Women, startups thrive after Kashmir eases internet shutdowns

Indian fashion designer Saira Trumbo has long dreamed of creating her own online brand – but repeated internet shutdowns imposed by authorities to crack down on dissent in her home state of Kashmir have made that impossible.

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

“The Internet means life to me,” said Trumbo, 27, who has more than 40,000 followers on her virtual storefront and employs three women to help process orders for traditional embroidered jackets and other items.

“Not only did it help me become independent and earn a great deal of money, but it also helped me create jobs for others.”

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

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In anticipation of major unrest, the authorities imposed a communications blackout in the area, cutting off telephone and internet connections. Severe restrictions continued until February 2021, when 4G mobile data services were reinstated.

The region has seen the fewest disruptions this year since 2017, according to advocacy group Software Freedom Law Center India.

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

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Many are founded by female 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 the region’s potential.

“We are used to curfews and snow, and we have grown up amid bullets and militancy,” said Sheikh Samiullah, 31, co-founder of FastBeetle, the first domestic courier company in Kashmir, which uses a mobile app to manage deliveries.

“But the Internet is our business oxygen.”

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“skewed” investment

The Kashmir Valley has drawn more than 16 million tourists to its snowy mountains and lush vistas this year – the highest number since the end of British colonial rule in 1947 – after coronavirus travel restrictions eased and security improved.

But unemployment remains a challenge due to the lack of private industry, with an unemployment rate of 24 percent, three times the national average, data from the Center for Monitoring the Indian Economy showed.

Start-up investors and entrepreneurs say the mountainous region brings with it challenges — but also potential for development and growth, especially now that internet connections have improved.

“The startups come from Hyderabad and Bangalore, but it takes an enormous amount of courage to identify and solve problems in the Himalayan belt,” said Syed Faiz Qadri, 25, co-founder of food logistics company Zareen.

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

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

Both companies and financiers say the new start-ups can benefit the population by creating jobs, finding new markets for their goods, and enabling growth in the conflict-stricken region.

Some Internet-based companies have 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 mean carriers can’t look up addresses, often returning to the office with undelivered packages.

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

“We are making money from an internet-based company in an area where the internet is patchy,” Samiullah said.

“People now think that they can also attract investment if we can.”

Anuj Sharma, founder of ALSiSAR Impact, a startup incubator in Mumbai, said that while the lion’s share of startup funding still goes to companies in big cities, government incentives and private capital can help correct “skewed investment dynamics.”

“Society is very receptive to these startups,” said Vishal Rai of Jammu and Kashmir Entrepreneurship Development Institute, a body set up by the regional government to support startups and entrepreneurs.

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“They’re buying and promoting these brands — there’s a strong affinity,” he said.

Content creators

Improved internet connectivity has also boosted content creators, including women.

Syed Areej Saffi, 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 Safavi, whose income comes largely from her video content.

She recorded her first Yiddish amid the internet shutdown in 2019, describing the situation in Kashmir, and quickly gained a following as internet restrictions eased.

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

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

It is estimated that there are about 80 million content creators in the country, including 50,000 professional content creators on regional video platforms. However, only a small minority earn a good income from their work, she said.

Despite limited opportunities and an uncertain environment, Safvi said, Internet access was the best equalizer for women.

“Access to the internet has helped me grow my audience and experience different online earning opportunities,” she said.

“It helps every woman in Kashmir to break patriarchal barriers, overcome taboos and become self-sufficient.”

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