Women and startups thrive after Kashmir eases internet shutdowns

Indian fashion designer Saira Tramboo had long dreamed of establishing her own brand online, but frequent internet blackouts imposed by the authorities to quell dissent in her home state of Kashmir made that impossible.

When reliable high-speed connections were finally restored last year, Tramboo began selling her designs on Instagram, joining numerous women and startups using the internet to create new business opportunities in the region.

“The Internet means life to me,” said Tramboo, 27, who has more than 40,000 followers in her online store and employs three women to help process orders for her traditional embroidered robes and other items.

“Not only did it help me become independent and earn a good amount of money, but it also helped me create job opportunities for others.”

The government withdrew Kashmir’s autonomy status in 2019 and divided the state into two federal territories, aiming to tighten its grip on a restive Muslim-majority region where separatists have fought Indian rule for decades.

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Anticipating major riots, the authorities imposed a communications blackout in the region, cutting off telephone and internet connections. The heavy restrictions lasted until February 2021, when 4G mobile data services were restored.

The region had the fewest outages this year since 2017, according to advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center India.

Improved internet access in Kashmir has enabled new businesses online, from influencers to e-commerce.

Many are created by women entrepreneurs who previously had limited options to work outside the home due to conservative cultural norms, and start-ups financed by a growing number of investors eager to tap into the region’s potential.

“We are used to curfews, snow and we grew up with bullets and militancy,” said Sheikh Samiullah, 31, co-founder of FastBeetle, Kashmir’s first local courier company, which uses a mobile app to manage deliveries.

“But the Internet is the oxygen of our business.”

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Investment ‘biased’

The Kashmir Valley drew more than 16 million tourists to its snow-capped mountains and lush views this year, the highest number since British colonial rule ended in 1947, after Covid-19 travel restrictions were eased and the security situation improved.

But unemployment remains a challenge due to a lack of private industry, with the jobless rate reaching 24 percent, triple the national average, data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy think tank showed.

Emerging investors and entrepreneurs say the mountainous region presents challenges, but also potential for development and growth, especially now that Internet connections have improved.

“Startups are coming out of Hyderabad and Bangalore, but identifying problems in the Himalayan belt and solving them requires a great deal of courage,” said Syed Faaiz Qadri, 25, co-founder of food logistics company Zarin.

The company works with farmers to supply Kashmiri rainbow trout to restaurants and e-commerce platforms across India. They have faced difficulties ranging from encounters with militants to a lack of cold storage supplies needed to keep their food fresh.

Restoring the internet meant Zarin’s founders were able to use a Covid-19 lockdown last year to find and sign up new customers, and they were ready with their first orders when travel restrictions were lifted.

Both companies and funders say new businesses can benefit residents by creating jobs, finding new markets for their products and enabling growth in the conflict-affected region.

Some Internet-based companies found ways to navigate the patchy network in the mountains.

FastBeetle, which serves more than 1,200 businesses, including many run by women who sell products online, found that poor data connections meant couriers couldn’t look up addresses and often returned to the office with undelivered packages.

The founders went from 4G to 2G to operate the app, which now works even without internet.

“We are making money with an Internet-based company in a region where the Internet is patchy,” Samiullah said.

“People now believe that they too can attract investment if we could.”

While most start-up funding still goes to companies in big cities, government incentives and private capital can help correct “skewed investment dynamics,” said Anuj Sharma, founder of ALSiSAR Impact, a Startup incubator in Mumbai.

“The community is very responsive to these start-ups,” said Vishal Ray of the Jammu and Kashmir Institute of Entrepreneurship Development, a body set up by the regional government to support start-ups and entrepreneurs.

“They buy and promote these brands, there is a great affinity,” he said.

content creators

Improved internet connectivity has also offered a boost to content creators, including women.

Syed Areej Safvi, 27, has been hailed as the first female performer of ladishah, a traditional Kashmiri musical form of storytelling.

“Being a female content creator is still considered taboo in a conservative society like Kashmir,” said Safvi, whose income comes largely from her video content.

He recorded his first ladishah amid an internet outage in 2019, describing the situation in Kashmir, and quickly gained a following as internet restrictions were relaxed.

Today he has more than 69,000 followers on Instagram and close to 72,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel.

According to a report by venture capital fund Kalaari Capital, India’s 637 million and growing smartphone users are driving a growing market for online content.

There are an estimated 80 million creators in the country, including 50,000 professional creators on regional video platforms. However, only a small minority earn a good income from their work, he said.

Despite the limited opportunities and uncertain environment, better internet access has been a great equalizer for women, Safvi said.

“Internet access has helped me grow my audience and experiment with different income opportunities online,” he said.

“Help all Kashmiri women break patriarchal barriers, overcome taboos and become self-sufficient.”

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