Frequent Internet Bans Are Slowly Choking Kashmir's Online Businesses

A struggling e-commerce and start-up community says it has become nearly impossible to build a sustainable business.

Interruptions in online connectivity may have cost the Kashmir valley 7,000 IT jobs. Credit: Reuters

Interruptions in online connectivity may have cost the Kashmir valley 7,000 IT jobs. Credit: Reuters

Srinagar: For Zeeshan Mir, a young entrepreneur who runs an online marketing startup that provides photography and graphic solutions to other business units, frequent internet shutdowns has hit his business, which is dependent on uninterrupted online connectivity.

“Shutting down of mobile internet limits me to a mere fraction of the audience that I usually have on days when mobile data works,” says Mir. “It’s a shame how in these times of technological advancement, we are deprived of even basic internet access which is vital for our businesses to survive.”

Iqra Ahmad, another young entrepreneur and owner of Tulpalav, an online clothing store, is also troubled by the frequent internet bans, which has heavily disrupted her online business start-up.  

“While the rest of the states have developed tremendously in the last couple of decades, from 2G to 3G to 4G high speed internet, we are deprived of even basic internet facilities here,” she says with disappointment, adding that her entire business, which runs online, revolves around uninterrupted internet connectivity. “From product display to product query to payment and delivery details, all of that happens online through social media sites like Facebook and Instagram,” she says. “Smooth internet connection is very essential for my online business work.”

Ahmad says frequent internet blockades not only impact her business, preventing her from reaching out to customers, but it also strains her small team of workers who find themselves out of work every time online connectivity is snapped by the authorities. “This unpredictability and uncertainty of routine internet bans gets me back to square one apart from other business losses,” she says. “It makes me worry about my livelihood and that of my workers.”

“Whenever there’s an internet ban, my sales go down by 50% as our customers can’t order food via our online application,” says Furqan Qureshi, another young entrepreneur who runs KartFood, an online home delivery application that has tied up with many restaurants and fast food joints in Srinagar as a home delivery solution. “Because of these frequent bans I have not been able to expand and employ more delivery boys,” he says. “My start-up is suffering.”

Co-working spaces have also been hit. Tabish Habib, a 27-year-old entrepreneur who runs ThinkPod, Kashmir’s first and only co-working space and business incubator, says while businesses across the globe are moving towards digitised revolution, Kashmir is going backwards given the frequently enforced internet blockades that hamper ventures like hers. “In a world filled with digital communication modules, enforcing a digital blackout doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Students, businesses people, travelers and tourists – all of them suffer due to these frequent internet blackouts.”

She says the internet is the backbone of IT companies, e-commerce websites and individuals working remotely. “For a co-working space, internet connectivity is not only the first preference for marketing and communication but also as a service to people who take spaces for their offices here,” she says. “As it is the economic resources are bleak in Kashmir and this digital blackout is going to make it worse with each passing day.”

39 internet shutdowns and counting

Following Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing in July last year, internet services were snapped for about four months in Kashmir, which meant “over 2,920 hours without access,” according to the website internetshutdowns.in, which tracks incidents of internet shutdowns across India.

According to the figures compiled by the website, internet services in Jammu and Kashmir have been shut down for a total of 39 times from 2012 till present. Online connectivity was snapped three times in 2012, five times each in 2013, 2014 and 2015, ten times in 2016 and, so far, 11 times this year. For over five months, from July 9 to November 19, 2016, mobile internet was also banned, and pre-paid mobile services were suspended until January 27.

Both mobile and broadband internet services have been shut down ten times from April to July 13 alone. The latest internet ban was enforced in the Valley by the authorities on July 12 when mobile internet was cut following the killing of three militants in Redbug in Budgam district.

Earlier in May, a month after authorities blocked 22 social media sites and mobile data services in the state, David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and Michel Forst, the special rapporteur on human rights defenders, condemned the restrictions on the internet and social media services in Jammu and Kashmir. “The restrictions had a disproportionate impact on the fundamental rights of everyone in Kashmir,” he said, adding that the restrictions had the “character of collective punishment.”

According to a report by Brookings Institution, India has recorded more days of internet shutdown than Iraq or Pakistan. The report also estimates Rs 6,458 crore business losses to India due to the internet shutdowns over the past year or so, which is the highest harm caused to one country globally due to internet shutdowns.

“Most of these disruptions are being carried out by state government agencies, often under the terms of broad legal powers — such as Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure — derived from 19th century British Raj era provisions meant to empower police units and district administration officials to enforce curfew and confiscate property,” wrote Apar Gupta, a lawyer, and Raman Jit Singh Chima, Policy Director with Access Now, in an Indian Express column last year, adding that the trend of shutdown orders by state government agencies undermines the division of power between the union and the states. “When responding to protests or other public developments, many police officials and district administrators across India are making it part of their standard operating procedure to use this vague legal provision to issue orders to telecom providers to suspend mobile internet access across districts, and sometimes the entire state.”

Business losses

“Banning of internet has a huge impact on our work,” says Farooq Kuthoo, the secretary general of Travel Agents Association of Kashmir.  “These days our entire work is dependent on internet and when the government blocks the internet, our business suffers 100% losses.”

Kuthoo says he himself works on a business-to-business model as they make bookings online from other travel companies, hotels and business establishments. “When internet is blocked we never get to know what happened to our bookings and other dealings,” he says. “And there is no alternative to know about the status as everything is online.” He says most of their customers outside the state prefer to book their tickets online, which is easiest for them. “But when we can’t access our website when internet is banned, all bookings get cancelled which results into losses for us.”

Kuthoo says if internet blockades continue to be enforced more frequently, their business might as well shutdown. “About a 1000 registered travel agents work in this field in Kashmir and many more work in unorganised sector. If net continues to be banned frequently like it has been, we are going to entirely lose our business,” he says, adding that they have also brought their concerns over frequent internet bans to the notice of the government but nothing has been done to address their concerns. “Of late we feel the government is helpless and least bothered about our losses due to these internet shutdowns,” he says. “How can we do business when internet is shut down ten times in a week?”

Last year, according to a report published in a local daily, out of the 14,000 local youth employed in the IT sector in the Valley, an estimated 7,000 people lost their jobs due to the frequent internet shutdowns imposed after Wani’s killing.

The Supreme Court considers internet access a basic right that government is trampling with every passing day in Kashmir, says advocate Maroof Khan. “Here in our state this right is denied every now and then as the government puts a gag on the internet access in the name of security.”

“The internet works here according to the will and whims of government,” says Khan, adding that it is strange that the government authorities at times allow internet access in one area and block it in other areas. “It has also been observed here that sometimes net is gagged in one district and other district is allowed to have internet access. These frequent internet gag orders border on hooliganism.”

“How can the government year after year cite ‘security reasons’ to gag internet?” he asks. “They won’t work towards improving the security scenario here but they will continue to gag internet.”

Majid Maqbool is a journalist and editor based in Srinagar, Kashmir.