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Amid Bullets and Bombs,  Digital Industry Takes Tentative Root in Kashmir  - 2004-09-27


Ignoring a violent 15-year Muslim separatist insurgency, a group of young entrepreneurs in Indian Kashmir is trying to catch up with the country's information technology boom. A new software company offers a ray of hope that the insurgency-hit region may one day benefit from the same industry that has transformed India's economy.

In contrast to India's gleaming, high-rise technology headquarters in the country's south, Magnum Software Services occupies a simple, two-story structure in the midst of lush mountains in Indian Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar. The company has made a modest beginning and its motto tells it all: "Dare to Dream."

That is what inspired a group of seven young Kashmiris four months ago to launch the Kashmir's pioneering information technology venture.

They ignored the daily bloodshed and tough security measures that have hindered development and kept investors away from the region. They even persuaded a Singapore-based client that the violence would not stop young Kashmiri men and women from handling outsourcing work as efficiently as is done in India's other cities.

Now, 315 young men and women are busy formatting medical files and research data, men and women who would otherwise have had to leave the valley in search of work, or sat idly at home.

A year ago, the company's 27-year-old technical director, Naseer Ahmed, was one of them.

"I was sitting idle for last one year before joining this company. It was totally miserable condition. Only thing I was doing was mail my C.V. to different companies," he said.

The company's founders say they realized Kashmir had the same advantages as the rest of India - an abundance of skilled, low-cost, English-speaking workers. So they decided to log on to the software and back-office services boom that yields more than $12 billion in business a year for India. But good intentions can't overcome such problems as power shortages and a lack of broadband Internet access. To compensate, the firm records it products on compact discs, and physically transports them in and out of Kashmir. That has not deterred Magnum's founders from drawing up expansion plans. Local wages are lower than elsewhere in India, and they hope that will be a draw for companies seeking to cut costs.

The state government is promising all the help it can. But clearances for broadband will have to come from the central government, which until two years ago even restricted mobile phones in the valley for fear they would ease communication for Muslim separatists.

While Magnum wrestles with its teething troubles, the young people employed by the company are grateful they have been able to find productive employment.

Some, like 26-year-old Mubarak Sadiq, have returned from outside Kashmir to work in the Valley.

"Definitely if someone gets opportunity to work in his own native place to work with such organization ? this is a great thing," he said.

Shabana Shafi Bhat used to wonder if her parents would let her leave the valley to work elsewhere when she completed her computer technology course.

"Before this we are having nothing, not a single opportunity we are having here. This makes us feel secure. Because to sit idle is very difficult for us," said Ms. Bhat.

Kashmir's main industries are handicrafts, tourism and agriculture. Its per capita income is lower than in neighboring states.

The minister for consumer affairs, Taj Mohiudeen, says ventures like Magnum could start to provide opportunity for the estimated 300,000 educated but unemployed people of the region.

"We don't have any avenues here for employment," he explained. "We don't have a private sector at all. Even self-employed people, if they have to self-employ and go for self-scale industry, we don't have the infrastructure for that."

Kashmir may not be able to challenge Indian technology hubs like Bangalore for a long time. But young Kashmiris are hoping Magnum will blaze the trail for a software industry in a region so far known primarily for its ironic combination of beauty and violence.

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