With the Internet blackout stretching for more than 120 days in Jammu and Kashmir, start-ups which began with much fanfare are closing down. Peerzada Ashiq reports on young Kashmiri entrepreneurs who are leaving behind their homes and dreams to seek employment elsewhere
The office of FastBeetle was buzzing with activity on August 4. It was business as usual for the company, located in the historic premises of the Indo-Kashmir Carpet Factory in Srinagar, often referred to as Asia’s largest carpet factory. Phones rang constantly and the staff were busy replying to the steady stream of email enquiries. Sheikh Sami Ullah, 28, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, exuded confidence and pride when he spoke about the success of the venture in the otherwise unpredictable market of Kashmir. Sami Ullah did not know then that that the Kashmir he knew would change irrevocably the next day.
It was only a year ago that FastBeetle, an online courier service for local businesses, was founded, but it tasted success quickly. “We had a modest beginning like any other start-up. However, from just a dozen merchandises on the web, the online platform grew to market 200-plus locally made goods in less than a year. The dashboard of customers reflected a dedicated 15,000 customer base. The turnover touched ₹2 crore in a year,” Sami Ullah says.
As its customer base grew, FastBeetle got the Deputy Commissioner of Srinagar, Shahid Chaudhary, to launch its mobile application on July 24, 2019. The start-up tied up with known local apparel brands like Tul Palav and Hangers and even approached online market giants Flipkart and Amazon for joint future plans. Soon it opened offices in Baramulla, Anantnag and Sopore. “It was unbelievable that eight employees and six delivery boys could create such magic. The future looked safe and secure,” says Sami Ullah, whose father works in the government.
Sami Ullah researched the market for a year before the company’s launch. “We did not want to launch a start-up only to have it fail. Many others joined and we paid from our pockets to realise the dream. The Internet was our lifeline,” he says.
Today, after the Centre diluted Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and brought life to a standstill by imposing communication restrictions, FastBeetle’s office in Nawa Bazar lies deserted. On the main street where the company is located, a mobile bunker is parked all day. Concertina wires are erected on the roadside. With movement of citizens curbed, the start-up has had no choice but to halt its services. It has stopped buying from 200 local producers, including old woman weavers operating from their homes.
“Internet is the oxygen for start-ups. The Centre pulled that plug on August 5. The virtual world was our space for growth. Now that’s gone. All employees and producers have been rendered jobless,” says Sami Ullah, who is now looking for a job in Dubai. “I have to work by hook or by crook to meet the damage inflicted by loss of customers, undelivered orders and accumulated goods after the non-availability of Internet.” A day after the Centre pulled off Internet, the office of FastBeetle suddenly became inaccessible to its own staff for weeks together due to unprecedented security restrictions. “There were concertina wires on the roads. No vehicle was allowed to ply on the roads to our office for many weeks,” says Sami Ullah.
Sami Ullah’s story is true of thousands of Internet-reliant business enterprises in Kashmir. Start-ups, which saw a rosy future, are now heading into a grey zone of despair in the absence of Internet for over 120 days now.
‘No woman will dare to dream big’
Buoyed by the entrepreneurial instincts of Kashmiri youth, the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party regime had formulated a J&K Start-up Policy, which was made public in 2018. It aimed to “facilitate and nurture the growth of at least 500 new start-ups in J&K in the next 10 years.”
“The policy aimed to facilitate access to early-stage investment for both aspiring and existing start-ups. The objective was to set up innovation labs where students and individuals can learn innovation skills and develop ideas providing technological solutions to human problems,” says Tufail Mattoo, Director of the J&K Entrepreneur Development Institute, the nodal agency to implement the start-up policy.
While the policy is promising on paper, reality is different after August 5. Omaira and Binish, 29, speak of the government’s failure in providing a stable market and round-the-clock Internet, which is destroying the most successful and self-made ventures in the region.
The two college mates from Kashmir University in Srinagar — one of whom has a Master’s in Sociology and the other a Bachelor of Education degree — dared to dream big in 2015. They stopped teaching at the Tree House school in Srinagar and opted to knit, design, model and photograph crochet products on social media platforms.
With 44.1K followers on Instagram, Omaira and Binish’s start-up, Craft World Kashmir, created a niche market for itself, not only in J&K, but also in Delhi, Punjab and Mumbai. “Our successful venture would not have been possible without social media platforms. The market was expanding, with around 15 online orders per day. Our hands were full. We trained 14 more girls, many from villages, to help us meet the demand,” says Omaira, a resident of Tengpora in Srinagar.
The all-woman venture banked on innovations made by Omaira and Binish to crochet products. The two experimented with baby sets, table covers and jewellery. Their delicate floral jewellery became a runaway hit in the local market. High on success, the two friends roped in working women — lawyers, teachers, government employees — to help them earn extra bucks by working in their free time.
“Would-be brides went crazy about our products. Fresh floral jewellery is a Pakistani style. We innovated with that and customised it. It picked up fast. But then the Internet was stopped and the orders came down to a trickle. Now, it has dried out. If the Internet stays off for many more weeks, no woman will dare to dream big in the Valley,” says Omaira, who had to cut back on hiring women employees, many of whom were sole breadwinners for their families.
The non-availability of Internet has also forced five friends to discontinue a start-up that saw booming sales and leave the Valley to start their careers afresh. Sheikh Muhammad Usman, CEO of the start-up, Lalchowk.com, and his four friends — Haseeb Ashai, Zubair Zahoor, Mubashir Bashir and Asim Mehraj — say they are groping in the dark after the Internet blockade. Lalchowk.com, the only Valley-based online platform dealing with books, is likely to become history.
The idea to start the online platform was an outcome of endless meetings on the Kashmir University campus, where they studied together, and in parks, cafes and homes. “The idea was to create a business model that would allow us to live with dignity in Kashmir. We did not envision that we would be forced to migrate after three years of success,” says Ashai, the only one left in the Valley from the group. “All four of them left the Valley after the communication blackout. With no money in hand for three months, they faced pressure from their parents to look for new jobs and secure careers,” he says. The parting was not easy for the friends who had pursued the same degree, Bachelor of Computer Application, and then pursued a Master’s degree in Computer Application. They jointly came up with the idea to set up Lalchowk.com. The platform was launched in May 2017.
“The Lal Chowk area is central to marketing in Kashmir. We hoped the name would earn us customers easily, and it did. The multi-product online platform was started in May 2017. However, by January 2018 we were clear that books are the future. We focused on rare books on Kashmir. And expanded to create frames, greeting cards, and posters,” says Ashai.
From just 1,500 customers downloading their application in the first four months, the number swelled to more than 10,000 with time. With about 400 online orders every month, the sales touched between ₹4.5-5 lakh a month. However, the security measures on August 5 brought everything to a standstill. “Now we have lost touch with each other. I am waiting for the Internet to be re-introduced. I am keeping my fingers crossed,” says Ashai.
‘A mental lockdown’
Not just start-ups, Kashmir’s art scene has been equally affected. Mujtaba Rizvi’s dream of making Kashmir a part of the global art map is fast fading. Rizvi studied Management of Innovation from Goldsmiths from the University of London. He had pinned his hopes on Kashmir Art Quest, an online initiative that brought 435 local artists together to display contemporary art to prospective buyers across the world through social media.
Rizvi says the Kashmir Art Quest held annual exhibitions from 2010, except in 2019. The high point of the initiative was participating in the popular Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kochi.
“It is difficult to penetrate the art space but we managed. The Internet provided a rare window to young artists in Kashmir to highlight their work. We managed to develop economic linkages for artists. People started buying local art,” he says. The Internet helped him identify potential buyers faster and sales went up, he says. “More than the sales, it was the value proposition the artwork was offering. Our artists were coming of age. And then August 5 happened. It crashed the online platform. Allah knows how long Kashmir’s artists will have to live in oblivion again,” says Rizvi.
Rizvi, who is Founder and Managing Director of the Kashmir Art Quest, remembers August 5 as the day he started staring at the walls of his studio for many weeks with no incentive or inspiration to paint. “The communication lockdown brought about a mental lockdown too. My only reaction to the situation was to laugh out loud. We were all trapped for months together. Then desperation set in and I decided to move to Delhi to look for a job. The art dream is hard to nurse in Kashmir,” he says.
The Kashmir Art Quest had planned to hold a Srinagar Biennale this year. Rizvi had been in touch with 100 artists across the world. “All that collapsed. There is no communication. We are fast losing the network we had managed to put together since 2010,” he says.
Containing a worrying trend
The uncertainty of the past four months has resulted in over 80% job losses among start-ups reliant on the Internet in Kashmir, according to official figures. This has come at a time when J&K’s unemployment rate is high (35 per 1,000 youth).
According to the ‘Unemployment in India’ report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), J&K has fared “poorly in generating jobs for its young population,” which constitutes 60% of the total population. “The unemployment rate in the erstwhile State stood at 15.89 per cent in the first four months of 2019, making it one of the worst performers on the job generation front,” the CMIE report stated. It pointed out that the unemployment rate among graduate job seekers in the Valley stood at 25.2% for this year.
According to the Directorate of Employment, Kashmir, 38,323 youth, including 13,000 graduates and post-graduates, registered with the government’s employment exchange for job counselling in the first six months this year. Anantnag topped the districts with 8,712 youth registering for counselling; Srinagar followed with 4,572.
The J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute has decided to intervene and contain the worrying trend. Mattoo says his department is reaching out to trained aspirants who failed to complete the formalities this year for disbursal of loans to start their own enterprises.
Since 2004, the institute has trained 30,000 youth and helped set up 15,000 units, about 85% of them Internet-reliant. According to official figures, each unit generated jobs, on an average, for three to five individuals, engaging about 75,000 unemployed youth in the Valley.
Around 25% of the enterprises were in the agriculture, poultry, and sheep sectors. The J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute’s Women Entrepreneurship Programme targeted women within the age group of 18-45 years, who had a minimum qualification of Matriculation. It provided them a direct loan facility up to ₹3 lakh at 6% rate of interest. This evoked a good response.
“Out of 100 applications for start-ups, 50 stand approved under the Startup India scheme. The J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute focuses on innovations, including in the traditional sectors of handicrafts, horticulture, and weaving. The institute has invested a lot of efforts in transforming mindsets. People are no longer dependent on the government; these are successful self-reliant initiatives. It will continue to focus on it,” says Mattoo.
The future of the four flagship schemes — Seed Capital Fund Scheme, Youth Start-up Loan Scheme, National Minority Development Finance Corporation, and Women Entrepreneurship Programme Through Women’s Development Corporation — depends on the availability of the Internet. Even the survival of the 15,000 units set up with an investment of ₹198 crore, and of the start-ups with ₹60-70 crore as loans just extended by the Entrepreneurship Development Institute to units registered with it, depends on the availability of the Internet.
According to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, the J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute had shown 87% success rate in the implementation of schemes. The soft loans approved for youth with Class 8 certificates were aimed at weaning away stone pelters from violence and bringing them into the mainstream.
The real challenge before the J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute was to bring local talent on the global map, and the Internet was making it possible to meet the target. “We don’t want to make local entrepreneurs dependent on debt. We are focussing on angel investors, financial linkages and venture capitalists,” says Mattoo.
But with the Internet down, the aspirations of hundreds of local youth and the J&K Entrepreneurship Development Institute remain in limbo. “The government is killing all hope by shutting off the Internet, which is only adding to the desperation of the youth. They are being forced to bank on government jobs which are shrinking by the day,” Sami Ullah says.
Shutters are coming down on once-thriving businesses which could have showcased Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project, Startup India. The FastBeetle office in Nawa Bazaar is gathering dust. There are few visitors and no queries. Since they are clueless about the future, the owners have not put up any notice about when the business will resume.