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Kashmir remains cut off from the world
By Javed Matjee, Srinagar

Srinagar: Kashmir Valley remains cut off from the outside world. STD (long distance), ISD (international) telephone facility as well as well the Internet and email have been cut off from the predominantly Muslim valley for the last three months after the union cabinet committee on security decided to snap these links in the name on increasing border tension between India and Pakistan in the wake of the 13 December terrorist attack on the Indian parliament. More than 2500 telephone call booth (PCOs) owners of the Valley were rendered jobless overnight when these facilities were withdrawn. 

Ladakh, though being on the border and a highly sensitive area, is the only belt throughout Jammu and Kashmir state, where these facilities are still available uninterrupted. Both the state as well as central governments are being blamed of criminal silence towards the plight of the affected people. 

According to Bashir Ahmad, president of the Kashmir section of the Jammu & Kashmir STD/PCO-Owners Association, most of his members had turned to this business after obtaining loans from various banks and other financial institutions. Some of them, he said, had even sold land and ornaments to establish their PCOs. According to him, many people connected to the STD services are now penniless and cannot even pay back their basic dues to the telephone department (BSNL), rentals, power tariff and other dues, due to snapping of the STD facilities. 

The decision by the central government has put people of Kashmir to a number of hardships, besides those faced by PCO owners. According to noted legal expert, Muzaffar Hussain Beigh, snapping the facilities is a violation of basic rights, and this violation could be exercised in Kashmir only.

There are more than 3000 PCOs in the Kashmir valley. According to the telephone department sources about 500 of these are presently operative. The PCOs in operation are those used by the armymen and other security forces personnel present in Kashmir. According to these sources, the concerned force officers have given undertakings with regard to the running PCOs that these won’t be used by the civil population and would be kept confined to the armed forces. Sunil Kumar Saxena, general manager of the telephone department, Kashmir circle, said that without having much more details about the affair, his department has withdrawn facilities from the existing PCOs in the valley. Saying that the decision to withdraw STD/ISD facilities has been taken at the highest level, Mr. Saxena admitted that people of Kashmir had to suffer a lot on this front. The general manager said that he has already recommended to his seniors a number of steps to give some relief to the affected PCO owners. 

The defunct valley based PCOs have, meanwhile, become local call offices. The BSNL sources say that the affected PCOs are being charged at rupee one per local call unit, which otherwise is Rs. 1.20 in the normal times. The sources also claim that commission for the affected period has also been raised from existing 33 percent to 40 percent. However the PCO owners association has refuted the BSNL claims saying that out of three bills issued after the withdrawal of the STD facilities, only the second bill was issued as per the confessional rate and increased commission. 

According to the Association sources the concession has also been withdrawn. Had this situation arisen in any other state, the central as well as state governments would have sorted out relief measures for the affected people in advance to the withdrawal of these facilities, one of the affected PCO owners said, adding that the central government was aware that sufferers would be the Valley-based people, whom New-Delhi never counts. The affected people are all fire against the state government, which they say has failed miserably to address the problems of thousands of PCO holders who have been rendered jobless. The association office bearers say that many of their members have deposited their educational qualification certificates with the state government to take loans with the undertaking that they won’t apply for government jobs. "But now the state government is a silent spectator to our miseries giving the impression that people occupying higher positions see nothing and hear nothing," president of the association said. The PCO owners of Kashmir staged a number of protest marches and dharnas [sit-ins] here but got nothing except a some coverage in the Kashmir print and electronic media.

The other lot adversely affected in the Valley are the Internet café owners. People of Kashmir have not been spared even on this front. Kashmir valley has no connection with the outside world through Internet. Besides business, academic and other activities, media persons working for various national and international organisations are the worst hit as all are denied access to Internet and email services. The suffering café owners have in hurry set-up an association to take up the matter with the concerned people at the state and central levels. According to Mohammad Lateef Bazaz, president of the association, a delegation of the affected café owners visited New-Delhi last month. "The delegation had to come empty handed as no central leader or minister was ready even to listen to them," Lateef said. According to him most of the café owners have high educational as well as technical qualifications and have invested huge sums to buy computers and other equipment, which are likely to waste away if the government does not restore Internet facilities at the earliest. 

Many people believe that the border tension between India and Pakistan cannot be sufficient cause to cut off STD and allied facilities. They argue that sufferings of people are of prime concern for any government in the world. "After all the U.S had to suffer so extensively in the Sept. 11 attacks, but no countryman was deprived of his basic rights and facilities," says Nazir Ahmad Ronga, president Kashmir Lawyers Association. According to him the central government cannot even think of withdrawing any such basic amity to people in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata or any other place elsewhere in India. "Kashmiris are a for-granted lot", Ronga adds saying that pushing millions of people to suffer was an indication of this attitude.
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