India’s Forced Internet Shutdowns Disrupt Digital India’s Ambitious Mission!
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India’s Forced Internet Shutdowns Disrupt Digital India’s Ambitious Mission!
Digital India Loses Lustre!
The country’s extensive internet shutdowns since 2018, the highest in the world, undermines the effectiveness of the government’s flagship “Digital India” initiative, which emphasizes the importance of regular internet access for delivering essential public services.
The government’s move to digitise some of its flagship welfare programmes—including NREGA and linking ration to Aadhar—is at odds with the recurring, often long-lasting, communication blockades in many parts of the country. For five years in a row, India has been the internet shutdown capital of the world
Let Us Look at Some of the Internet Disruptive Happenings
- In August 2019, the Indian government blocked all communications in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent protests over the abrogation of Article 370—which eventually meant that access to 4G mobile internet was cut off for 500 days.
- A new report gave an example of a Dalit woman with five children in Rajasthan, who said, “When the internet is shut down, I have no work, I do not get paid, cannot withdraw money from my account, and cannot even get food rations.”
- “In Rajasthan, we’ve seen shutdowns that have lasted more than a fortnight,” says Bapat. “So workers who had scheduled employment within that period did not get paid.”
- The report quotes an MGNREGA supervisor from Haryana, who says that when the internet was shut down in 2022, during protests over a government policy, the block officer told them to stop work since their attendance could not be marked, and they would not be paid.
- Utility bills payments, basic banking, access to medical and emergency services and education are some of the other areas that faced the repercussions of communication blackout periods. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the six-month long communications shutdown cost more than $2.4 billion, and led to nearly 500,000 job losses.
- By some estimates, India was responsible for 84 of a global 187 Internet shutdowns in 2022 alone.
- In 2023, we have already seen a communication blackout in Manipur in May, following ethnic clashes that lasted weeks;
- In March, the entire state of Punjab faced a three-day blackout to track down a separatist leader
Longest Internet Shutdown
The longest internet shutdown in India occurred in Jammu and Kashmir, where the government suspended 4G mobile internet access for 550 days, spanning from August 2019 to February 2021. In response to this, the Supreme Court ruled in January 2020, in the landmark judgment Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India, that internet service suspensions are a “drastic measure” that should only be considered by the state if it is “necessary” and “unavoidable,” after assess.
What causes the problem?
How extensive the problem can become is especially because Aadhar authentication just cannot happen without the internet,” says Krishnesh Bapat, a lawyer who contributed to the Human Rights Report. “In the event of a shutdown, it’s impossible to get basic ration because the shopkeeper cannot authenticate your Aadhar. Some people told us they could avail of the ration only on certain days of the month—so if the internet was shut down that day, they had to wait a whole month before they could get it.”
What are the other areas of impact?
Similar impacts have been seen with the government’s flagship welfare scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This scheme provides income security for more than 100 million rural households, by providing them employment for 100 days of the year. A majority (58 percent) of the beneficiaries are women, most of whom come from social and economically marginalised households.
On the contrary, we have enough evidence to show the harm caused by internet shutdowns. What the report found, in fact, is that authorities shut down the internet for a variety of reasons, including to curb peaceful protests and to prevent cheating on examinations,” says Jayshree Bajoria, associate director, Asia Division, HRW. “These decisions to shut down the internet are often erratic, wholly unnecessary and disproportionate, and violate international legal standards.”
Human Rights Report
The 82-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Internet Freedom Foundation, released a report titled ‘No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food’. It details how the shutdowns—mostly for political reasons—disproportionately impact the poor and marginalised, and affect social welfare as well as economic activities.
G7 Commitment in 2022
In June 2022, India signed a G7 statement committing to “ensure an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet for all” recommending that its partners, which include the European Union and the United States of America, hold India accountable to this promise. “If at all shutdowns have to be imposed, they should be a measure of last resort, lawful, necessary, proportionate, limited in scope and in territory, and comply with international legal standards,”
The government should ensure that all citizens have access to government programmes and social protection measures, irrespective of internet access. “Digital India should ensure technology is used to protect people’s livelihoods and rights, not disrupt them.”
U N Statement ………….!
Internet is widely acknowledged as an essential enabler of several human rights outlined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights instruments that India is signatory to. In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution that condemning internet shutdowns and called on states to refrain from and stop such measures. UN human rights experts have declared that blanket internet shutdowns violate international human rights law, and in 2021, the UN Secretary-General reiterated the need to ensure universal access to the internet by 2030 as a fundamental human right.
Conclusions – Hurting The Vulnerable
India’s frequent and arbitrary internet shutdowns hurt its most impoverished, who depend on government social protection programs, according to a new report from right groups Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation.
Blocking Internet access, especially on mobile phones and devices, impacts those who access programmes such as a rural jobs guarantee and government-subsidised food grains, the 82-page Human Rights Report released mentioned. Internet shutdowns also make it difficult for rural communities to conduct basic banking and pay utility bills.
“In the age of ‘Digital India,’ where the government has pushed to make internet fundamental to every aspect of life, the authorities instead use Internet shutdowns as a default policing measure,” said the Human Rights Watch. “Cutting off access to the Internet should be the absolute last resort with safeguards to ensure people aren’t deprived of their livelihoods and basic rights.”
Indian officials often resort to such closures to stem protests, check communal violence, maintain law and order and even to prevent cheating in school and university exams.
In 2023, Internet outages totalling 2,257 hours have so far cost India more than US$249mil (RM1.15bil), according to a report from the UK-based digital privacy and security research group Top10VPN. Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world, Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation said.
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