Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India's frequent internet shutdowns threaten its ambitious Digital India mission; poor and marginalised worst-affected

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

Pankti Mehta Kadakia
Published: Jun 14, 2023 02:03:19 PM IST
Updated: Jun 14, 2023 04:23:28 PM IST

India's frequent internet shutdowns threaten its ambitious Digital India mission; poor and marginalised worst-affectedIn August 2019, the Indian government blocked all communications in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent protests over the abrogation of Article 370 cutting off access to 4G internet for 500 days. Image: Muzamil Mattoo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

You’ve likely faced ‘downtime’ for a few frustrating minutes, even hours. 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 opens with the example of a Dalit woman with five children in Rajasthan, who says, “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.”
 
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 separatist leader Amritpal Singh.
 
The 82-page report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Internet Freedom Foundation, released on Wednesday morning, is 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.
 
“We started out our research with a blank slate, and no real hypothesis. What surprised us most was how extensive the problem is, especially because Aadhar authentication just cannot happen without the internet,” says Krishnesh Bapat, a lawyer who contributed to the 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.”

India's frequent internet shutdowns threaten its ambitious Digital India mission; poor and marginalised worst-affected
 
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.

Also read: How a Kashmiri content creator managed to continue working during the internet shutdown
 
The government has digitised MGNREGA, including its attendance checks and wage payments. While poor network connectivity is a persisting problem, all-out shutdowns only make things worse. Since January, MGNREGA requires its workers to be geo-tagged and photographed twice a day, on an online attendance app.
 
“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.

India's frequent internet shutdowns threaten its ambitious Digital India mission; poor and marginalised worst-affected
 
Government-initiated shutdowns are typically initiated when strife is expected. “The government claims this stops the spread of rumours and helps maintain public order, but they haven’t been able to produce evidence that supports this,” Bapat adds. “In fact, our research shows that with no access to legitimate news sources and communication channels, shutdowns add fuel to rumours, as people lose access to verified information.”
 
“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.”

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In June 2022, India signed a G7 statement committing to “ensure an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure Internet for all”. Bajoria and HRW recommend 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,” Bajoria says.
 
She adds that 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.”
 
Find a full list of India's internet shutdowns here