“As important as water is to life”: How internet blackouts stifled Kashmir’s digital economy

For three decades, until 2021, Rubina Riyaz had been a homemaker, living on the outskirts of Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley, the largest city in Jammu and Kashmir. She and her three children survived on the little money her husband sent home from his job in the Jammu region, more than 250 kilometers away, each month. But like many people in the city, she found herself struggling financially after the Indian government imposed two successive lockdowns. First, in 2019, the authorities imposed an 18-month telecomms blackout and deployed security forces to the streets, to try to prevent unrest after the government had suddenly revoked the region’s autonomy. Then, in 2020, the government forced businesses to close, to curb the spread of Covid-19. 

Business groups estimate that the Covid-19 lockdown cost $6.5 billion. Unemployment spiked. Riyaz’s husband was no longer able to support the family, and she had to turn to her parents for financial support.

In June 2021, Riyaz reluctantly signed up to Gatoes, Kashmir’s first online food delivery platform. The company launched in Srinagar just as the pandemic forced restaurants to close, connecting customers to restaurants and to so-called “dark kitchens,” which produce food for the platform. Riyaz turned her kitchen into a small business, fulfilling between

10 and 20 orders per day. She makes parathas, sandwiches, and traditional desserts from Jammu, where she is originally from. Her cloud kitchen helped nearly double her family’s income, to around 15,000 rupees (around $200) a week.

“My cloud kitchen makes me feel independent. I can at least fulfill my children’s small wishes,” Riyaz told Rest of World. With some help from her 26-year-old daughter, Riyaz has also started promoting her business and selling through Instagram. “I am really optimistic about my business,” she said. “But it all depends on how the situation remains in Kashmir.”

Riyaz is one of many Kashmiris who have embraced the region’s nascent digital economy, turning to platforms like Gatoes and its competitor FastBeetle, building e-commerce businesses on social media and marketing themselves to tourists on rating and booking platforms. But they are doing so under the constant threat of another blackout. The Indian government is a world leader in shutting down the internet in response to — or in anticipation of — protests or civil unrest, according to Access Now, a nongovernmental organization that tracks internet restrictions. Kashmir has suffered more than most, with frequent, often long disruptions.

“The internet is as important to businesses as water is to life,” Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), told Rest of World. By frequent internet shutdowns, the Indian government is “depriving a whole generation from doing business,” he said.

On the morning of September 2, 2021, Riyaz woke up to a communications shutdown — no phone, no internet. The previous night, as she had been winding up in the kitchen, Kashmir’s most prominent separatist leader, Syed Ali Geelani, had died under house arrest at his residence on the other side of the city. The Indian government, fearing that his popularity and death in a decade-long detention would lead to protests, had enforced a curfew and a blackout.

“There was no internet and, hence, no orders through Gatoes,” Riyaz said. During the four days of disruption, she received only a few orders from customers — many of them her neighbors — who knew where her kitchen was and collected their orders themselves. Deliveries beyond her neighborhood had been made difficult by the heavy presence of armed forces.

“If you decide to work in a place like Kashmir, you will have to tolerate this.”

A few days later, her business started picking up again, until the first week of October, when a series of targeted killings of civilians by militant separatists led to another clampdown. The internet was partially disrupted, and police started seizing two-wheelers, claiming that they were tools of militancy. “Gatoes stopped taking orders temporarily. So the work stopped again,” Riyaz said. “It was [again] a step back.”

Gatoes loses around $1,000 a day during shutdowns, the company’s co-founder and chief financial officer Danish Majeed told Rest of World. “And that is just our loss. If we include the restaurant industry, then there is a daily loss of about $9,000,” he said, adding that the most recent shutdown, in September, caused losses of around $21,000. “If you decide to work in a place like Kashmir, you will have to tolerate this. There are uncertainties, and you have to be ready for all sorts of casualties,” he said.

The reality of frequent, economically damaging shutdowns runs counter to the Indian government’s narratives of development in Kashmir. When New Delhi unilaterally abrogated Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019, it promised peace in the disputed region and, with it, economic progress and empowerment — particularly for women.

A 2018 report on the impact of internet shutdowns on businesses, by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), said that small businesses are more seriously impacted than larger ones, as they have fewer resources and are less able to find alternative sources of revenue. Sheikh, at KCCI, said that women-owned businesses are disproportionately affected, since many home-based entrepreneurs running small enterprises are female. 

Tourism, which makes up about 6% of Jammu and Kashmir’s economy, has been hit hard too. “Lack of internet connectivity affects the ability of tourists to discover services and businesses in a region through apps such as Google Maps, TripAdvisor, etc.,” the ICRIER report found. 

The Jammu and Kashmir government introduced a startup policy for the region in 2018, offering grants and incentives, such as investment and mentorship, for companies to set up or move to the area. In 2018, it pledged funding for a dozen startups, but the money never came through, and startup owners in Srinagar say that bureaucratic red tape has meant the policy is a non-starter. An IT hub that was established by the government in the Rangreth industrial estate on the city’s outskirts has become stagnant.

Instead, most entrepreneurs in the digital economy have set up on their own initiative without state support. But they remain vulnerable to the government’s security policy.

In January 2021, Mahoor, who asked to be identified by only her first name, set up an Instagram-based store, Kashmoir, selling apparel that fuses Kashmiri traditional embroidery with Western styles. Around 70%–80% of her 6,000 clients are from outside of the state. She normally makes about three sales a day. During a shutdown, that number drops to zero. Being offline can be particularly devastating for social media–based businesses, where the algorithms penalize people for not posting. “Growing organically has been a slow process and requires posting content regularly to build engagement,” Mahoor said.

As the future of the internet remains uncertain in Kashmir, Mahoor believes that her customers might resort to buying from non-Kashmiri businesses. “They will obviously be reluctant about where their money is actually going,” said Mahoor. “I may be there [on Instagram] right now and then suddenly gone for a month or so.”

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