Mir Baseerat talks to the people connected to the IT sector and finds out how the internet blackout affected their lives.
The IT companies in the Valley are on the verge of going offline due to continuous internet blockade since 5th August 2019 when the Government of India (GoI) abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the State into two union territories.
The 2G speed internet restoration by the government has proven to be of no help to the IT sector.
The internet blockade has caused large-scale layoff in the sector and many IT companies based in Srinagar are mulling to shift their business due to the prevailing uncertain situation with no hope of complete restoration of internet services in the near future.
According to Founder and ex-Chairman of ICTA (Information and Communication Technology of Jammu and Kashmir) Mehraj Gulzar, around 100 IT companies were working in Jammu and Kashmir before August 5.
“The employment strength of the IT sector was nearly 50,000 to 60,000 people and the revenue IT sector used to generate was Rs 300-400 crore per annum,” Mehraj said.
In Jammu and Kashmir, the IT sector activities started in late 1990s and early 2000s.
Mehraj said the IT sector had never been this bad before.
“Even during the turmoil, the IT sector was picking up at a decent pace even as it was facing a lot of challenges,” he said. “Maybe it was not flourishing at the speed it should have but it was always upwards.”
According to Mehraj Gulzar, post-August all the operations were suspended due to the internet blockade and it had devastated the IT sector.
“The internet blockade has come like a nightmare for the IT sector,” Mehraj said. “There were around 90-95 per cent layoffs.”
Internet is the backbone of Information Technology and IT people can do nothing without proper internet and reliable speed.
“If you take any of the two components away, the IT will suffer very badly and this time both the components were missing, there was zero internet and obviously zero speed,” Mehraj said.
“I have been in the IT sector for more than 20 years now. I have faced 2008, 2010 and 2016 agitations,” Mehraj said.
He said August 2019 had been a game-changer in this sector.
“Normally during the previous turmoils, broadband and the LAN services used to work, so somehow meeting all the challenges people would work,” Mehraj said.
He said people used to work from home and offices and that sometimes they even stayed in the offices for weeks and months together and the entrepreneurs would arrange their food and accommodation but the work would continue.
“This time the working has suffered to this extent that most of the IT companies have closed down their activities. Some of them have shifted their operations to other states and some are sitting at home with zero business,” Mehraj said.
About shutting down of IT companies, Director Industries and Commerce Mahmood Shah said they had a total of 13 registered IT companies and none of them closed down due to internet blackout.
Shah said during this period many companies approached them for the restoration of internet facilities.
“IT companies at Rangreth were the first to have access to the internet. They were without the internet for two months, August and September. In October the internet was restored to them,” Shah said.
However, ex-Chairman ICTA Mehraj Gulzar said even after the internet was restored, the speed was reduced to 2G and it was of no use to their sector.
He said not having internet had far-reaching implications.
“Anybody who wanted to invest in the IT Sector feels insecure about the reliability of the internet and also the speed of the internet. Nobody will be interested in risking their investments into this sector,” Mehraj said. “It’s not that the IT sector has a local market. IT sector has an international market and when we explain it to our international clients that there is some problem and the internet is not working they laugh at us and they don’t buy from that company because they are not bothered.”
He said they immediately scrap the assignment and are hesitant to give them their future assignments knowing that they would not be able to give them services in time.
“We don’t even have the proper flow of information from among ourselves also,” Mehraj said.
About the estimates of losses, Mehraj said he could not provide the exact figures of the layoffs and the exact figures of the damages because of he was not able to communicate with his own colleagues.
“We are not able to estimate the losses, but one thing I can say for sure is that we suffered 100 per cent losses. There is no business IT people are doing,” Mehraj said.
He said the internet even after the restoration was of no use to them and that the whitelisted websites were of use to general public to an extent, but not for the IT sector.
“The government has restored 2G speed, which is of no use to the sector because with 2G speed it’s very difficult to download a simple video or a photograph, it is not possible to download large files at this speed. It’s very time consuming and we cannot upload or send any stuff,” Mehraj said.
He said: “I’m an IT entrepreneur if I am able to access Google but I’m not able to access my mail engine what am I supposed to do on Google? I cannot say the sector is badly affected because it is too mild a word for it. The sector has been devastated and there is an apprehension that I don’t know how the sector is going to come up again.”
He said the people who had suffered huge losses had no idea how they were going to compensate for their losses.
“I have no vision in front of me, because of the sense of insecurity the IT people are having, the amount of losses, the amount of loans, the amount of financial burden they have. I don’t think any businessman in the world can recover that or can come out of this big debacle,” Mehraj said.
According to him, 95 percent of the people working in the IT sector had lost their jobs.
He said that the IT sector was never a priority for the government.
“Even after approaching the government so many times its response was like the priority is only the security and law and order, our sector was not the priority at all,” Mehraj said.
He claimed that they lost all their clients due to this internet blockade.
“I was giving online 24 hours service to a client in the UK and I’m not providing services for days and months together, so he is not going to wait for me, he’s going to switch to somewhere who are able to provide him services, maybe somewhere in Bangladesh or Bangalore,” he said.
Mehraj said he had no hope for the internet to be restored but even if it would be restored it won’t bring much change to the devastation it has already created.
“Even if the internet will be restored on full speed within a month or so, my response to that will be once the confidence is shattered it takes a pretty long time for confidence to come back,” he said. “This generation will be scared to invest in IT Sector, unless and until some dramatic developments will take places in future, otherwise, I don’t think this generation will ever think of venturing in IT sector. Me being the founder and Ex-Chairman of the sector, I’m thinking of switching to some other sector, how we can expect the younger generation to invest in this sector?”
Mehraj said IT was all about building a profile and that is what they sell and he had been building his profile since 1998.
“I lost my 22 years due to these 5 months,” he said.
The other sectors in Kashmir may recover slowly but what the internet blackout in Kashmir has done is brought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ dream-crushing.