far as broadband connections are concerned, not everyone has access to it.
“Software companies like ours have broadband, but not the customers, who were mainly mobile internet users. In addition, even those who could afford to get broadband are facing difficulties because of long queues outside BSNL offices,” a Rantech spokesperson said.
Besides its documented impact on essential health services and education, the possibly fatal impact on Kashmir’s largest employer the horticulture sector, the loss of trade and market access in neighbouring Jammu and Punjab, and the injury of the early weeks when few could get in touch with their family or friends, the shutdown of Kashmir has proven damaging to the budding information and technology industry in the state.
Many reports suggest that younger entrepreneurs who had started putting their businesses on the web and were enjoying appreciable dividends are now deeply troubled.
Rakshanda, a Kashmiri student studying in Delhi, describes the troubles of people back home. “Well, we all Kashmiris are in the same boat. I am aware of a few business ventures that have lost credibility due to the clampdown. A lot of people invested in businesses and are now under debt. Many youngsters started with online stores where people could place orders, but since the clampdown there has not been any update on the situation.”
A photojournalist based in Kashmir who did not wish to be named said, “In my profession I face a lot of problem sending pictures to the office. I have to travel to the Media Centre, set up by the Information Department under the Government of India, every time I have to send something. Also, since a number of journalists come to the same office for sending their work, we have to stand in queues and wait our turn.”
In a recent judgment the Supreme Court held that internet access is protected by Article 19 guaranteeing free expression, and governments cannot restrict people’s internet access without publicly stating the reasons and evidence, and ensuring that the restrictions follow principles of proportionality.
At the same time, as petitioner and Kashmir Times editor Anuradha Bhasin wrote in The Citizen, the verdict threw the ball back in the government’s court, and did not order an immediate withdrawal of the ongoing heavy communications restrictions in the union territory.
On January 14 the J&K government’s home department issued an order out of Jammu directing internet providers to install firewalls that will block access to all but 153 websites approved by the government.
Rakshanda points out that online commerce in Kashmir “was a booming sector for women as they were more into selling their embroidered clothing and artwork online. The whole concept of ‘digital’ or ‘e-markets’ is a dream that cannot be fulfilled until internet is restored.”
Expressing distress over the Centre’s indifference she adds, “I do not expect anything from the Government of India. They have done whatever they could to isolate us, target us… We are merely paying the price for fighting for our identity.”
The shutdown of Jammu and Kashmir completes 180 days.
Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR: 2G services partially restored but no access to the social media