A deserted street in Srinagar last month
A deserted street in Srinagar last month

Dystopia vs development: The Kashmir paradox

  • Before the communication shutdown, things were looking up for young Kashmiri entrepreneurs
  • Now, with funds drying up and no internet, more than 100 startups in the valley have had to put the brakes on their dreams

On 26 July, Azmat Ali Mir, 26, landed in her hometown, Srinagar. A day later, uncertainty and panic gripped the Kashmir valley—the Amarnath yatris (pilgrims) and other tourists were being evacuated, there was heavy military deployment and news reports claimed that there could be a threat to the border. But Mir had a lot of work to do—she had events planned as part of her startup Manzar Experience Curators, which promotes Kashmiri art, culture and fashion made and produced locally for audiences outside the state, particularly Bengaluru, where she now lives. “We are so used to things like this, we were like, ‘these things will keep happening, curfew laga denge (they will impose a curfew), that means you need to have ration in your home. But until then, you have to do your work’," Mir tells me over the phone from Bengaluru. “I had very little time, my tickets were already booked for 5 August, there was so much work, I had no time to think. I was going around, signing contracts, getting things done."

But soon, it became clear that things would be different this time. By August 1, fear and tension had escalated. Rumours of war grew louder, and additional troops were flown in. “The guy who heads the agency that was to help with online promotions for my event said things don’t seem okay and we should wait and see how this goes," says Mir. “Our lives, both personal and professional, are governed around the political calendar of Kashmir."

Across town, on 26 July, Sheikh Samiullah, 28, from downtown Srinagar was at a café called ZeroBridge Fine Dine along with his team and representatives from the state administration, including deputy commissioner Shahid Choudhary, to launch the Android app for his company FastBeetle. The logistics startup, launched last year by Samiullah and co-founder Abid Rashid Lone, is often called “Kashmir’s Dunzo", and provides door-to-door delivery services for businesses ranging from online grocers and retail commerce to pharmacies and individuals.

The launch of their iOS app was scheduled for 13 August, the day after Eid. But this had to be cancelled a few days later due to the prevailing situation in the valley. Today, FastBeetle’s operations—which run on the internet—have ceased. “I invested all my savings in this company. For me, it’s not possible to run this again. It is like starting from the beginning. I have a massive liability on my head," Samiullah tells me in Delhi, where he has gone from running a profitable business to being unemployed and now searching for work.

Over the same period, Qazi Zaid, 30, who runs and edits the news platform Free Press Kashmir, was in overdrive. “As journalists living in Kashmir, we aren’t just reporting the conflict, we are also living the conflict. We are members of the same society," he says. “One of the last stories we did was on the panic—how panic is being manufactured and the standard response of people who are scared and entering panic mode. That’s what happened with us as well." Free Press Kashmir, which is primarily an online news portal, has not published for close to three months. And now Zaid is in the Capital, exploring ways to save his news portal from complete closure and prevent the 15 young journalists he employs from being rendered jobless.

These young Kashmiris and their organizations have been driven into a state of near-obscurity since 5 August, when the Union government abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which granted the state of Jammu and Kashmir its special status, and subsequently sent the valley into a communication blackout. Two and a half months later, only landlines and post-paid mobile services (excluding SMS) have been restored. Internet and data services remain closed.

With thousands of arrests, instances of violence from both militants and the Armed Forces reported in the international press, the impact of this shutdown has been immense. But it has also inflicted a huge monetary cost. A report in the BBC, published on 8 October, stated that “the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates the shutdown has already cost the region more than $1.4bn (around 9,800 crore), and thousands of jobs have been lost".

Shutting down of startups

In a region ridden with decades of armed conflict and the presence of the Indian armed forces in large numbers, entrepreneurship is no easy feat. Kashmiris have typically chosen public sector jobs, but the valley’s entrepreneurs agree that over the last decade or so, young and resilient men and women from the valley had been working to change this with online and offline ventures.

In fact, the startup ecosystem in Kashmir seemed to have been poised for growth. Notably, in September last year, the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute (JKEDI), established by the state government, released the J&K Startup Policy 2018, which aimed to boost the startup ecosystem by granting founders a monthly allowance of up to 12,000 for a period of one year during incubation. Recognized startups would be provided with one-time assistance of up to 12 Lakh for product research and development, marketing and publicity.

Azmat Ali Mir (centre) at the Kashmiri food stall she set up at a food festival in Bengaluru last year
Azmat Ali Mir (centre) at the Kashmiri food stall she set up at a food festival in Bengaluru last year

It was around this time that Samiullah started FastBeetle. He had noticed that though logistics companies existed, they catered largely to big organizations like Amazon. FastBeetle tied up with smaller businesses, including close to 200 women in the valley who were making and selling apparel and other wares on Instagram. “They would have trouble going out every day on multiple deliveries since it is a conservative society," he says. FastBeetle had over 30 merchants within its first month of operations. Over the first five months, they had grown to making 100 deliveries per day, employed a team of six, got an office space and two bikes. In a year, they had generated a positive cash flow despite numerous internet shutdowns imposed in the valley.

Since August 5, the company has been plunged into what Samiullah believes is an interminable downturn. He estimates monetary losses at approximately 15 lakh, not considering the 4 lakh he invested in the Android app and another 3 lakh on the iOS app that never took off. In the unlikely event that restrictions are lifted immediately and business as usual resumes in the valley, it will cost him another 10 lakhs to restart the company.

Financial losses aside, he says, it is the time and passion he had invested in the business that won’t come back. And his young employees face an uncertain future as well. One of his delivery boys, Arsalan Shabir Bhat, 21, doesn’t know what the future holds both for him or the valley. “The salary of 10,000 for me was good, I was satisfied. “Aage ka nahi pata par haalaat bohot kharab hai. Filhaal toh baithe hi hai ghar pe (I don’t know about the future but the current situation is grim. For now, I am sitting at home)," he says.

Through all this, the state administration and Union government are trying to push the narrative of development. In late September, minister of state for finance and corporate affairs Anurag Thakur, told news outlets: “Our government has taken a historic decision to abrogate Article 370. Now, J&K will witness massive development." Yet, the 33 startups registered with the JKEDI and 70 with the Startup India portal in J&K, among others that run on private funding and bootstrapping models, have been struggling since this decision was taken. Earlier this week, militants attacked two non-local apple traders in the valley, casting doubt on the claim that Kashmir is safe for business.

It was to assess conflicting claims such as these, by providing an insight into the lives of people in the valley, that Zaid restarted Free Press Kashmir in 2017 (it was previously shut down in 2014), using investments from his family business. “It’s all the more important now. Because authentic voices from Kashmir are not coming out," says Zaid. He says that while the international media focuses on Kashmir from a breaking news perspective and some of the Indian press takes a nationalistic line, human perspectives from the valley largely remained unheard.

“There was a gap of a human narrative coming out of Kashmir, which we saw and filled," he says. “If we were to relaunch right now, I don’t think there would be a lot of positive stories. There would be stories of struggle, survival, trauma, pain, hardship. That’s what we would be reporting right now."

With a civil curfew reportedly in place in the valley as a means of protest, even businesses that could have provided financial assistance to these startups are not in operation.

“The economy is so badly hit and it will take another year or two years or more—no idea how long—to recover. Because right now advertisers will take some time to recover as well," says Zaid. “I don’t think we can sustain that long. Our business was at 50% of sustenance and now it’s down to 0. Traffic is down to 0 form 350,000-500,000 hits."

Some investors like Asmat Ashai, who runs the US-based non-profit organization Funkar International, would provide financial assistance to young Kashmiri artists, nevertheless maintain that the difficult situation will not deter them from providing support. “I will continue to help anyone who asks me for help because we cannot give up and we will not be broken. We will stay the course and save whatever we have in spite of the abrogation of all the articles. That is paperwork. Kashmiris will not be broken."

Abid Rashid Lone (second from left) and Sheikh Samiullah (centre) with other members of the FastBeetle team in Srinagar.
Abid Rashid Lone (second from left) and Sheikh Samiullah (centre) with other members of the FastBeetle team in Srinagar.

Lost hope

According to the Software Freedom Law Foundation, a legal services organization working to protect digital freedom, Kashmir has had the maximum number of internet shutdowns in the country—55, of varying durations and extents, in 2019 alone, and a total of 180 since 2015. This time however, the shutdown was far more severe—all media and communication platforms, including landlines, internet, news publications and certain television services were suspended. “A large majority of businesses today rely on the internet for some part if not all of their function," says Ambika Tandon, policy officer, Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Bengaluru.

CIS published a digital book titled Internet Shutdown Stories in May 2018 which tracked how internet blockades impact lives and livelihoods in India. “We collected stories from Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and digital marketing firms in Kashmir that were on the brink of closing down due to the frequency of shutdowns in the valley. The reporters spoke to musicians who used YouTube as a means to earn a livelihood and popularity, and were doubly upset with the effect on their income and their freedom of expression. Given the absence of any public notice before shutdowns, or information regarding the extent and duration of shutdowns, the government definitely has the minimal responsibility of compensating direct losses incurred by those who cannot afford it," says Tandon.

Take the example of Furqan Qureshi, who set up KartFood, popularly called “Kashmir’s Zomato", when he was still pursuing a commerce degree from Islamia College, Srinagar. He started in 2017 and would take orders on call. Once the response grew, Qureshi had a website and application built. But for two months thereafter, in May and June 2017, there was a clampdown on the internet. “I suffered a loss of close to 1.5 lakh and that time I had no investment, but I had employed people and was responsible for them, so I persevered and started again from July. It’s always about working from scratch in Kashmir. Whenever there is a shutdown, you start from zero," he says on the phone from Bengaluru.

Qureshi says they always fought the odds and remained in business through internet shutdowns during which the team, which stood at 25-30 as on 5 August, would call customers and coordinate deliveries on the phone.

This dedication is what eventually resulted in his first round of investment in February 2018, from a local Kashmiri businessman. “I upgraded the app, included more restaurants, added delivery tracking features and was creating jobs."

Since 5 August, however, not only have communication channels been hit, initially there was complete restriction on movement within the valley. “I had to leave Kashmir around six or seven days after the clampdown, since I live in an area where there was stone-pelting every day and the police was entering homes and picking up boys. My parents were scared and said it was better to go to Bengaluru and stay here," he says, now hoping he can set up a small restaurant in the city, using whatever he has managed to save.

As young entrepreneurs leave, the JKEDI remains hopeful that the startup ecosystem will bounce back once normalcy returns. “I think as soon as the internet starts working again we will push the things here as well, with the policy we are trying to give some incentive to these people, so that we can get these startups back and they can inspire other people to start their own," says Irtif Lone, in-charge, Centre for Innovation Incubation and Business Modelling, JKEDI.

“It is difficult for people to choose to pursue a startup and these situations make it even tougher. We will be pushing all the startups that have made a mark and are now suffering due to the financial constraints. They will be given an incentive as soon as possible so that none of them are starved for finances."

But there are doubts about whether such promises can be fulfilled. In any case, it may already be too late. Shayan Nabi, 29, who ran a digital marketing company and had invested in other ventures of his own such as KashmirCalling (to coordinate private carpooling), has given up hope. As he waits for his employees to receive the emails he has sent asking them to look for alternative opportunities, he himself is facing professional uncertainty in Delhi. “I have been very vocal about providing internet freedom in Kashmir. It’s a basic human right. But it always falls on deaf ears." He adds: “I had ideas about making Kashmir digital. But I am sorry, not any more. Not after all the humiliation we have been through."

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The road to recovery from here is paved with crippling debt, unemployment and loss of morale. What was once seen as an act of resilience amidst conflict, has today crumbled due to a State diktat, paradoxically executed with promises of peace and prosperity.

When Mir finally landed in Bengaluru on the morning of 5 August, she broke down when she finally heard the news. Today, with payments stuck with vendors and Mir’s inability to reach her artisans and wazas (Kashmiri cooks) in the valley, the Manzar website reads, “All verticals of Manzar Experience Curators... are currently unoperational due to the unprecedented lockdown in Kashmir". She fears that her venture, which set out to create conversations about Kashmir around the country, has lost all meaning and purpose. “I am not someone who set out with hate, I set out with love and passion and this idea of changing things," she says.

“Do you think with the kind of environment that this country has created for a Kashmiri today, I can go out and do what I do? Is it safe for someone like me to take a place somewhere in Bengaluru to open a place that serves authentic Kashmiri food? I am scared it could be burnt down the next day."

The question she now asks herself transcends the uncertainty of business in the valley, and straddles a precariousness both political and personal: “Where do I go from here?"

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