For about five-and-a-half months, internet was completely banned in Kashmir. For many of us, mobile phones have become constant companions and having no access to internet or even telephone was just unimaginable until the situation was forced on us. But for the people of Bandipora’s remotest tehsil, Tulail, such a situation was not new.
Tulail is a tehsil in sub-division Gurez. In Gurez, BSNL and JIO telecom service providers have recently installed their towers but there is no connectivity yet. To make a simple phone call, people in Tulail have to travel to Dawar (sub-divisional headquarters), which takes a whole day. One of my friends from village Gujran of Tulail (52 km from Dawar) studying at Central University of Kashmir had to spend hundreds of rupees on travel to make a 1-minute phone call just to confirm if classes were being held or not. The poor people who cannot afford such a huge amount do not know about the wellbeing of their loved ones who are either studying or working outside Tulail. To add to their misfortune, the road connecting them with Dawar has been closed for the past three months, as it happens every year. The region remains cut off from the rest of the world for about 6 months in winter.
In the past few days, as the weather has cleared, people take the risk of travelling to Dawar by foot. Unfortunately, a few days ago, three youths were buried under snow after an avalanche hit at Chack-Nallah, the pass connecting Dawar with Tulail. Two of them were rescued later but one is still missing.
Technology in the modern world is the main enabler of access to quality education. Technology also helps empower people in rural areas. The lack of telecom and internet services puts Tulail in a disadvantageous position in this very competitive world. Despite the tall claims of Digital India by the government, the people in this far-flung region are still dreaming about basic connectivity. In the year 2010, VPTs (village public telephones) were introduced in Kashmir by BSNL to facilitate communication in remote areas like Keran, Machil and Tulail on Digital Satellite Phone Terminal. Due to some unknown reason, this only mode of communication also stopped working in June last year.
Lack of internet and absence of reliable communication has deprived the region of facilities and benefits of many government schemes. The poor people living here are condemned to misfortune, while affluent people of the region migrate to other parts of the Valley. This makes the region even more neglected and riddled with poverty.
Education of children is the worst affected due to the inaccessibility and unavailability of internet/ telecom services. A number of students have been forced to move out of the region to get better education, while many students have left their studies as they couldn’t afford to live elsewhere for education. The unemployed youth of the region cannot apply for admissions, scholarships, or many kinds of jobs because of absence of internet. Information often reaches late and many students have to either pay a late fee, an additional burden on the shoulders of their poor parents, or miss the opportunity altogether. Students fail to receive updates on admissions and fail to apply on time for the course they desire to pursue. They may be very talented, but they are unable to compete with students who have the world within their reach. Nowadays students do not remain confined to the subjects taught in the classroom; they learn from various digital learning applications, education websites, etc, but this is just a dream for students in Tulail.
Blessed with nature’s finest views, lush meadows and alpine forests, the gushing clear water of the Kishenganga, wonderful trekking routes, this part of Kashmir is one of the best and safest places to visit for tourists, but due to no network connectivity, people refrain from visiting Tulail. The opportunity of earning from tourism activities is thus denied to Tualil’s residents.
Internet and phone connectivity is necessary for health care services as well. Doctors often consult specialists or their seniors in complicated cases for advice, which without internet is impossible. Many patients are referred to a hospital in another, distant region just because of the lack of access to other doctors’ opinion. In summers it takes a whole day to reach a valley hospital but in winters one has to wait for a helicopter, if provided by the administration, as the helicopter service is only from Dawar to Bandipora and Srinagar. Most often, patients are left at Allah’s mercy.
The Digital India programme of the Government of India aims to create a digitally empowered society. While this program sounds very promising, Tulail region is still waiting for the installation of a telecom tower. It is testimony to the failure of this program and the effectiveness of this program in Tulail is zero. In 2011, the Indian government rolled out an ambitious project to connect 250,000 village panchayats with optical fibres. The project, initially called National Optical Fiber Network, and later renamed Bharat-Net 2015, was expected to facilitate transition to e-commerce, e-banking, e-governance, e-education, and tele-medicine. While the government claims to have reached 61,000 Gram Panchayats, all the Panchayats of Tehsil Tulail and the villages attached to these are yet to derive any benefit of this scheme. Due to lack of information about government schemes, and general illiteracy and inaccessibility of the region, the authorities keep denying the people their rights and entitlements. An inefficient and corrupt administration also acts like the enemy of the people, especially of the poor.
Keeping in view the great significance of network connectivity, we expect the government and telecom service providers, especially BSNL and JIO, to begin operations that provide internet and mobile phone connectivity in Tulail region. This will be a great help to the people and will make their life considerably easier. It would also contribute to the empowerment of the rural population and the aim of Digital India will be achieved in reality, not just in official slogans.
—The writer is a social worker with a national NGO