It’s “no work, no pay” for Omar Yousuf, a computer engineer in Srinagar. He comes to office every day though.
The future of Yousuf and hundreds of others employed in the IT sector in the Kashmir Valley is in jeopardy due to the prolonged Internet shutdown. Several workers have been handed pink slips.
The sprawling Information Technology (IT) hub at Rangreth in Budgam district, on the outskirts of Srinagar, wears a deserted look.
Since the Internet was snapped on August 5 following the revocation of the special status of the State under Article 370, one of the only IT hubs in the Valley is struggling for survival. There are approximately 1,200 employees who work in the Rangreth complex.
Some firms that have been operating here for over a decade have had to lay off as much as 60% of their staff as they are unable to bear financial losses as a result of the shutdown.
“Internet is oxygen for the IT sector; how can we survive in its absence?” said one of the founders of an IT firm at Rangreth. He, however, wished to remain anonymous, not wanting to invite the wrath of the authorities or land in jail.
The entrepreneur says the Valley has seen several disturbances in the past, including the 2016 unrest after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, but the IT sector was never hit the way it has been this time.
He said the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has stringent compliance protocols for IT service providers in the State. The service providers have to maintain a log of each Uniform Resource Locator (URL) accessed by them and their clients through the commercial leased lines and report to the authorities on a daily basis.
“We have to send people to Delhi to check e-mails. In the past one month, we lost two clients and suffered a loss of ₹8-9 crore. We are a small company... 60% employees are serving notice; we have no option but to lay them off. It feels bad — these young men and women have been associated with us for several years,” he said.
“We come here, talk to each other and leave whenever we wish to. There is nothing to do, we did not receive salary for the month of August,” says Khalid Bhat, who works at an IT services and software firm. Mr. Bhat earned ₹20,000 per month.
According to another person working in the complex, the trouble started when former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti put out a series of tweets on August 5 afternoon criticising the government though Internet connections had been shutdown from the night of August 4.
“The authorities were puzzled when they saw Mehbooba Mufti tweeting amid the Internet shutdown while in detention. Till then the Internet connection was functional here. The authorities bizarrely assumed that we provided her the connection through some means.... it is not possible. Security officials visited the hub and snapped all communication saying they don't trust anyone anymore,” he said.
The IT employee said the system used by them has enough safeguards and no social media sites could be accessed from any computer due to firewalls.
“We have nothing to do with social media — why would we destroy our prospects? We are operating in this conflict zone for 20 years, is it necessary to drag everyone in the same negative narrative?” he asked.
Representatives from the IT companies have held several meetings with the police and civil authorities but to no avail. “We were promised that Internet will be restored in a few days but it has not happened. This has severely impacted our business,” he said.
The National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology, a centrally-run institute, in the same complex is locked. “Sometimes the faculty turn up but no student comes,” said Wahid Nazir, a security guard.
Not a soul is present at the swanky office of the Software Technology Parks of India (STPI) under the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in the complex. The security guard informs us that work has been affected due to the shutdown and hardly any employee reports to work.