The tricky state of running business in Kashmir

 On a cold morning in June this year, 39-year-old Sheikh Imtiyaz woke up around 4 am and stepped out for a walk. That morning, Imtiyaz walked from Baramulla to Srinagar — a distance of 52 kms in ten hours.

Imtiyaz, a director with Comtech Info Solutions, an IT solution provider for e-governance projects in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, wasn’t looking for exercise. Comtech was bidding for a contract for smart cards worth about Rs 1.5 crore, a curfew had been imposed in the Valley — and Imtiyaz had to be there in person.

Overcoming obstacles like these is nothing new to Imtiyaz, who started the company in 1997 along with his wife Rukhsana Imtiyaz to cater to digitization projects for the state election department. Today, the company has more than 1,000 employees spread across Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan and Delhi. But there is nothing like business as usual in the state.

Imtiyaz’s employees, most of them women, often stay back at night to complete projects whenever a curfew is imposed. “There have been times when most of my employees have stayed back in office for seven nights consecutively to get the work done while we provided them with food and basic amenities,” Imtiyaz told ET.

Imtiyaz isn’t alone. Across the Valley, tech entrepreneurs share stories of battling extraordinary odds, apathy and adversity every day. The Kashmir valley has been on the boil since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on July 8. As protesters took to the streets, the government responded by cutting off mobile internet and imposing curfews. Industry bodies have pegged business losses due to the shutdowns at over Rs 10,000 crore.

“Projects are delayed and payments are not coming on time. Without basic facilities like internet, phone lines, I am not able to send crucial documents to my Bengaluru team,” says 42-year-old Samir Ahsan Shah, director of Infinity Access group, a Srinagar-based system integrator. Shah says that project costs have gone up projects costs by 30% — since the shutdown in the valley began in 2015. The IT industry in Kashmir employs about 15,000 people.

Some entrepreneurs like Shameem Shah, who heads Srinagar-based LeLafe IT Solutions, have asked most of their employees to work from home to avoid the hassles of a security lock down. “We help them by providing infrastructure like power backup and extra lease lines so that work is not interrupted,” says Shah.

Living with shutdowns is nothing new for Srinagar-based Shahid Haider Ansari, director of Zenataur Creative Systems. Back in 2001, the attack on the Indian Parliament led to the closure of Ansari’s first company, Webstar Software Solutions in 2003. “After the attacks, the situation was tense here. One fine day, when I came to office, I found out internet and phone lines are not working,” said Ansari.

That situation continued for six months and Ansari had to shut down his company as his team could not respond to emails or take client calls during that time. Ansari had to let go off his employees after paying their salaries from his own pocket.

Despite these challenges, business executives who interact with the Kashmiri IT industry say that it is possible for the industry to continue functioning. “During the times when there is a curfew on online services and connectivity, mirror sites across India through channel partners can remain open and therefore business can continue without massive interruptions,” says Mehul Lanvers-Shah, managing director, Hannover Milano Fairs India, whose company organizes trade fares globally, some of which have had participants from the Valley.

In spite of these difficulties, valley-based entrepreneurs say that they will still try and conduct business. “We want to help the youth of Kashmir who were going nowhere. The only way to bring peace back in the valley is by making the state an economically viable destination for business entities,” says Ansari.

The Story First Appeared In  ETtech

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