Ebbing Violence Heralds IT Boom In Indian-Kashmir

28 May 2009
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Providing sleeping facilities might be seen as good management practice at your average, round-the-clock call centre, but in Indian Kashmir it has the advantage of preventing workers getting shot. Opened in 2004, Access Infrastructure was born of a period of relative peace in a region where at least 47,000 people have been killed since an armed insurgency against Indian rule began 20 years ago. Its presence and the subsequent arrival of other IT software and service companies is being seen as evidence of a mini-boom in Kashmir, which has been a byword for economic stagnation and high unemployment. But since India and Pakistan, who have fought two wars over divided Kashmir, launched a peace process in 2004, there has been a marked reduction in the once almost daily bombings, shootings and militant gunfights with the army. This has opened the way for Kashmiris who fled the carnage to return to the region once known for its natural beauty and invest in the future of their homeland. 'The reduction in violence boosted investment in Kashmir and then we came in offering secondary services,' said Irfan Ansari, the chief executive officer of Access Infrastructure, which specialises in telecoms billing. Nevertheless, Kashmir's summer capital of Srinagar remains a volatile and sometimes extremely dangerous city - which accounts for the beds in the office. 'We have arrangements for employees to sleep over in case of curfews and other disturbances,' said Access executive Khalid Abbas. Ansari is just one of a number of young Kashmiri IT entrepreneurs who quit their high salaried jobs with established firms elsewhere to come home. More are likely to follow, with India's diversified giant Essar Group in February pledging 10 billion rupees (200 million dollars) to open two new call centres here. The new ventures are providing welcome career alternatives to a privileged few among an estimated 500,000 unemployed young Kashmiris searching for more challenging job options than tourism, carpet weaving and wood carving. Faisal Masood, assistant manager at Access, has about 300 people working in six shifts to serve clients of one of Kashmir's largest mobile phone networks. 'We are hoping to add to that number soon, despite the recession,' he said. The Access office, with its polished glass facade, cafeteria and training centre, is reminiscent of call centres in established Indian IT hubs such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. 'The professional standards we follow are just the same,' said Abbas. Some distance away, at an industrial park on the outskirts of Srinagar, is Musky Software Solutions, which has 30 staff who serve clients in North America, Africa and Asia. 'One of the main reasons to start an IT company in Srinagar was to create a job platform for young people,' said chief operating officer Fayaz Bhat. 'I don?t see any reason why businesses can?t perform from this part of the globe,' Bhat said, adding his company plans a 10-fold staff increase by 2015. Tanveer Khan, 26, quit Bangalore-based Wipro, India's third-biggest software company, and said he accepted a sharply reduced salary to return to Kashmir seven months ago. 'But it's great to be back home,' he said. The energy is undeniable, but there are major obstacles to turning Srinagar into another Bangalore - with unreliable power supply, narrow bandwidth and lack of trained manpower topping the list. The lack of bandwidth 'is giving us sleepless nights and puts us in a bad light with our overseas customers,' said Bhat. Kashmir's chief minister Omar Abdullah has promised to focus on developing a talent pool. 'I am worried about unemployability. The products that come out of our schools and colleges don't necessarily have the skill sets that will make them attractive in the job market today,' Abdullah told AFP. Raman Roy, head of New Delhi-based Quattro BPO Solutions and considered a pioneer of India's outsourcing industry, described Indian Kashmir as having 'huge potential'. 'What is needed is a concrete action plan. Whatever plan there is at present seems patchy, incomplete. 'You need the proper physical infrastructure to attract middle-level management - the basis of a good, strong outsourcing industry. And that includes schools and hospitals, besides bandwidth,' he said. The problems notwithstanding, young Kashmiris are hopeful and enthusiastic about the life-changing opportunities on offer. 'Earlier, we had no avenues for work. Teaching was the only career option for us women, followed by marriage,' said Zubaidah Bhat, a 25-year-old trainer at Access. 'Now I have a way to concentrate on a career. It is truly empowering for women like me,' she said.