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How India’s internet shutdowns impact vulnerable communities

A new joint report by Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation highlights the severe impact of internet shutdowns on India's marginalised communities

 India implemented at least 84 shutdowns in 2022, the most of any country. (Unsplash)
India implemented at least 84 shutdowns in 2022, the most of any country. (Unsplash)

In a 2011 survey conducted by tech company Cisco, 95% of surveyed college students and young employees in India said the internet is as important as basic needs such as water, air, and shelter. In the same year, the United Nations, in a lengthy report, argued that disconnecting people from the Internet is a violation of human rights. More than a decade later, in 2022, India was the world’s internet shutdown capital for the fifth year in a row.

According to the global digital rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition, India implemented at least 84 shutdowns in 2022, the most of any country. Not only does this goes against the government’s flagship “Digital India” program, which aims to make regular internet access essential for delivering key public services, it further harms marginalised communities, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organisation that conducts research and advocacy on human rights. 

Also read: India is the internet shutdown capital of the world

The HRW and Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) released a joint report, No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food, on 14 June highlighting how denial of the basic right to internet access to the marginalised communities pushes the people to the periphery instead of empowering them as intended by the Digital India program. The report shows that internet shutdowns harm essential activities and adversely affect economic, social and cultural rights under Indian and international human rights law. 

Disruptions to internet access sanctioned by central and state government authorities are often erratic and unlawful and are used for restricting people from protesting, according to the report. The longest internet shutdown in India occurred in Jammu and Kashmir, with no 4G mobile internet access for 550 days from August 2019 to February 2021. In January 2020, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court said that cutting internet service suspensions are a "drastic measure" and it should be considered if it is "necessary" and "unavoidable" after examining alternate less intrusive solutions.

The report identified 127 shutdowns between the Supreme Court's decision and December 31, 2022. There were 42 internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir in 2022, and so far in 2023, three have been noted by Internet Shutdowns tracker by Software Freedom Law Center India. Talking to SLFC about how internet shutdowns affect students, a student leader from Jammu and Kashmir, Nasir Khuemani said that students are losing scholarships and seats for further education in India and abroad because they are unable to check emails, reply to requirements on time, or join on time. People applying for civil services also don’t get access to important resources because of no internet, he added.

While Indian authorities claim the shutdowns were implemented to prevent violence triggered by rumours on social media and to prevent the mobilisation of mobs. The report states that there is no evidence that internet shutdowns have been effective in maintaining law and order. Furthermore, in 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology stated, “So far, there is no proof to indicate that internet shutdown [sic] has been effective in addressing public emergency and ensuring public safety.”

Commenting on it, Jayshree Bajoria, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, says in the report, “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.” She further adds that cutting access to the internet should be the absolute last resort with safeguards in place and it shouldn’t deprive them of their livelihoods and basic rights.

For instance, in the report, a 35-year-old Dalit woman from Bhilwara district in Rajasthan who has five children talks about how lack of access to the internet cut her access to basic needs.“When the internet is shut down, I have no work, do not get paid, cannot withdraw any money from my account, and cannot even get food rations.”  She had been working in The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which provides income security for around 100 million households in rural areas,

Sine January 2023, the government has made it mandatory for all NREGA workers to be geo-tagged and photographed twice a day. The attendance is also registered through an online app. While the privacy concerns are obvious, this also links people’s livelihood to internet access which during shutdowns are severely affected. Talking to the authors of the report, R.C., a supervisor for NREGA in Haryana said, “When the internet was shut down in 2022 [during protests opposing a government policy], the block officer asked us to stop work since we could not mark our attendance.” As online attendance was not registered, they were not paid.

In February, NREGA workers from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh started a 100-day protest in Delhi's Jantar Mantar against the online attendance system.

Another area that internet shutdowns impact is the provision of subsidised food grains, an important social protection policy under the National Food Security Act through a targeted public distribution system. In 2017, all people eligible for subsidised food rations were made to link their ration card with Aadhaar. So now, food grain distribution outlets need the internet for Aadhaar authentication.

In 2023, SLFC’s Internet Shutdowns tracker noted 41 shutdowns. The most recent one was in Manipur where more than 50,000 people have been displaced in the ethnic violence, as reported by The Hindu. HRW and IFF’s report also highlights the UN human rights experts’ statement that blanket internet shutdowns violate international human rights law. Furthermore, in 2021 the UN Secretary-General empathised with the need to provide universal access to the internet by 2030 as a human right.

“The Indian government should stop making unpersuasive arguments about maintaining public order and instead focus on how these shutdowns have disrupted people’s entire lives, in some cases causing irreversible harm,” Apar Gupta, executive director at IFF said in the report. Gupta further added that the authorities should end this “abusive practice,” which comes with severe consequences for the country’s reputation and its people. 

Also read: How Kashmir's extended internet shutdown has created a 'digital apartheid'

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