The continued internet blockade in Kashmir region since August 3rd following the revocation of Article 370, has not only deprived the people of Srinagar and the rest of the valley of an essential means to connect with each other, it has also taken an unprecedented toll on business, education, tourism, health and entertainment. In essence, the internet blackout in Kashmir has not only led to job losses but also loss of confidence in doing business in the valley.
Interestingly, a day after a communication blockade was imposed on Kashmir, Jio-fibre, a fibre cable internet service launched by the Reliance group, began operations in Jammu in a bid to introduce high speed internet services. Though mobile internet remains suspended in Jammu too, the situation there is not as desperate as in the valley, with high speed internet available on broadband (Jio-fibre) .
The Jammu and Kashmir government has selectively restored internet services in some government offices including Srinagar Municipal Corporation and other essential services that include Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) Soura, the major tertiary care hospital in Srinagar. SMC Commissioner Khurshid Sanaie said, SMC works have not been affected due to the internet suspension. “In the absence of internet, we formed human chains of employees to ensure essential services don’t get affected,” said Sanaie. “In October, we requested the administration for internet restoration, and services were restored in the last week of October”.
According to a recent study by Delhi-based think-tank International Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), the frequent internet suspension has inflicted a loss of around Rs 4,000 crore on Kashmir’s economy in the last six years. The study titled ‘The Anatomy of An Internet Blackout: Measuring the economic impact of internet shutdowns in India’, also highlighted that of the 63 internet shutdowns in Kashmir in recent years, the 34 in 2017 alone caused losses of Rs 1,776 crore.
As per a report released by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI), businesses in the valley have suffered losses worth Rs 18,000 crore since August 5. The KCCI report says at least 5000 salesmen in tourism and mobile services business that includes some 2000 shops in the commercial hub of Lal Chowk, and its adjoining markets were not paid salaries for the months of August, September and October while 4.96 lakh people lost their jobs. Sectors like tourism, horticulture and agriculture have been the worst hit. “The internet shutdown added to losses due to disruption in online shopping and transactions after August 5th,” said KCCI president Ashiq Hussain. “Online business has taken a severe blow.”
The report states that the general trade sector with 1.20 lakh people tops the list in terms of job losses in Kashmir since August 5th. “In tourism sector, 74,500 jobs were lost in 120 days. In handicrafts sector including Kashmiri carpet industry around 70,000 people lost their jobs. In horticulture, floriculture, agriculture, and sericulture sector 12,000 jobs were lost,” reads the report. “In the industry sector 70,000 jobs, in transport 60,000 jobs, in construction and power projects 20,000 jobs were lost in four months.”
The report estimates losses in the industrial sector, which includes manufacturing, construction, mining and quarrying, electricity, gas, water and other utility services at Rs 4095 crore. In the services sectors — hotels, restaurants, transport, communications, financial services, real estate, and professional services, public administration and defence — the total loss is to the tune of Rs 9191 crore.
On December 16th, Union Industries and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal asked trade bodies of Jammu and Kashmir to compile a preliminary report on losses incurred by the businesses due to internet blockade. Goyal’s remarks came soon after he held a series of meetings with the heads of industries and commerce bodies from both Jammu and Kashmir divisions, who were invited by the central government to discuss the issue of losses due to uncertainty after August 5th. “The Union Minister has assured us all possible support, let us see what the Centre comes up with for us,” said the KCCI president, who was part of the delegation that met Goyal in Delhi.
Tourists stay away
Since the government advisory on August 3rd asking tourists to leave Kashmir, tourist footfall in Kashmir has declined significantly. Hotels, houseboats and allied sectors such as transport and handicrafts have incurred huge losses due to cancellation of bookings. The withdrawal of the advisory on October 31st has failed to lure tourists back to Kashmir, despite some attempts by the tourism department to bring them back.
The department launched publicity programmes like ‘Back to Valley’ which entailed roping in tour operators outside Kashmir, especially in states like Maharashtra and Gujarat, to lure tourists to Kashmir. The department also arranged promotional shows outside Kashmir besides offering tantalising packages online to entice potential travellers to Kashmir. But the response was poor, despite assurances that the internet was being restored at popular tourist destinations of Gulmarg, Pahalgam, and Sonmarg.
Tour operators say the internet was a handy means to publicise attractive offers and packages, which has not been possible since August. “Last December, around 80,000 tourists visited Kashmir to enjoy the winter festival at Gulmarg,’’ said Siraj Ahmed, a hotelier in Srinagar. “The festival coincided with Christmas celebrations. This year only 10% of that number are present in Kashmir.’’
The government has set up internet facilities for travel agents at the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) in Srinagar, but that has not helped either. Even tourism officials are complaining. “We are not happy with this kind of an arrangement,” said a senior tourism official wishing not to be named. “This is unlikely to bring tourists to Kashmir.”
The officials have suggested full restoration of internet to tour operators, hoteliers and houseboat owners. They believe they have the contacts and resources to improve confidence and tourist traffic into Kashmir, as they had done in the 90s. The tourism department is planning gala New Year celebrations at the Ski resort of Gulmarg. But tourist footfalls continue to remain much below the numbers of last year.
Students suffer too
School and college students have borne the brunt of the internet blockade. Hundreds of students, especially those preparing for the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) and other national level exams, have not been able to submit their forms. Internet facilities provided for students have been marred by complaints of slow speed and lack of adequate number of computers. “We were not even able to download the forms, let alone fill and submit them,” said Junaid, a student. He said he had to travel to Jammu to apply for a course online. “It was like heaven in Jammu. It took me only ten minutes to download the NEET form and five minutes to submit the same”.
Bazila, a Srinagar resident who is preparing for NEET, has been feeling frustrated due to the internet gag. Qualifying for NEET has been her dream. Her father Dr Abdul Qayoom Machloo, has been going from pillar to post to get study material downloaded for her daughter. He went to the office of the deputy commissioner Srinagar, where internet facility is available for students, but returned disappointed. “My daughter was told that she can’t download lectures from Youtube. I decided to travel to Jammu along with my daughter. At Jammu she downloaded whatever material she could,” he said.
Machloo and his daughter have been visiting Jammu every fortnight to get the study material downloaded. “It is very hectic to travel out of Kashmir,” said Dr. Machloo. “My studies have suffered badly,” fumes Bazila. “I have to pay Rs 100 per hour for using internet at Jammu. Besides, my father spends Rs 1000 on petrol every time we visit Jammu. This is frustrating”.
Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Baseer Ahmed Khan said that at each district headquarter, internet kiosks have been set up for the students preparing for national level exams. “Students are free to avail internet facility at their respective districts,” he said. However, students said these arrangements are not up to their expectations and that they prefer to travel to Jammu instead of wasting time at the district headquarters. “I went to the deputy commissioner’s office in Srinagar many times to download study material for NEET, but I was told download is not allowed. Internet speed too was very low,” said Saima Rashid, a NEET aspirant.
Mobile phone sector
There are an estimated 60 lakh mobile phone users in Jammu and Kashmir with more than half of them in Kashmir, which has 1450 registered retail mobile phone outlets with 8000 employees. The internet ban has pushed most outlets to the verge of closure. “Our salaries have not been credited since August 5th because we have not been able to mark our attendance online,’’ said Ajaz Ahmed, a mobile salesman in Srinagar. “Our salary is dependent on sales. We need to sell at least 26 phones a month, but since August, we are only selling three to four a day.”
“The distributors billing since August has come down from Rs 25 crore to 85 lakh,” said Munir Quraishi, owner of a Samsung outlet at Srinagar’s busy Residency Road. “The service centres have no work. Most orders for spares and other services used to be placed online but that has stopped. If the internet is not restored, the mobile sector in Kashmir will collapse”.
Courier Services shut
The internet gag has also paralysed courier services. According to Bilal Ahmed, an employee at Blue-Dart Courier services, 90 per cent of their operations were dependent on the internet. “Many staffers have already quit the job and some have left Kashmir to look for jobs in other parts of the country,” he said. Also, hundreds of covers and parcels have not been delivered because the contact numbers given by customers are pre-paid mobiles, which continue to remain blocked. There are at least 26,000 pre-paid phone users in Jammu and Kashmir and a majority of them have now switched to post-paid numbers.
Till August 5th, there were 40,000 post-paid subscribers in Kashmir. Post-paid services were restored on October 14th while prepaid services continued to remain suspended. Data collected by Citizen Matters from various telecom operators suggest that out of 26000 pre-paid connections, 20,000 subscribers switched to post-paid numbers and a majority preferred Jio-post-paid numbers. At present only post-paid mobile services are functional in Srinagar and elsewhere in Kashmir, while mobile data and broad-band internet remains suspended.
Though there are no restrictions on couriering material in and out of the valley, courier services courier services have virtually become non-functioning in Kashmir, since the services primarily depend on tracking through internet,. While courier services remain shut, the General Post Office (GPO) at Lal Chowk is the only option for people wanting to send letters and parcels out of the valley.
Trading of shares
According to financial analyst Syed Ashfaq, who quit banking and started a financial consultancy and data management service, trading of stocks and shares online has come to a grinding halt due to the internet shutdown. “I paid my staff salaries for three months without work after August 5th, but cannot anymore,’’ said Syed Ashfaq. “I was hoping the situation will improve but it has worsened and I now rent a small room instead of an entire floor, as I used to before the internet ban. If the situation doesn’t quickly improve, I will have to consider a job switch.
At least 200 media persons jostle daily for their turn to use the internet at the Media Facilitation Centre (MFC) in Srinagar. The Centre has kept three computers there for exclusive use by female journalists.
As for the ordinary citizen, the internet shutdown has cut him off from availing Central schemes like Ayushman Bharat, the flagship health insurance scheme for poor. Private hospitals treating patients covered under the scheme have not been able to get online payments due to them because of the internet ban.
Start-ups in trouble
For Umar Bebak, 24, a resident of Pantha Chowk area in Srinagar, internet blockade has spoiled the prospects of his earlier new business of selling car accessories. He had launched the start-up after attending a training programme at Entrepreneur Development Institute (EDI) in Srinagar in February. He then signed a deal for a joint venture with a Delhi-based company to manufacture car accessories in Srinagar and J&K Bank had sanctioned a loan of Rs 10 lakh for setting up the manufacturing unit. He then rented a shop at Pantha Chowk for Rs 10,000 rupees a month and gave two lakh rupees as advance to the shop owner.
“My products include polish for dash-boards, tyres, car washing polish, wind-screen cleaners etc. I hired 15 salesmen in May on five per cent commission on sale of each item beside Rs 12,000 a month as salary,’’ Bebak said. “All was going well until the internet blockade. I interacted with customers online including the quantity and rates for each product. Our salesmen delivered orders on time. But after August 5th, the orders have dried up.”
Five months on, Bebak’s venture has suffered a crippling low. “I couldn’t even pay my monthly loan instalment. I have become a defaulter,” he said. “Between August 5th and October 14th, I had lost contact with the Delhi-based company”. He said he had to travel to Delhi to re-establish contact and discuss business afresh. “Unfortunately, all my staff have quit as I couldn’t pay salaries,” he said.
Like Bebak, the mineral water packaging and plastic water tanks manufacturing unit set up by Ishfaq Ahmed Rather of Pampore in Srinagar has met the same fate. Rather had set up the unit at Lassipora in Pulwama after securing a loan of Rs 15 lakh. The unit made a good start business grew.
“For the first three months, I earned a profit but then the internet blockade brought me on the verge of closing both ventures,” said Rather. “I used to source raw material from Chandigarh through the internet; payments and billing too was done through net-banking with the dealer. But since August 5th, I have lost touch with my dealers outside Kashmir and many bills are pending clearance. Even the orders from Jammu have dried up. I have incurred a loss of around Rs 15 lakh rupees since the internet was snapped in Kashmir. I have also downsized my staff from twenty to five”.
The only ray of hope in the new year has been the restoration of internet broadband services in 80 government run hospitals in Kashmir, including all major ones in Srinagar. On January 2, SMS services were also restored after 5 months
But for people like Bebak and Rather and the students and businessmen and traders in the valley, the recent statements by Lieutenant Governor Girish Chandera Murmu and his advisor Farooq Khan must sound like a cruel joke. At a police passing out parade at Sheeri in Baramulla, the Lieutenant Governor assured that internet services would be restored after the situation improves in Kashmir, while Farooq Khan reiterated at a function in Srinagar that “the day is not far when the services would be restored.”
But as things stand, there seems to be little chance of these assurances being met any time soon.