- India imposed a communications blackout in Kashmir following the abrogation of its autonomy in 2019
- Since high-speed connections were restored in 2021, digital services and startups have returned to the market
NEW DELHI: Shafia Shafi had only recently launched her online business when frequent internet shutdowns imposed by Indian authorities after the withdrawal of Kashmir’s autonomy brought it to a halt.
Like many other young entrepreneurs, she struggled for 17 months until high-speed connections were finally restored in February 2021. And then it all boomed.
Today Shafi gets at least 15 orders a month, which she says is enough to keep her “busy all the time.”
“The internet is the most important tool for me today,” said Shafi, who mixes the traditional Kashmiri craft of papier mache with calligraphy and clay work.
“When there was this lockdown in 2019, and after that the COVID-19 lockdown, there was no internet and no phone working, so it disturbed my nascent business badly.”
Shafi’s Instagram page, where she accepts commissions, has reached almost 56,000 followers in the past year.
She is not the only artist in the region who has taken to the virtual space to look for business opportunities.
“I see that trend in Kashmir,” Shafi said. “They also prefer to boost their products through Instagram or other social media platforms.”
The Indian government revoked Kashmir’s autonomous status in August 2019 and split the state into two federal territories in order to tighten its grip on the restive Muslim-majority region where separatists have fought Indian rule for decades.
The move was followed by severe restrictions on freedom of movement in the Kashmir valley, detention of local leaders, and a communications blackout. An internet shutdown lasted until February 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated.
“In the last two years Kashmir has seen a huge emergence of internet-based startups,” Mir Shariq Mushtaq, the owner of Srinagar-based BizLaw, which provides consulting services to new businesses, told Arab News.
But the boom is due not only to the emergence of new businesses, but also the resurrection of those that had to stop operations during shutdowns.
“The internet remained suspended for a long time and that hampered not only my business but any business that has a client base online,” Mushtaq said. “That’s why there is a huge boom of internet-based startups.”
While the number of his clients is growing and the company alone now serves 200 out of 1,800 government-registered startups in the region, many of the young entrepreneurs he is in touch with are uneasy over “the uncertain political situation.”
One of the reasons the Indian government cited when it amended the constitution to strip Kashmir of its autonomy was boosting the local economy and bringing investment from outside. But data from the Ministry of Home Affairs shows that investment in Kashmir has since plunged.
In 2021-22, total investment in the region was $45 million, less than half the 2017-18 figure.
“Uncertainty in the valley does not encourage other investors,” said Malik Aadil, 29, who runs Groxery, Kashmir’s first online-based grocery delivery service.
“I am burning my own money and there is no investor willing to invest in the valley. Had e-commerce like mine been in other parts of India, it would have got funds in millions. It’s not easy to start something in Kashmir. It’s emotional attachment, the feeling of giving back something to the society that keeps us motivated.”
Aadil has been able to re-establish himself on the market since the internet became stable two years ago and his app has been downloaded 130,000 times in the region.
But Aadil’s service is completely dependent on access to the internet.
“If there is no internet tomorrow, then I will have to shut down my business,” he said. “The internet is the most essential thing for my business.”
While most Kashmiri startups are operating on private capital or bank loans, Sheikh Ashiq, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, believes the business landscape will improve.
“The situation is not as grim as it was a couple of years ago,” he told Arab News. “Things are getting better, and the government has also realized how much damage internet shutdown does to the economy.” (Arab News)