Internet Express helps Kashmiris go online

Braving the snow and cold, Abrar Ahmad, 18, is one of thousands of Kashmiris who regularly spend hours journeying on a packed train to reach an Internet cafe.

Stepping off the crammed train - dubbed the "Internet Express" by the locals - in the nearby town of Banihal, people make a beeline for Internet cafes where they pay up to Rs300 ($5.70) for an hour's broadband.

"I couldn't have afforded to miss this opportunity," Abrar said after filling out an online job application at a teeming Internet cafe, where dozens of others hit by the government-imposed Internet shutdown queued behind him.

"There is no one else in my family to take care of my three younger siblings and me."

His father, a mason, lost his leg in a road accident last year.

Kashmir has been without broadband and mobile data services since Aug 5 when the Central government revoked the special status of India's only Muslim-majority state, splitting Jammu and Kashmir in two.

The government said it cut communications to prevent unrest in Kashmir, where a separatist insurgency has killed over 40,000 people since 1989.

The lockdown has cost Kashmir more than $3.2 billion since August, with sectors directly dependent on the Internet such as e-commerce and information technology the worst hit, the region's main trade organisation said.

"Doing trade without the Internet is unimaginable in the present-day world," said Mr Abdul Majeed Mir, vice-president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which estimates nearly 500,000 jobs have been lost. "Irreversible damage has been caused to the economy."

Kashmir's Internet ban has impacted everything from relationships to access to healthcare, said Mr Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at global digital rights group Access Now.

"Punishing an entire population on the basis of saying potential violence or terrorism might occur is extraordinary," he said.

Outside a courier company in Kashmir's main city Srinagar, two delivery executives said no Internet meant no packages.

"We are the only two who still come to the office. Some 50 boys have lost their jobs," said Mr Touseef Ahmad. "If the Internet is not restored soon, I could lose my job."

Tourism - for decades the backbone of the scenic region's economy - has been badly hit. The Internet restriction is a major blow to tour operators, hoteliers and artisans.

"I mostly buy things on credit from local shopkeepers," said Mr Ghulam Jeelani, a hotel manager in Srinagar, who feared being laid off with no online bookings or transactions.

The 52-year-old said he has been struggling to pay for his daughter's tuition and daily groceries since his monthly salary was slashed by three-quarters to Rs6,000 ($115) in October.

"I have been told that I can't get even this amount if tourists don't start arriving in a few weeks," he said.

Following harsh comments from the Supreme Court which said the Internet is the people's fundamental right, the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Tuesday allowed mobile Internet in parts of Jammu region and broadband in hotels, travel offices and hospitals but on only white-listed websites.

The home department said an additional 400 Internet kiosks will be established in Kashmir division.

But for Danish, a Kashmir University scholar who declined to give his full name, it still meant frequent trips to Banihal as he is not sure when the new kiosks will be opened.

"I would have moved to some other city but I can't because my (supervising) professor is in Kashmir. How can I exchange regular e-mails with him when there is no Internet (in the place I live)?" he said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

"Doing trade without the Internet is unimaginable in the present-day world." - Mr Abdul Majeed Mir, vice-president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry

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