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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 06:41 GMT 07:41 UK
Kashmir logs on to IT boom

By Altaf Hussain
BBC correspondent in Srinagar

In a quiet corner of a software technology park in India more than 16 engineers are developing some software for American users.

Magnum Software Services office in Srinagar
More than 300 people work at Magnum
It will be used by construction companies in the United States who are outsourcing the work to cut production costs.

But these engineers are not based in India's Silicon Valley, Bangalore, or its hi-tech competitor Hyderabad.

They work out of Indian-administered, Kashmir, an area known more for daily clashes between armed separatists and Indian security forces.

Torn by an armed conflict for 15 years, Kashmir is finally catching up on the information technology revolution that has earned billions of dollars for the rest of the country.

The software technology park, based in the state's summer capital, Srinagar, was set up three years ago.

Four software companies work out of the park, including an outsourcing centre, Magnum Software Services.

Unique partnership

One of the companies, Bill-Qazi Enterprises (BQE) has been launched by a non-resident Kashmiri in partnership with an American entrepreneur.

The Project Manager, Arshad Hussain, says the Srinagar office develops the software while the US office does the marketing.

"Initially the software development was done in the Los Angeles. But now we do it all here [in Kashmir].

Mr Hussain says the company, which has 50,000 clients, has 20 products in the market at present.

"Whenever a new technology comes in the market, we adopt it so that our users never have a feeling that our products are outdated."

Living with danger

But working in Kashmir has its drawbacks.

Kartik Raja persuaded his wife to join him in Srinagar, where he outsources work to Magnum Software Services (MSS). He is planning to open a call centre.

I hope the company will diversify into software development so I could become a software developer
Mubarak, software engineer
"I told her that there are people living here, we are not special, let us go and see."

But sleeping in their houseboat one night, they were woken up by the sound of gunshots.

Militants had attacked a police post not far from where they were staying.

Despite the setback, Mr Raja plans to stay on.

MSS was the first company in Kashmir to win a contract for office services.

Launched only three months ago, MSS has more than 300 young Kashmiris working to format medical files and research data for a client in Singapore.

The firm works off-line for now, physically shipping the work back to its customers.

"We receive burnt CDs and after converting the data we burn their CDs and ship them back," says Project Manager, Dhananjai Sharma.

Stressful

Mubarak, who has a three-year diploma in software engineering and is now a system executive, has ambitions to rise to team leader within a year.

Asim Khan
Asim Khan says the industry faces a lot of problems
"I hope the company will diversify into software development so I could become a software developer," he says.

But not all of the young people relish the work.

"It is stressful work. We have people fainting at times," says Mr Sharma.

Although the park was set up more than three years ago, many outsourcing and call centres had to wait a long time to get clearance from the security agencies.

"I hope we'll have these call centres and [outsourcing centres] running in six months or a year from now," says Asim Khan, the director of the software park.

Even broadband connectivity to internet service providers in Srinagar was delayed by two-and-a-half years due to objections by the security agencies, worried that militants might take advantage of it.

But now those fears have been laid to rest, with the all security clearances out of the way.

Mr Khan says that the industry's growth in Kashmir is also hampered due to a lack of venture capital.

"Most of the entrepreneurs do not have a business background and I do not have the finances. But banks and financial institutions are still reluctant to provide the venture capital."

Despite the teething troubles, many in Kashmir are hoping the IT industry will point the way to a bright future for the troubled region.


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