Shutting Internet? Ask This Man First

In the shutdown-abundant Kashmir, where load shedding is done to manage energy deficit, authorities see the internet outages as one sure method to make governance easy. This, however, is getting in conflict with the initiatives aimed at pushing the real world be managed by the virtual realities in processes and control. How huge could it cost Kashmir is explained by a young man who fought odds to reach US, work overtime and create some jobs for Kashmir. Shamim Shah tells his impressive story to Masood Hussain

My name is Shamim Ahmad Shah. I was born in Ishbar village near Nishat. It might be quite common story but I think it has strange ingredients. My school, the government middle school was on the first story of a building that had a rice mill in ground floor. I remember my class work would start at the same time the rice husking would begin downstairs. It was noisy, hurting and interrupting but then we got used to it. I would feel the classroom vibrating.

But we had great teachers. I still remember every one of them. They took care of us all. I still remember every one of the teachers, their names, their faces and the days when I was beaten for not doing the homework.

They would teach us in Urdu and use Kashmiri too. I passed my middles with good marks and then I shifted to the High School in Nishat.

It was a setback. The new school came with the new medium – the English. It was shocking. The change of medium changed everything. I and many others stopped getting that routine appreciation that we were used to in the older school. We were lost and confused. I stopped being a ‘good student’ and it hurt a lot. But somehow I managed to pass my ninth grade.

I understood everything but I lacked expression. As the tenth grade examination approached, the teachers decided that I was weak. I was asked not to appear as a regular student. I appeared as a private candidate. Somehow, I made it. I was a matriculate.

I understood my weakness. I knew the ‘system’ pushed me from one medium to another, on which I had no control. I did not want to fail but the ‘system’ wanted me down. I was desperate to get out of this crisis. I started focusing on English. The subsequent two years were pain but I managed a balance, I improved and I moved on.

I was good in mathematics and physics and passed my twelfth. I lacked any guidance about what I must do, about what my competencies are. I straightway went to the SP College and enrolled myself. There, students were talking about being engineers and doctors, I was dumb-founded. I had no idea.

One day someone told me that I was good in mathematics and physics and I am an ideal candidate for being an engineer. I was surprised about my competence. Next day, I drove to Regional Engineering College and told them they must enrol me. The officer, there, smiled and said, it does not happen like this.

“You have to appear in a test,” he told me.

I said when I should come for it. “We do not conduct the Entrance Test and that is over already,” he said. Shocked, I came back home. Somehow, I did my B Sc but the impression that I had some future kept the fire alive in me.

With graduation over, I thought there are not many options available here. I applied for admission in AMU and Jamia Milia. I worked really hard and I cracked the entrance test in both the universities. In Jamia, I got a seat in Computer Sciences. In AMU, I got admitted in statistics.

But how could I decide which subject is better? I thought my neighbour Abdul Hamid knows the best. “I have studied statistics myself and I know it has not much scope,” he advised me, “Computer Science must be something different, so better go there.”

Now another problem erupted. I had no money. My father, a retired employee of the Khadi Board, even lacked the bus fare for me. I started crying. But God has solutions to the problems his creations face. My older sister was married. Her husband, a pharmacist, was supportive. They sold their jewellery; put their savings out of their pockets and it made a substantial Rs 12,500. In 1991 that was a huge amount. They bid me good bye and I left Srinagar that was in a terrible state.

It was a new world. It was not expensive. Jamia cost me Rs 2500 for the entire course. But they lacked hostel facility for me. I could not afford a room, so I rented a corridor. It cost me Rs 400 a month. Knowing that my parents cannot afford sending me anything, I started giving tuitions to kids and make some money, for survival and studies.

Those were trying times when I had to take a call whether I should have morning or the evening meal. For two years, I eat only once in day, either lunch or dinner, because I could not afford two meals. With this I was a Post Graduate Diploma Holder in computer applications.

Once out of campus, I landed in a job. I remember the day when I got my first salary – Rs 2700. I was employed in NOCOD, a company that has ceased to exist by now. Its CEO was Ravi Chaloo, my first boss, a Kashmiri Pandit. Now my friend, he operated from the Gurdwara basement in Lajpat Nagar.

I counted the notes again and again and sent Rs 2000 to my father. I knew he required it more than me. I retained Rs 700 which was enough for me to sustain the modest life I was living. Within a few months, my salary was hiked to Rs 4700. I sent Rs 4000 home.

I remember considering purchasing a new pair of shoes. It had the sole torn by over-use and sweat. I put a cardboard inside it instead and managed.

I was struggling to get a new job, possibly a government job. I routinely would go to Fayaz Sahab in NIC for getting the photo copies of my certificates attested. I never knew, he had emerged an inspiration for me, a gazetted officer. So I applied for the NIC. Soon, I was selected as an Information Officer.

In Jamia, I had 24 classmates. During routine, they all would talk about their future plans. Somebody would say he would go to Australia because he has a cousin, somebody would say UK. I had no idea, so I would say: I will go to America!

While I was wondering for a job, a US company sought programmers. I also applied. By latter 1997, I got two job letters. I was appointed in NIC and also selected for US. I was supposed to join the US job on September 5 and NIC by September 7. I weighed both options and found the Central Government job quite bigger.

Confused, one day I visited Ishfaq Sahab in NIC and innocently requested him: “Kindly give me leave for two years till I return from US”! He smiled. “People in NIC spend five years and then use this experience to go to US, you got an offer, do not leave it, go,” he advised me. Finally I left Delhi.

I had no clue what America was all about. I got the job of the programmer and landed in Master Informatix Systems Inc (MIS), Sterling (Virginia) based corporation engaged in a variety of activities. Here Paul Bakhshi was my boss.

New tensions erupted. I was caught in the communication crisis. My communication was so weak that people did not understand at all. I knew my weakness but did not permit it to control me. I focused on my work and I worked really hard. My boss and my colleagues understood me better. They suggested me to watch news CNN, Fox and go to cinema so that I pick up the accent. But this country is amazing. They do not discriminate you on the basis of anything as long as you are hardworking, and honest. Gradually, I started improving and then came a stage that hiccups were part of the learning curve.

Then, I changed my job. I joined InsurIQ that has digital distribution and automated administration of insurance and personal protection products as its core business. I rose the ranks up and now I am the senior Vice President of the company and its Chief Technology Officer (CTO). I own certain portion of equity in this company as well. I discuss multi-million projects with top business honchos who have studied in Harvard, Watson and other prestigious business schools. I think I am lucky to be where I am.

While working, I met my wife and we married in 2000. We have happy and we have two sons. Then, I started pursuing MCA with Nova Southeastern University and completed in 2003.

I landed in US in 1997. Till 2003, I had no idea of what Kashmir is all about. Sometimes we forget where from we came from. It just happens. Then one day my younger brother Suhail rang me up, desperate to do something. He was about to complete his graduation. I promised him I will help. I got in touch with my many friends and we decided to set up an IT company in Srinagar.

Some friends actually came forward, many others were thinking about what they can do. But destiny had something different in store. My brother was happy that a company is being started for him. In late September 2003, Suhail married within the relation. On November 31, he had gone out on his motor-cycle when a vehicle hit him. He struggled for life for 22 days and eventually died on December 23.

That was a turning point. Earlier, I wanted to help him set up a company. After he was gone, I decided to set up it for him. Suddenly I started seeing Suhail in every young man in Srinagar. That changed me, inside out. I sincerely believe that was just a wakeup call for me. I started following my heart and not the mind.

With two of my friends, I co-founded it an IT company that earlier existed as Musky Software. We changed its name to IQuasar and it started working in 2004. In US, my employer felt that as if I was working at two places so I told my friends of this issue and I parted ways in 2008. But I was feeling the gulf within. One day, I told my boss that I was not doing it for any money but I wanted to do something for Kashmir. I explained things to him. I told him this will keep me focused here as well. He agreed and offered some jobs of his company to be implemented by the new concern in Kashmir, a process that still survives.

That is how LeLafe IT Solutions was born.

It actually took off from Ishber in 2011. There were five people working. Then we went to Rajbagh.

I started getting friends to give software development jobs to us and I got developers to implement it. The jobs are a huge basket, some for education, some for retailing, some insurance, eCommerce, tax. Whatever I got, the excellent team members implemented it. Even I got my own company in US to get us some software development assignments.

Then, 2014 floods came and the office was inundated. To save the situation and the reputation, I silently got the operations shifted to Bangalore so that we could manage delivery of the jobs in time. We succeeded.

The Bangalore office is still there and our developers, if they see situation taking a wrong turn, fly to Bangalore and finish their assignments there. We have a guest house where they live. We do not want our uncertainties back home impact the credibility of our company in the market.

It has been a rewarding exercise. Last year we had 55 people on rolls. This year we have 65. We have the best talent pool. We do not have attrition at all. In all these years, five guys switched over to other better positions after discussing their plans with me.

I do not want my clients to suffer for the situation in which our staff works in Kashmir. But I am not oblivious of the situation and the hardships that my team pass through. This past season when I knew that reaching office in Rangreth was impossible because of the situation, I installed high speed internet connections at their homes so that they work tension free. More recently when I was in Srinagar as my brother-in-law lost his battle with cancer at the age of 57, I found the road link between Sanat Nagar and Rangterh in shambles, taking more than an hour; I asked some of the staff to operate from home till the road gets fixed. Right now almost half of our staff operates from homes.

We are working to the best of our satisfaction. We might have done almost Rs 4 crore last year. This fiscal, we plan touching Rs 5 crore. We are the best paymasters in Kashmir that is better than the rest of the industry. Almost half of our staff must be taking half a lakh home, every month. We plan to hire some more people but we want to ensure we stay in the right size to survive and grow. I personally do not take even a single penny from LeLafe.

This industry alone can change Kashmir.

But the ground situation bleeds my heart out. While our products are world class and are being used in some of the best markets in the world, in hospitals, banks, educational institutions, and offices, there is no acknowledgement of the efforts this generation is making. The government at the local level is not valuing the work and efforts we have put in. We follow all the regulations, laws and the systems; still the local government does not even offer an iota of support by way of getting its projects implemented through us.

Quite recently, I met a senior officer regarding a project. He consistently asked if I have ever done anything in Kashmir, I said never but I have done scores of projects in world’s most competitive market. I told him I have complex applications in insurance and education sectors to my credit. I told him that our software are being used by 1000 universities and non-profits in US. I told him our solutions are considered market disruptive in US’s insurance sector.  I told him how I could have worked in Kashmir when I never got the chance. Finally I could feel that he had not to give this project to us. I left it because I cannot offer cuts. I have never done it because I belong to a different work culture. I believe in different work ethics.

At the same time, we are facing a different problem. From Bangalore, we had discussed a project with a Kerala concern. We did everything, gave presentations, created a pilot, went through demos and tested it. Finally the party said we must sign an agreement. When we went with the papers, they saw the company is actually based in Kashmir. They were shocked. They said they will do it later and finally backed out.

While this generation is doing its bit to create systems and manage the deficit we have had for various reasons, the problem is: in Kashmir, our own government is unwilling to work with us for they think we lack knowledge and outside Kashmir nobody wants to work with us because we are Kashmiris. In such a situation we are pushed to seeking jobs from outside. How can it sustain?

Is there a possibility in Kashmir that there is some room for innovations by the next generation? Is there a possibility of young men and women get a chance to work without being asked or offered cuts? I am keen to return home and settled with both my kids. I know we have the world class talent in Kashmir. But can that talent be permitted to deliver? Can we have the opening of creating opportunities for the new generation? Is there a possibility of improving the work ethics at official level?

I know Kashmir’s talent pool because I handle it. I know this sector alone can change things. But could we make certain changes to help this change take over? I wonder if somebody also thinks on this line, other than shutting the Internet down.

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