A Year Without High-Speed Internet Has Been a Nightmare for J&K's Entrepreneurs

Those who use social media to market their products have been especially badly hit, while customers say they no longer want to make online payments because of frequent errors.

On August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood, dividing it into two union territories. In this series – ‘One Year in a Disappeared State’ – The Wire will look at what the last year has meant and what the region looks like now.

Srinagar: “One of my customers placed an order online, and the received her product only six months later,” said entrepreneur Iqra Ahmad from Srinagar. The persistent ban on high-speed internet services in Jammu and Kashmir is hurting businesspeople like her hard, she said.

Twenty-eight-year-old Ahmad, a designer, uses social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to advertise her business ‘TulPalav’, translated from Kashmiri as ‘Pick the Clothes’. She started her business in 2015.

The year-long ban on high-speed internet services in Jammu and Kashmir have led to her sales dropping sharply. While frequent internet shutdowns have been a persistent problems for Ahmad and others like her, she says the last 12 months have been the most challenging for her business.

“I worked day and night to make my social media accounts stronger and reach wider. Because of this, lots of people found out about my business and I have been selling products all over the region. But after August 2019, the ban on internet services has badly hit my business. I can only work when there is uninterrupted online connectivity,” Ahmad told The Wire.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Due to the lack of high-speed internet, Ahmad said that very few people have been placing orders. “Uploading pictures of the products on social media has become an uphill task in the absence of 4G, and customers do not have the patience to download pictures on 2G speed.”

Another fashion designer, Sadia Mufti, said she used to attract customers by uploading videos of products on her Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp accounts, but due to the slow internet speed, uploading high-definition videos is no longer an option.

“Even if I have broadband and WiFi, it will not make any sense because online business is a two-way process. If I upload a video, it should also work on the customer’s end, which it won’t on 2G network. Also, my customers keep complaining about the errors they get while making online payments,” said Mufti.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mufti is the owner of ‘Hangers, The Closet’, an upscale boutique in Srinagar. The lack of 4G connectivity has hit her business badly.

“When the government imposed an information blackout following the abrogation of J&K’s special status, I abruptly lost my customers from the rest of India. When I could not operate my business, the customers across India switched to other online shopping portals, due to which my business suffered badly,” Mufti, who has a master’s in international business, told The Wire.

The impact of the internet ban is not just on businesses but on minds too, she argued. “When your business gets hit, it brings frustration and depression, and you start cursing yourself.”

Also read: ‘Release Leaders, Restore 4G, Lift Curbs’: Citizens’ Group Urges Govt on J&K

Ammir Abbas, founder of Valley Basket – an online supermarket offering doorstep-delivery of groceries at discounted prices – said that the lack of internet access wreaked havoc on his business.

Abbas, 29, started his business venture in October 2017. Within a span of three years, he has had to close it down. “It is sad but true that Valley Basket is no longer operational. The continuous ban on high-speed internet services took a toll on my business and I could only increase bank liabilities. I still have almost Rs 20-25 lakh in liabilities. And expired groceries worth lakhs of rupees are lying in my warehouse,” Abbas told The Wire.

Abbas, who has a bachelor’s in information technology, said there was no work for his business after August 2019 and so he decided not to renew the subscription of his website or mobile application. “I have deep connections with online business and that is why I have now switched to a courier company, Stag Speed Logistics. I want to earn something so that I can repay bank loans.”

Suspending internet services in Jammu and Kashmir is common. After every gunfight between militants and security forces, the government blocks the internet as a “precautionary measure”.

The longest internet shutdown in Kashmir was in 2016, following the agitations after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed by the security forces on July 8, 2016. Mobile internet services were suspended for 133 days.

According to a report in Money Control, India is the second largest internet consumer with over 560 million users. But ironically, the country also has the highest number of internet shutdowns in the world.

Quoting an internet advocacy group, the Economic Times reported that India led the world in internet shutdowns with 67% of the total recorded worldwide in 2018.

Internet bans in Kashmir have proved calamitous for the economy, crushing innovation in the region and leading to joblessness.

The owner of a mineral water-producing unit in the Lassipora industrial area of Pulwama, 30-year-old Sarwar Hussain Malik, said industrialists are already living in misery and the internet ban is adding salt to their wounds.

Also read: As J&K 4G Ban Is Extended, SC Should Adjudicate and Not Wait For Restoration

The lack of high-speed internet, Malik said, creates many hurdles for industrialists. For instance, he said they fail to make e-transactions and face difficulty in filing Good and Services Tax (GST) returns.

“In case a small technical glitch takes place in the machinery, we have to make video calls to foreign engineers and technicians. But due to the lack of 4G services, we are unable to make video calls. On 2G even if we try to make a video call, it will either buffer or work with poor resolution,” said Malik.

Zahoor Qari, president of the Kashmir Courier Association, told The Wire that a ban on high-speed internet services has not only hit the business of e-commerce companies, but also courier companies. “In normal working days we used to deliver 10,000 products in a day to customers, but due to the ban on 4G services that number has gone down to 1,000-2,000.”

Qari said that without the internet, online businesses cannot work. On slow speed like 2G, customers face difficulties in making payments and therefore do not purchase products online. “Many customers have been complaining that on 2G, they have faced errors while making payments, which is why they are no longer interested in shopping online.”

Meanwhile, people have again raised their hopes after G.C. Murmu, lieutenant governor of the union territory, in an interview with the Indian Express said that there is no objection to restoring 4G internet services in the region. Murmu said that he is “not afraid how people will use” the internet.

The Supreme Court case on 4G restrictions in Kashmir will next be heard on August 7. At the moment, the ban on 4G stands extended till August 19.