OUT OF THE NET
How the continuing Internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir is driving thousands of thriving businesses and start-ups out of business
Arjumand Andrabi | Caravan Daily
SRINAGAR — How can anyone pass such a ridiculous comment over Kashmir? If he has seen Kashmir only on the map, then he has no right to rubbish Kashmir. The person with such a mentality should spit on his face on the mirror every day.” This was how Omaira Qayoom, a crochet artist in Kashmir reacted to the outrageous remarks about the use of the Internet in the Valley by ex-DRDO chief V.K Saraswat, who is also a member of the NITI AYOG.
In sum, Saraswat’s take was that the Net was used by youths in Kashmir for watching dirty films and the restrictions on its use after the August 5 central crackdown on the erstwhile state did not mean much for the people there.
Omaira and Benish, two best friends based in Srinagar who have trained almost 14 girls and employed them, say that an individual like VK Saraswat holding responsible positions should know how much is the Internet important for everyone in this modern era.
A few days later, Saraswat said he had been quoted out of context by the media, and what he said was the net restrictions did not affect the economy there.
According to the online publication The Print, this was not the first time when Saraswat waded into a controversy over loose talk. Earlier this month, when students and teachers at JNU were attacked by masked gangs, in connection with the fee hike protests at the university, Saraswat as its chancellor said in an interview: “When intellectuals react without understanding things, it is a matter of concern.” Saraswat was also involved in a row last year, when PM Narendra Modi announced the Anti-satellite weapons test, days after the model code of conduct for the General Elections came into force.
Saraswat is slammed by many for being insensitive. Renowned Bollywood film producer, Pritish Nandy, tweeted, “Really Mr. Saraswat? Really? And you are a NITI Aayog member? And this is the way you talk about people of an Indian state, now reduced unjustly to a Union Territory!”
After the abrogation of Article 370 followed by the shutdown and curfew, the erstwhile state’s economy bore the major brunt. Trade and business came to a virtual standstill. The shops remained closed for weeks. Communications remained suspended in the Valley. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries has released a report in which it said Kashmir’s economy suffered losses of around rs17,878 crore in the first 120 days after August 5.
The fact is that, due to Internet blockade, Kashmir’s economy suffered a loss of more than Rs 5,000 crore. Due to the clampdown and shutdown, it suffered a loss of Rs15,000 crore. More than 50 per cent of the businesses rely on the Internet in Kashmir. More than 50,000 women and one lakh men went jobless due to the Internet blockade and the clampdown in Kashmir, said Sheikh Ashiq, KCCI president.
However, Kashmiris are not new to the Internet shutdown. The region has witnessed similar shutdowns some 160 times since 2012. In 2016, when militant commander Burhan Wani was exterminated by security forces, the Internet was suspended for more than three months there.
Sheikh Ashiq said, “On the one hand, the central government makes big claims about women empowerment and on the other hand they have been keeping them away from the Internet for the last six months. Young dynamic girls used to work from home and sell their work and ideas through the Internet. They are now sitting back at home without any work.”
“Almost more than 50 per cent of Kashmir’s women are working in the handicrafts industry. The handicraft sector bore the major brunt due to the internet blockade. The money-spinning tourism sector also got affected. Many women were working in the tourism sector and they are now jobless. Who will provide jobs and livelihood to them again?” continued Sheikh Ashiq.
The Union Government has in recent days restored the 2G Internet services with curbs in J&K. The curbs were justified by the government by saying these were due to security fears. The ordinary people, whose business is completely dependent on the Internet, are still waiting for full restoration of the services.
Some days ago, the Supreme Court had ordered the Jammu and Kashmir administration to review all restrictions within a week. The court stated that “freedom of speech and expression through the medium of the Internet is an integral part of Article 19(1) (a)” and accordingly any restriction on the same must be in accordance with Article 19(2) of the Indian Constitution.
“We want to tell Saraswat that it has been a period of four years now since we started the Craft World Kashmir. We were selling our ideas through the Internet; mostly on Instagram and Facebook. We never felt the need for opening a physical outlet because it would cost us more than Rs 50 lakh. We didn’t need that because of the availability Internet. We earned almost Rs 1.5 to 2 lakh a month, but now we don’t earn more than 10,000.”
ARE WE A SOFT TARGET?
Why are we in Kashmir being targeted each time? Are we a soft target? If it would be any other state, the scenario would have been different. Our voices are being choked. Don’t we have the right to have basic and fundamental rights? They have not only banned the Internet, but they have also banned our work, our ideas and our dreams. We are not able to show our ideas to anyone. For you, the Internet might be used for watching dirty films. For us, and for the lakhs of people in Kashmir, it is the main source of livelihood,” continued Omaira.
Most of the Kashmiri youths who were earning their livelihood through the Internet went into deep mental depression due to the Internet blockade since August 5 last, forcing some to leave the UT in search of Jobs and livelihood elsewhere. They had to leave their own specialised professions and opt for another available one.
Owais Noor, a software developer from Rajbagh, was running a software development firm namely Codmites in Srinagar, which started in 2017. Similarly, Sheikh Sami Ullah from Srinagar developed an app “Fastbeetle.com” for providing Service to people, in August 2018. Both left the Valley in search of jobs after the present Internet blockade.
“One who doesn’t know the worth of the Internet in the 21st Century doesn’t deserve to be holding such a position. We ask the Government of India to shut Internet services in Mumbai and Delhi for just one day. Then, the government will get to know what happens,” said Owais.
“We were doing great and we also got awards for designing and developing a website for BHSS Tral, the first school from the Valley to digitalise its admission process, from JKBOSE. We earned almost Rs 1.5 lakh monthly but after the 5th of August 2019, the income reduced to zero. The five people who were working along with me also moved outside in search of jobs,” lamented Owais.
This is not only Kashmir. After Parliament passing the CAA on 11 December 2019, an Internet shutdown was imposed on other parts of India too to check the eruption of protests. This was the first time that the Internet was shut down in the National Capital, Delhi — after clashes between Jamia Millia Islamia students and the Delhi police over the protest against CAA and NRC.
NET SHUTDOWN IN INDIA
In 2019, India lost over $1.3billion (RS9, 300 crore) as a result of major Internet shutdowns in different regions. India imposed Internet restrictions more often than any other country in 2019, with over 100 shutdowns documented, according to a new report by top 10 VPNs.
India ranks behind only Iraq and Sudan in terms of money loss due to the Internet shutdown. The report also found that in terms of the number of hours of shutdown, India again ranked third, behind Myanmar and Chad. Perhaps VK Saraswat does not seem to be aware of all the facts reported about the losses due to the Internet blockade till date.
“I don’t want to even react to his statement. They purposely do such things and deliberately cripple us. They deprive us of basic necessities so that when the ban and shutdown are lifted, people won’t protest because they will think that they can’t afford to do it anymore,” said Iltija Mufti, daughter of PDP president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti.
According to Sheikh Showkat Hussein, a professor at Kashmir University, the Internet cannot be irrelevant in the 21st Century. If anybody feels the Internet is irrelevant on this date, they should ban it across the country. He added, “People estimate others on the basis of what they are. Once you have such taste, you perceive that others may be indulging in the same. They are having a fossilized mind living centuries back.”
“A layman can understand the use of the Internet. The Internet is a basic necessity of life. People can get educated and can pursue their career through the Internet. It is a sick statement from VK Saraswat,” said software developer Sheikh Samiullah.
Samiullah developed an app “Fast beetle.com” for providing delivery service to people in August 2018. It also provided service to different girls selling their art through Instagram. They provided them delivery boys online and made a dashboard for them in which they kept the record of data in a digital form. Samiullah is right now outside the UT in search of livelihood.
“Internet is oxygen for our business. When there was no Internet, we were forced to move outside in search of jobs and work. When Internet services will be resumed, that would take me and, all the people who had business online, years to reach where we were six months ago. Who will take the responsibility of all such artists whose business collapsed due to the Internet blockade,” he asked.
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