Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs

Dependent on Facebook and Instagram to take orders, the low-speed internet has hampered their initiatives.

My Report
7 min read
A new wave of young students emerging as entrepreneurs in J&K’s Poonch.

Poonch, a small town in Jammu and Kashmir is rarely in the news for anything other than the frequent ceasefire violations across the border. However, in recent years, there has been a new wave of young students emerging as entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship in a small, conflict-ridden town like Poonch, wedged between two nuclear-armed countries, comes up with its own set of unique problems.

The town has a history-laden with its struggle for human rights, representation, and economic development; it continues to struggle for the same. Bounded by the Line of Control on three sides, the area has been a witness to decades of trauma and loss. Shutdowns, constant cross border firing and mortar shelling, and recurring communication blackouts have made life unbearable for the locals and resulted in the loss of countless lives and livelihood.

Entrepreneurs Amid Shutdowns & Blackouts

This situation, along with the limitations of a small, underdeveloped town, has created multifaceted problems for the young entrepreneurs in the region.

They are posed with complex problems, some they have managed to tame and some that are beyond their control.

Fatima, a 24-year-old, is a self-taught chef from Poonch. As a young girl, Fatima was always experimenting with recipes along with her mother. She recently started her own kitchen after one of her friends came up with this suggestion. She set an account on Instagram and within a few days, it became a success.

“A small town with just two to three restaurants, some tea stalls, and dhabas, locals in Poonch are hardly familiar with the concept of eating out or ordering,”

Most of her orders are placed by students and young professionals visiting home, who have migrated to bigger cities to pursue better education and jobs.

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Sumairha Mumtaz)

Fatima’s food has also started breaking barriers in her community.

“In Poonch, there are separate eating places for all religions. Before you enter a dhaba you will know the religion of the owners and most of the customers through the insinuating name, posters on walls, etc. This is one of the unsaid rules here, your religion decided your dhaba/restaurant.”

She continues, “However, being a Muslim, I have received orders from the non-Muslim community as well, which is very unconventional here. Moreover, many people who have otherwise not stepped out from this small town are getting the taste of food from other cultures and places.”

Impact of Low-Speed Internet, Electricity Cuts

Dependent on Facebook and Instagram to take orders, low-speed internet hampers her initiative.

Poonch constantly has electricity curtailments and shutdowns as well. The unreliable electricity means that she cannot use the oven as a dependable source to bake. As an alternative, she sometimes bakes in the pressure cooker.

she has ‘mastered’ the art of baking in a cooker.
she has ‘mastered’ the art of baking in a cooker.
(Photo Courtesy: Sumairha Mumtaz)

Secondly, cooking tools and ingredients are not readily available in the market.

“I ask my relatives and friends who would be traveling from Jammu to try and carry them for me. Most e-commerce platforms do not deliver anything here, and delivery by elsewhere takes over a month. I have to meticulously plan everything and often I have to cancel orders when I run out of supply.”
Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Sumairha Mumtaz)

Taboos Around Cooking in Restaurants

In addition to the material deficits, she is also facing societal pressure that finds it inconceivable for a woman to take up cooking professionally.

In a small town like Poonch, the cooks in restaurants or for wedding functions are men thriving on daily wages. It is considered as a profession for people belonging to ‘lower class families,’ thus, unacceptable to the women belonging to ‘decent families,’ who, like Fatima despite their talent and interest are forced to pursue education into a ‘more stable’ occupation.

Fatima has to hide her identity as having any aspect of her identity available in the public domain is culturally deemed disgraceful.

Despite these obstacles, she plans to continue her kitchen for all the love and positive reviews she has received from her customers. Today, she fulfills an average of seven orders on a daily basis.

“If given an opportunity, I would like to learn cooking from a good baking institute and take this venture ahead.”

Navigating Poonch Via Tourism

Another social media initiative, Discover Poonch was started in 2018 by Alyas Khawaja, an advocate, and Irfan Ahmed, a student, in order to show the vast tourism potential of Poonch. Being natives of the town, they are able to regularly travel to remote areas, which are otherwise difficult to access.

“There are places near the border where filming is prohibited and there are places where only army is allowed. There are also some landmine-prone areas, inaccessible due to government indifference. Many have died and lost their limbs due to these landmines and government/army has hardly done anything to ensure safety in these areas.”

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Discover Poonch)

Despite these restrictions, they have, to a large extent been able to share the essence of Poonch with the world. Their Instagram page has over 12,000 followers and an active engagement.

“We have done everything at our own so far, we have received no assistance from JK tourism,” they said.

In addition to these locations, there are some important heritage sites in Poonch. Unfortunately, the government has not done much to protect them either.

“Poonch Fort got destroyed in the 2014 earthquake and since then it is in ruins. Famous Sheesh Mahal has been converted into a school and it is also degrading day by day,” they added.

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Discover Poonch)

Despite these problems, the greatest challenge they face is still trauma that comes with living in a conflict zone.

“Mainstream media will never post about the cross-border shelling and the damage associated with it. This damage could be a loss of lives, people losing their limbs and livestock. The biggest damage is the mental and physiological fear that people living in shelling prone areas go through,” they said as they constantly visit and post such stories.

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Discover Poonch)

From Helping Family to Selling Craft Products Online

Ajaz Ahmed, a 19-year-old boy, grew up in a family of weavers and wanted to learn fashion designing. He could not pursue it as everybody thought that it was thought to be not a feasible option for a boy. He is now helping women sell their handicrafts online.

Started as a home-based venture to help his mother and aunts sell their crafts, Ahmed took his venture online this year.

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Ajaz Ahmed)
“The response is not great because we face a lot of internet blackouts here. After Article 370 revocation, our family income stopped. We saw internet blackout for nearly seven to eight months and for the rest of the months we received low-speed 2G internet which hardly lets us work properly,” said Ajaz.

Not able to reach their customers on time, they underwent hefty losses, which has only increased due to the pandemic.

Amid Frequent Shutdowns, Instagram Helps Poonch’s Entrepreneurs
(Photo Courtesy: Ajaz Ahmed)

They get most of their orders from Instagram, which displays a range of their products like woollen handmade dolls, crochet designed table covers, hand-knitted curtains, sweaters, and vases. Despite the creativity and talent of these budding entrepreneurs to step up and take an initiative for the enhancement of their society, the undue resistance that they are facing is discouraging.

“Due to a lack of exposure and absolutely no support from the government, we are unable to expand this business. It is very hard to convince women for collaboration as they are busy with household chores and lack family support.”
Ajaz Ahmed

This reminded us of an old saying here, ‘Ghee hoto halwo banata, aato udharo le aata, magar dudh nai hai’, which translates to ‘If we had ghee, we would have made a pudding by borrowing flour, but we don’t have any milk.’

Social media, especially Instagram, has provided a platform for entrepreneurs in small town like Poonch to undertake initiative they feel passionate about. Here, anything including Instagram has no guarantee of being always operational. Amidst all the uncertainty and chaos, these youngsters continue to operate though whatever little they have access to.

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quininquires into the claims/allegations from all parties beforepublishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

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