Kashmir cautiously optimistic as India turns the internet back on

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While restored internet access following a seven-month blackout has offered hope for renewal, Kashmir’s economy has taken a hard hit. DW spoke with Kashmiris about what comes next as the region goes back online.

After seven months in the dark, people in India-administered Kashmir again have access to the internet and social media. But for entrepreneurs like Arifa Jan, the head of a business selling traditional Kashmiri carpets, also known as Namda, the renewed access is too little, too late.

On August 5 of last year, New Delhi stripped India-administered Kashmir of its limited autonomy and imposed a communications blackout.

For 33-year-old Jan, whose business depends on online buyers, that meant she had to close two of her production facilities due to the loss in revenue.

“When I closed my two units due to the blockade, it meant that 53 people, including 28 women, lost their jobs,” she said. “The internet blockade paralyzed everything as I lost track of my buyers.”

The seven-month internet blockade in Kashmir was lifted on March 5. It had essentially cut the region of from the outside world, resulting in huge losses for businesses, hobbling health care system, and resulting in the closure of several information technology businesses.

The region suffered over $2.5 billion (€2.2 billion) in losses, according to a report issued by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).

“This blockade has caused irreversible damage to the economy,” Sheikh Ashiq, who heads the KCCI, told DW.

Internet access renews hope

However, the restoration of the internet, after one of the lengthiest suspensions anywhere in the democratic world, has offered renewed hope to many.

Dr. Irfan Ahmad Bhat, a cardiologist at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital (SMHS), one of the busiest hospitals in the main city of Srinagar, has spent the last three years running an emergency WhatsApp group called the “Save Heart Intiative,” which provides instant expert advice to doctors working in rural villages.

A day after the government removed the ban on social media use, Bhat received a message with an electrocardiogram (ECG) from a doctor 160 kilometers (99 miles) away in the northern Kupwara village, where a 63-year-old was hospitalized following a heart attack.

“Within five minutes, we were able to advise the doctor to give the patient a drug that would keep him alive until he was stabilized. It would not have been possible for him to travel to a tertiary hospital in time from a village so far away,” Bhat told DW.

He added that in the three years of running the group, the experts responding to the messages have analyzed more than 36,000 ECGs.

Cardiologists like Bhat helped more than 1,000 doctors, some in villages as far away as the Line of Control (LOC), a demarcation line that divides Indian and Pakistani administered parts of Kashmir.

Not having access to the internet put that lifesaving initiative on hold, said Bhat.

“Though the doctors in these places could manage half of such patients on their own, the rest could not be managed (without specialist advice),” he said, adding that in the last five days since they had renewed access to internet, they analyzed 20 ECGs and assisted doctors tending to seven different patients.

Lost opportunities

The internet ban left not just businesses and health care systems reeling, but also individuals. For botanical researcher Javaid M Dad, the blackout meant losing an international research opportunity.

Dad, a senior research associate in the Department of Botany at the University of Kashmir, the region’s largest higher education institution, was chosen to take part in a forum for young scientists in Brazil last year, but lost the opportunity to participate due to the government-imposed internet blockade.

“When the forum realized that I was not able to reply to emails, they posted a letter to my address, but I only received it four days after the deadline had already passed,” Dad told DW. “Despite my hard work, I lost the opportunity to present my research paper,” he said.

He had hoped to attend the BRICS forum, which includes experts from five major emerging national economies, including India and Russia, in July of last year and was set to complete his visa application by September.

“Academically, it would have been a great opportunity,” he said. Additionally, he says that the current level of internet access still cuts into his daily life, as mobile internet networks are still restricted to 2G speeds.

“At the university, I am able to access research papers and download material. But I’m not able to get anything done on my phone. Even submitting a paper is not possible,” he said.

The communications and military lockdown was imposed in Kashmir — a territory over which India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars — when the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing  Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, a law that had protected the demography of the Muslim-majority region and barred outsiders from establishing permanent settlements.

The government also divided the state into two territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — a move that triggered tension and outrage in the Muslim-majority region.

“We can’t recover all of these losses,” said Ashiq. “Capital erosion has taken place.”

“The internet ban ruined everything,” said Jan.

DW

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