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Entrepreneurs to jobless in 3 months — no internet kills Kashmir’s next-gen businesses

Thursday, 5 December, marks four months of internet blackout in Kashmir. L-G Murmu has said internet will be restored 'in phases' as the situation 'becomes more normal'.

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Srinagar: When internet connectivity in the Kashmir Valley was snapped this August, Iqra Ahmed, a local fashion designer with a pheran (traditional long Kashmiri robe) business, was not exactly worried.

“Initially, I thought things will be OK in a few days, since we are used to such conditions [internet restrictions],” she said. “But it became clear with every passing day that things will not only be different but tough this time.”

Thursday, 5 December, marks four months of an internet blackout in Kashmir.

The blackout was among the restrictions that kicked in as the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir was stripped of its special status, guaranteed by the now-scrapped Article 370, and bifurcated into union territories on 5 August.

While broadband internet has since returned to Jammu and Ladakh (now a separate union territory), Kashmir remains off the web even as other restrictions have been eased.

Jammu & Kashmir Lieutenant General G.C. Murmu said Wednesday that internet will be restored in Kashmir “in phases” as the situation “becomes more normal”.

However, the announcement will provide cold comfort to a generation of Kashmir’s young internet entrepreneurs who find their businesses demolished by the four-month clampdown — a punishingly long spell even in Kashmir, with its weary familiarity with routine internet shutdowns.

Iqra, whose pheran business emerged from a passion for the cosy piece of winter clothing, is one of them.

While doing her master’s in linguistics, Iqra would design her own pherans. Once she completed the course, her passion and desire to “preserve Kashmir’s unique culture and tradition” drove her to set up an online store, Tul Palav, on 2 November 2015.

Tul Pulav, Iqra told ThePrint, is one of Kashmir’s first online clothing stores.

Iqra is extensively involved in preserving Tila, Aari, and Sozini work. Her work to popularise the pheran involved collaborations with models from outside the state, which were facilitated by internet.

Since August, however, her business has ground to a halt and she hasn’t received a single order, Iqra said. Her team of four workers is thus out of work.

And as luck would have it, the internet shutdown hit the same month she was to launch a physical store.

“After every internet ban, I start to cover up the losses but a new phenomenon starts and takes away everything,” she said.

“August to October is the prime season of weddings in Kashmir and every bride has almost 2-3 pherans in her trousseau but that season is completely gone.”

Srinagar-based friends Beenish and Omaira relate a similar story. They collaborated to start an online outlet called Craft World Kashmir, which deals in floral jewellery for brides, dresses for children and other items woven in crochet.

Intent on promoting crochet work, the two young women started their business by uploading some of their basic designs on Instagram, the social media portal for photos that has also emerged as a platform for business. Orders followed soon after. When the internet disappeared, they were receiving five orders every day.

Their page on Instagram has more than 49,000 followers and, in the absence of a physical store, internet was the lifeblood of their business.

“We were doing quite well before the internet blockade. With the internet suspension, we are not able to display our designs and our customers aren’t able to contact us either,” said Omaira.

“Several customers had placed orders [before the internet shutdown kicked in] and all the orders were ready but we were unable to dispatch those.”

The loss is not theirs and the customers’ alone. The duo had trained 14 girls in crochet who then started working with Craft World Kashmir.

“Thirty per cent of our orders come from different states of India. The internet and other modes of communication work here on the will of Delhi,” said Beenish. “Does that mean our source of income and business will also work on the orders of Delhi?”

Also Read: The Indian govt should know that internet shutdowns don’t work

‘$1 billion loss’

The internet shutdowns routinely imposed in Kashmir cost the Valley Rs 4,000 crore between 2012 and 2017, according to a 2018 report by Delhi-based think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER).

The internet restrictions in place since August have already cost the Valley nearly twice as much, according to a November report released by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) that estimates losses at $1 billion.

“We are suffering huge losses and the condition of big business houses is miserable,” said KCCI president Sheikh Ashiq Ahmed.

“We can think of these young boys and girls who were running their business online. The majority of Kashmir’s businesses are internet-based, like IT, tourism etc,” he added. “Offline businesses still work… but there is no alternative for online entrepreneurs.”

“These [internet] entrepreneurs are completely jobless and there were hundreds of other people who were involved with them for their livelihood,” said Ahmed.

“This loss will take a toll on our economy and will take years to cover since most of the businesses have loans from banks and interests are equally high.”

A temporary phase

Peerzada Aaqib of Srinagar was working with a telecom firm in the UAE when a chance encounter with a gynaecologist, on a flight to Dubai, put him on a different path.

The two got talking about health and hygiene, he said, and the gynaecologist told him about sanitary napkins and the amount of plastic and synthetic elements that go into making them.

She also told him that it leads to different kinds of diseases — even cervical cancer in some cases.

Aaqib subsequently left his lucrative IT job and returned to the Valley to start an industrial unit where he could make affordable organic sanitary napkins.

He invested Rs 30 lakh in setting up the Seha napkin unit at Rawalpora, and the product was launched online in 2019.

“I wanted to break the myth that organic products are expensive,” he said. “A pack of six organic Seha sanitary napkins only costs Rs 45.”

The launch of Seha was accompanied by a social media campaign to create awareness among women about the benefits of organic napkins.

“It’s not easy to speak to people about menstrual hygiene… there are lots of taboos associated with it. To reach people, especially young girls and women, and talk about the product is only possible through the internet,” he said. “Even a physical store will not do what we could do online as the real task is to make women aware about the benefits of the product.”

Aaqib was averaging 100-120 orders a day when the internet was shut down. Four people who used to work with Aaqib had to leave the job as well.

The turn in fortunes was equally stark for Furqan Qureshi, a technology buff who set up a small food delivery company, Kart Food, before he had even completed his bachelor’s in commerce.

“Initially, I only tied up with three restaurants and used to receive orders on phone,” he told ThePrint. “But as the business grew, I developed an app.”

By August 2019, Furqan had a tie-up with 30 restaurants, delivering around 50 orders in and around Srinagar every day. His team included 15 employees, including 10 delivery agents.

His business pulverised by the internet bar, Furqan is now in Bengaluru, looking for a job.

“What will I do? How will I survive with this internet ban?” he said, speaking to ThePrint in November. “Just three months ago, I had a company, a team… today, I do not have work.”

Srinagar resident Shafia Shafi finds her art business stalled the same way.

“In 2017, I started to work as a freelance artist. It is a niche business, but with the help of the internet, I was able to create an understanding among people.”

Her Instagram page, through which she operates, has more than 1,000 followers, and she used to solicit work by posting samples on the website.

Until August, she received seven-eight portrait orders — at Rs 1,000-3,000 each — and two-three for painting walls in different themes, at Rs 30,000-35,000.

Now, she said, “I have no work at all as I don’t receive any order”.

“This work still needs a lot of online marketing… I had started to create a name but it died with the internet ban,” Shafia said.

Tufail Matto, director of the state-owned Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI), said the entrepreneurship ecosystem will gain momentum again but it “will take some time”.

“This is a temporary phase for businesses… We will cope with the condition soon,” he added. “In any country or state, businesses have to face challenges, we cannot think of profits all the time.”

Safina Nabi is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist

Also Read: With no internet on mobile networks, Kashmir militants go back to using satellite phones

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