Kashmir is under lockdown, this time to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Since residents of the Valley have to stay home, doctors must treat them online. But this is no easy task in Kashmir, which has had no 4G internet for close to a year and where broadband connections are thin on the ground.

“We should focus on staying indoors and not come out,” explained a senior doctor at Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital. “In such a situation, online consultations with doctors becomes important because we don’t want non-Covid patients to throng hospitals.”

The low-speed internet makes it difficult for a patient to send his test and other diagnostic reports to the doctor. “I can barely see a patient’s face on a video call due to low speed,” said the doctor. “It’s important that we have a high quality picture of the patient or of the body part that is giving him trouble. Otherwise, it can lead to a wrong diagnosis.”

Shutdown without end

When the Centre stripped Jammu and Kashmir of special status and split it into two Union Territories on August 5, it enforced an unprecedented communications blackout on the region as the decision was announced. The restrictions were most severe in the Kashmir Valley, which had no phone connectivity or internet, fixed line or mobile, for weeks. Even cable channels were blocked in the early days after the announcement.

This August 5, Kashmir will complete one year without 4G internet. It is one of the longest internet shutdowns in the world, surpassed only by Myanmar, which blocked internet in parts of Rakhine and Chin states in June last year and is yet to restore it.

The courts have failed to come to the rescue. Several petitions challenging the ban have been filed in the Supreme Court, including one by a group of media professionals, doctors and the Private Schools Association of Jammu and Kashmir. When it heard the petition on May 11, the apex court refrained from passing an order for the restoration of 4G services but set up a special committee, led by the Union home secretary, to decide on the matter after assessing the security situation in Kashmir.

In an affidavit filed by the Central government in the Supreme Court on July 21, the Centre decided against further relaxations. Security concerns and propaganda by Pakistan have repeatedly been cited as reasons to continue the ban. Days later, the Jammu and Kashmir government, which has opposed the restoration of 4G so far, claimed it had told the Centre it was ready to bring back high-speed mobile internet. Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu said Pakistani propaganda would continue, whether it was on 2G or 4G. If the government has had a change of heart, it is yet to be implemented.

Meanwhile, a year of no 4G has had a far-reaching impact on life in Kashmir. It has crippled health and education. It has also heightened the economic strain, choking off business and web-based services.

Hitting healthcare for the poor

Imran Shafi’s diagnostic and dialysis centre in Srinagar is one of 155 hospitals empanelled to provide free treatment under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana. The government scheme is meant to provide health cover of up to Rs 5 lakh for India’s poorest families. In Jammu and Kashmir, six lakh families have been covered by the scheme since it was launched in September 2018.

“The internet is essential for this scheme to work,” explained Shafi, a diabetologist. “Under this scheme, each patient has a unique ID card. Once we conduct dialysis on a patient, we need to take his picture, his online signature and other details to upload it to the database. Only when these details are uploaded are we entitled for reimbursements from the government.”

This process hit a roadblock after August 5.

Even when they could not upload details to the database, the clinic continued doing dialysis, Shafi said. “We were literally paying for their dialysis from our own pockets,” he explained. His clinic conducts six hundred dialyses every month under Ayushman Bharat, Shafi said. Each session dialysis costs Rs 2,000.

In October, when there was still no sign of the internet being restored, Shafi made a trip to Jammu to submit the details of the sessions conducted over two months. But he could not find high-speed internet in Jammu, also reeling under restrictions, either. “This delay in the submission of patient details online delayed my payments,” Shafi said. “Currently, I have around Rs 6-7 lakh in payments pending with the government just because of internet ban.”

Authorities restored fixed line internet services and 2G cellular internet in January. Shafi had a broadband connection from a private internet service provider. The restoration of these connections was a slow, painstaking process. Users were asked to give undertakings that promised the internet would only be used for purposes permitted by the government. Uploading details on 2G was an ordeal.

“It’s very slow and many times we have to re-upload these details,” Shafi said. “Then there’s the issue of auto-rejections on a slow internet connection. Sometimes, you have to re-upload a patient’s signature or his photograph. It takes time.”

A few months ago, Shafi managed to get his broadband connection restored but that has not solved his problems. Now, he has installed another internet connection which promises high-speed.

More importantly, Shafi worries about not being able to keep up with the latest developments in healthcare, so crucial to his work. “I cannot work with the knowledge which I gathered during my studies alone,” he said. “A doctor needs to be updated with advanced knowledge and research. The internet is fundamental to such knowledge gathering.”

Journalists in Srinagar protested against internet curbs last year.

Killing the khidmat centre

With 4G internet, it took Omar Yusuf four to five minutes to submit a customer’s form online. “4G is like a dream now,” sighed 25-year-old Yusuf, who runs two khidmat centres in Central Kashmir’s Budgam district. “During 4G internet days, we would submit around 50 forms daily but on 2G , we barely manage to submit five or six forms. It takes between half an hour and an hour to upload a single form.”

Khidmat centres or common service centres were a joint initiative between the Jammu and Kashmir government’s information technology department and the Jammu and Kashmir Bank. They were aimed at bringing banking and single-window online services to rural areas. These services were farmed out to private operators who were willing to provide them at the village level for a fee.

With low speed internet, Yusuf says, these centres are as good as useless. “Our primary job is loan documentation for J&K Bank, for which we don’t need much internet,” said Yusuf, who is from Kremshore village in Budgam. “That’s why we need to keep our centres open. We cannot do any other online work, like submitting passport forms, pan cards and job forms.”

Yusuf had tried to get a broadband connection for one of his centres but it did not help. “Even the broadband speed is very slow so I got it uninstalled,” he said.

Forced to rely on 2G, Yusuf is reluctant to entertain customers. “When there was complete internet shutdown from August to January, I suffered an estimated loss of Rs 2.5 lakh but with 2G, the loss is continuous,” he said. “I am paying the same salary to my four employees but they are not able to do even half work they used to with high-speed internet.”

With 2G, there is the added frustration of failed payments. “Whenever we make an online payment, it takes a lot of time and the payment window crashes,” he explained. “While the money is debited from our account, the form submission still demands payment. For every failed payment, we have to raise a query with a bank.”

‘Back to zero’

Some entrepreneurs in the Valley have given up on fledgling businesses already. When 24-year-old Alam Gul started a software solution company in 2018, he had invested all his savings, earned from a job in Delhi.

“It was a joint venture with my partner,” said Gul, a web developer. “We were doing fine and had started getting clients from outside India as well. Then the August 5 shutdown happened and we went bankrupt. Now, we are back to zero.”

His venture failed to deliver services promised to clients. “No internet meant no work,” he said. “We couldn’t afford the cost of office rent so we had to shut down. We were even forced to sell the laptops we had bought for work.”

Gul and his partner had invested Rs 6 lakh in their venture, expecting high revenues. “If there had been no internet ban, we would have achieved half of that revenue target by now and maybe stabilised a bit,” he rued. “Earlier, we used to hire software developers on a commission basis, maybe we would have had employees on our rolls now.”

With the lockdown, all these plans came crashing down. “After waiting for many months, I shifted to Delhi in towards the end of 2019 to look for a job,” said Gul. “You won’t believe it, I borrowed money from a friend because I had no money to go to Delhi.”

Getting a job in Delhi was the only way to survive, Gul reasoned. “I wanted to save more money to invest in my venture – the idea is still there,” said Gul.

But with uncertainty still reigning in Kashmir, Gul is proceeding with caution: “We are looking for investors now and trying to set up some remote offices so that we don’t go bankrupt again if there’s another internet shutdown.”

Gul moved back to Kashmir in March. These days, he works as a web developer with another local company and is also pursuing a bachelors in computer applications.

“Last year, I was an entrepreneur who could have given jobs to many others and grown along with them,” he said. “This year, I have been reduced to an employee. All thanks to the internet ban.”

Kashmiri students wait to use the internet at the divisional commissioner's office in Srinagar last year.

‘Not a click away’

Every now and then, 25-year-old Bazila Ehsan puts a number of books and articles on auto-download at night. “The idea is to use the night time to download the study material so that I can read it during the day,” said Ehsan, a PhD scholar at the Central University of Kashmir. “But then, if you have questions or want additional reading material, it takes a lot of time on 2G and you lose patience.”

Ehsan is among thousands of students and scholars struggling in Kashmir. Two months earlier, she had applied for a broadband connection but it had not been installed yet.

After she enrolled at the university last November, Ehsan spent Rs 30,000 to make a trip to Delhi – just to access the internet. “I downloaded whatever relevant material I could find, bought books because markets were closed in Kashmir, photocopied articles,” she said.

As the lockdown to contain the coronavirus was imposed on Kashmir, the painfully slow 2G internet became her only connection to the rest of the world. Three times a week, Ehsan has to attend classes with her supervisor and other faculty members on Zoom. “It’s very slow and usually video buffers,” she said. “Thankfully, I record all these videos so that I don’t lose any important points.”

For one of the sessions, which is with her supervisor and her PhD cohort, Zoom calls have been abandoned altogether. They now get on audio conference calls since that is more stable. “It seems the idea that a ‘world is only a click away’ doesn’t’ exist for Kashmiris,” concluded Ehsan.

This is the second part in a special series on the legacy of the sweeping changes made by the Modi government to the status of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019. Read the full series here.