Women, startups thrive after Kashmir eases internet shutdown

Indian fashion designer Saira Tramboo has long dreamed of building her own brand online, but frequent internet shutdowns mandated by authorities to quell dissent in her home state of Kashmir have made that impossible.

When reliable, high-speed connections were finally restored last year, Tramboo began selling her projects 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 at her virtual shop and employs three women to help process orders for her traditional embroidered tunics and other items.

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

The government withdrew Kashmir’s autonomous 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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In anticipation of serious unrest, the authorities have 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 online businesses, from influencers to e-commerce.

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

“We are used to curfews, snow and grew up around 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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“Distorted” investment.

The Kashmir valley has attracted more than 16 million tourists to its snow-capped mountains and lush landscapes this year – the highest number since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 – after the travel restrictions for the Covid-19 are been eased and the security situation has improved.

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

Investors and start-up entrepreneurs say that the mountain region brings challenges, but also potential for development and growth, especially now that internet connections have improved.

“Startups spring from Hyderabad and Bangalore, but identifying problems in the Himalayan belt and solving them takes tremendous courage,” said Syed Faaiz Qadri, 25, co-founder of food logistics firm Zarin.

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

Restoring the internet enabled Zarin’s founders 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.

Businesses and lenders alike say the new startups can benefit residents by creating jobs, finding new markets for their assets and enabling growth in the conflict-affected region.

Some Internet-based companies have found a way to navigate a 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 prevented couriers from looking up addresses and often returning to the office with undelivered packages.

The founders switched from 4G to 2G to run 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,” said Samiullah.

“People now believe that they too could tap into investment if we could.”

While the lion’s share of startup funding still goes to businesses 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 sensitive to these startups,” said Vishal Ray, of the Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurial Development Institute, a body set up by the regional government to support startups and entrepreneurs.

“They buy and promote these brands – there’s a strong affinity,” she said.

Content creators

Better internet connectivity has also given 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 largely comes from her video content.

He recorded his first ladishah amid an internet lockdown in 2019, detailing the situation in Kashmir, and quickly gained a following as internet restrictions were eased.

Today, she has more than 69,000 followers on Instagram and around 72,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel.

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

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

Despite limited opportunities and an 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 online earning opportunities,” she said.

“It helps every Kashmiri woman to break patriarchal barriers, overcome taboos and become self-reliant.”