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Posted at: Nov 17, 2019, 7:41 AM; last updated: Nov 17, 2019, 9:56 AM (IST)

One hundred days without Internet

It was on August 5, the day Jammu and Kashmir lost its special status, that Internet services were snapped as a measure to maintain law and order. Curiously, the ban has still not been lifted, impacting lives like never before. Every section of society has taken a hit —economically, socially, and psychologically

Everything has changed

  • Businessmen have lost contact with clients, customers. Tourism, handicrafts, apple/fruit sectors all hit
  • Youth unable to apply for admissions, jobs; no Skype interviews
  • No OTP, so no online transaction
  • DTH recharges, air ticket booking, online shopping gone too
  • No video-calls with loved ones outside, no social media
  • Internet ban stuns tourists

M Aamir Khan in Srinagar 

RESIDENTS of Kashmir would generally go out of the Valley for purposes of trade, undertaking higher studies or employment. For the past three months-and-a-half, however, many have shifted to New Delhi or other places outside Jammu and Kashmir purely for the sake of Internet. Just so their phone would ring, the message would get delivered, they would get access to their email account.

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After a long wait of 70 days following the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, postpaid mobile services were restored in the Valley on October 14. Hours later, however, the SMS service was again barred. Now, more than a 100 days on, pre-paid mobile and Internet services continue to remain inaccessible.

The list of problems faced by the people owing to the Internet gag is long. Already hit by the lockdown, the Internet ban has crippled businesses most — right from the retailers to wholesalers and from handicraft dealers to apple traders. Students cannot apply for higher studies at universities abroad and the unemployed cannot submit resumes, nor do Skype interviews.

People cannot book air tickets either and have to personally visit select counters set up to issue tickets. At the airport, locals have been seen pleading with the travellers to recharge their direct-to-home (DTH) connections once they reach New Delhi or elsewhere. At the same time, people have forgotten online shopping and have been unable to make video calls with their loved ones outside Kashmir. 

With no access to social media, people have lost contact with the cyber world and many say the gag has pushed the Valley decades back to the ‘stone age’.

Working around the ban

The SMS ban has made life all the more difficult as no OTPs (one-time passwords) are received even if one attempts to make an online transaction by calling a friend in New Delhi. On occasions, people have sent their mobiles along with persons travelling outside the Valley just to check emails or messages received on WhatsApp.

“My father runs a hotel and also imports Kashmiri carpets. His business was dependent on Internet and after August 5, he used to send his mobile through his friends or relatives to Delhi just to check messages and mails. Then, we again had to request someone to get the mobile back to Srinagar. Now, around a month ago, when postpaid mobiles started ringing again, I shifted to Delhi along with my father’s mobile just to access the Internet so that we could run our business smoothly. Once I receive a business message, I call my father on another number in Srinagar and only then do I respond to the business messages. My father has to look after other business-related matters on the ground in Srinagar and communicating like this is no easy task. We have been pushed back to the stone age,” says Hisham Wani, a youth from uptown Srinagar, over the phone from New Delhi.

Wani adds he will continue to stay in New Delhi till the Internet service is restored in Kashmir. “The Internet gag has taken the soul out of life in Kashmir. Life without Internet is indescribable. Now, I recharge DTH connections or do other Net-related work of friends or relatives through our New Delhi bank account as people in Kashmir do not get OTPs because of the SMS ban. Besides businessmen, many of my young friends have moved to Delhi too just to apply for admissions to universities abroad or submit resumes. Nowadays, interviews are held through Skype, etc. and for that youth have to come to Delhi.”

Chamber puts loss at Rs 10,000 crore

The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCC&I) estimates that the lockdown in the Valley had dented Kashmir’s economy by over Rs 10,000 crore. KCC&I president Sheikh Ashiq says that businessmen have been among the worst hit and the Internet ban has only added to the problems.

“We would import handicrafts to the tune of Rs 2,000 crore annually but for the past three months, there have been almost zero orders. We received maximum orders from abroad in July, August and September. The orders were mostly made for Christmas sale in foreign countries. However, the exporters have not been able to make contact with the businessmen abroad due to the Internet gag. Nowadays orders are mostly made through WhatsApp. All other businesses are hit too... even retailers are looking at huge losses as money transfer through mobile apps is not possible,” he says.

And while the tourism sector too has taken a massive hit, stakeholders say promotional campaigns are futile without Internet service. For the visitors to Kashmir,  the idea of having to survive with such restrictions on communication is simply too much to get used to.

“On one hand the authorities are inviting tourists through promotional campaigns and on the other hand, we cannot plan itineraries of visitors without Internet. We received a group of tourists recently and no Internet service frustrated them. They wanted to upload pictures on social media and make WhatsApp calls, but could not. They said the thought of surviving without Internet for over 100 days was giving them nightmares,” said Ejaz Kotru, a houseboat owner at the famed tourist spot, Dal Lake.

A scribe describes

Ishfaq Tantry in Srinagar

For journalists in the Valley, the communication lockdown has meant miniscule access to the outside world and 100 days may just be a number, but it underscores the extent and level of deprivation.

On August 6, the second day of the lockdown, I somehow managed to locate a satellite Internet connection and emailed a report on how Kashmiris reacted to the loss of special status.

With the authorities adamant to impose a complete communication shutdown, this meant I could not even confide in my colleagues about the connection.

After around 10 days, the government established the Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar, where all the mediapersons were herded. It is still operational: the daily — humiliating, if I may — grind of 10 computer terminals and scores of colleagues waiting, their patience running out but with no other recourse to send their reports across.

Anxiety, depression, loss of social contact — it has been a daily reality for the residents, journalists included.

Imagine having a phone in your hand but with no services for a day. Just multiply it into 100. That 100 is us.

For students, hopeless situation

No classes, no Internet, random private tuition if one can manage it — it’s been a harrowing time for students in the Valley since August 5, and the sense of lost opportunity and helplessness permeates deep.

Take the case of Ayesha Asif, a Class XII student. A resident of Sakidafar in Old Srinagar, she had covered only 50 per cent of the syllabus in school before the lockdown. “I plan to appear for NEET but don’t feel I am prepared,” says Ayesha, whose parents had paid a hefty amount at a private coaching centre, but the classes could not take place. The schedule for Class X and XII board exams was, meanwhile, announced in September.

Saqib Nabi, an engineering student, missed a chance to apply for Graduate Aptitude Test Exam. “We’ve lost even the limited opportunities before us,” she says. A teacher at a private coaching centre says hundreds of students have missed out on applying for scholarships in the past three months. The story is no different for college and university students. “I used to download material and books online but everything has come to a halt. It is so frustrating; a whole year is wasted,” says Heena Bhat, a final-year student from Govt College for Women, speaking perhaps for a majority of students. — TNS


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