October 2016 News
Kashmir's Tech Startups Are Dying A Slow Death As The Curfew Crosses 100 Days18 October 2016
Srinagar: In 2012, Sahil Verma quit his high-paying job with a multinational IT company in Mumbai to return to his roots in the northern Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Verma wanted to turn the world's attention from militancy in the region to its rich supply of dry fruits and saffron. So he launched an e-commerce venture called PureMart.in. The company now has over 50,000 retail and wholesale buyers across the world. This year, he had big plans for his business. But then, disaster struck. The region descended into violent convulsions following the July 08 killing of a young militant, Burhan Wani, by Indian security forces. Kashmir has been under intermittent curfew since then, with mobile and internet networks being non-operational on most days. Over 90 civilians have been killed during the disturbance. For over 100 days now, PureMart has remained almost completely shut, washing away much of Verma's hard work of the last four years. 'These three months (July-September) were the peak season for farmers to start supplying walnuts and apricots, and we had big plans for our business during this season. But none of that has happened,' Verma told Quartz on a call from Jammu on Oct. 17. Two months ago, the 30-year-old relocated his main office from Srinagar, J&K's capital city, to Jammu, its relatively less turbulent winter capital. Like in other parts of India, a startup culture has picked up in Kashmir, too, over the last five years. The Valley is home to several young companies operating in sectors such as online retail, digital marketing, and home services. While there is no official number on how many such companies operate from the region currently, local entrepreneurs estimate upwards of 100 technology startups in Kashmir. Now, with the turmoil, several of these have either downed their shutters or relocated to survive. Financial toll One such venture is KashmirOneStop.com, a website that sells traditional Kashmiri items such as shawls, kahwa (green tea), and religious knickknacks to Kashmiri Pandits across the country. In June, the company decided to expand its product list and was in advanced talks with investors to raise funds. 'My brother-in-law Rohit Bhat, who is my partner in the business (and is based in Jammu), had met suppliers in many parts of Kashmir and finalised deals,' said Meenakshi Rakesh Bhat, co-founder of KashmirOneStop.com. But everything came to a standstill in the wake of the turbulence. 'The investors backed out. They said that if you have a bigger business, you would take an even bigger hit when tension rises in Kashmir,' Bhat, who lives in Mumbai with her husband, said. 'Our funding plans are on a hold as of now. It's a big setback.' What aggravates the situation is that while business plans can be put on hold, overhead costs can't be held back. Syed Mujtaba Rizvi has spent most of the last three months stuck inside his house. Rizvi's online art venture, Kashmir Art Quest, has not operated for a single day since July 08. His art cafe, located about a kilometre from Lal Chowk, the city centre in Srinagar, has remained shut for over 100 days now. 'There is no income, but I need to retain my staff, and pay electricity and other bills,' Rizvi said. 'I really hope that I will be able to open my businesses in a couple of weeks.' It's a tricky situation for Verma of PureMart, too. For the first time since he started his business, payments to vendors have been delayed. 'My wife and I came back to Kashmir because we wanted to return to our roots and do something here. But now for the last 30 days, we have not been able to pay our outstanding bills, and that does not feel good,' he said. What's worse is the loss of goodwill. Verma fears he has lost some of his customers forever, thanks to the lack of connectivity in Kashmir. 'We have an e-commerce model. And for almost 60 days we did not have any access to internet or phones,' he said. 'Now just imagine, the buyers were waiting for deliveries-in some cases, these are huge bulk orders. Neither did their goods reach them nor did they receive any communication from our end.' Fear in the air A delivery boy of e-commerce portal Kashmir Box was injured during pellet firing in Srinagar in September. Ever since, several other startups have decided not to do local business, even on the few days that the curfew is partially lifted, said Ishfaq Mir, chairman of startup incubator Kashmir Business Factory (KBF). Launched in 2011 and located in the heart of Srinagar in a building that once housed a carpet weaving factory owned by Mir's family, KBF has incubated five startups till now. This includes some of the best-known companies from the region like Kashmir Box and marketing and content delivery startup Pipe. 'We have a healthcare startup in our incubator right now, which provides diagnostic services at home. But after the incident with Kashmir Box's delivery boy, that team just decided to shut operations until normalcy returned. They didn't want to risk sending their boys out,' Mir said. Relocation woes Some of the startups that KBF incubated have sent small teams to Delhi to run partial operations, Mir said. Kashmir Box has a team working from Delhi, communicating with the company's customers regularly. But not everyone is as lucky. Verma of PureMart moved to Jammu, hoping to resume partial business. But that didn't help. 'The authorities are asking us to get a tax identification number for Jammu if we want to do business here. That takes a couple of months to come, so I have no option left now,' Verma said. 'I have no idea what will happen next.' With close to 1,000 people blinded, 7,000 detained, 13,000 injured in clashes, and the state's economy suffering losses of Rs10,000 crore in the past 100 days, clearly, there are no winners in J&K.