India’s frequent internet shutdowns disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable and impoverished section of the country depending on the Centre’s social protection measures for food and livelihoods, according to a Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation’s new report.
The 82-page report titled ‘No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food – Internet Shutdowns Deny Access to Basic Rights in Digital India, revealed since 2018, India had more internet shutdowns than any other country globally.
The report stated from the country’s 28 states, 18 faced internet shutdowns at least once in the last three years. While the eleven other states namely Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Manipur, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Telangana did not publish the suspension orders as directed by the Supreme Court.
The report said, the authorities often failed to justify the apprehension of risk to public safety even after orders were published. It underlined Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam government’s internet shutdown preventing cheating in examinations, an unnecessary and disproportionate stand.
Furthermore, the report highlighted that the total number of shutdowns does not include internet shutdowns in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir where the authorities continued internet shutdowns more than any other place in the country.
In fact, India’s longest internet shutdown was marked in the valley when the government stopped 4G mobile internet access for 550 days, starting from August 2019 to February 2021.
It was noted in the report that local authorities adopted the shutdowns in 54 cases as a preventive or responsive measure against protests.37 were to avoid cheating in school examinations or exams related to government jobs, 18 were in response to communal violence, and 18 were for other law and order concerns, the report added.
State governments have also resorted to the internet shutdown as a “collective punishment”. And in March 2023, Punjab was also under a three-day mobile internet blackout to track down a separatist leader. Subsequently, in May, Manipur’s state government completely blocked the internet on both mobile and fixed-line services for an entire month amidst the ongoing ethnic violence in the state.
The report said Indian authorities claim the internet shutdowns are to prevent violence fueled by social media rumours, preventing mobilisation of mobs.
However, a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology in 2021 concluded that no evidence indicates that internet shutdowns have effectively addressed public emergencies and ensured public safety.
The report noted that 96 per cent of subscribers in India use their mobile devices to access the internet, while only 4 per cent have access to fixed-line internet.
While several government schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNGREGA) moved towards digitising its benefits. Monitoring its attendance and wage payments required adequate internet access. Since network coverage is poor in remote areas, internet shutdowns made the situation worse, the report claimed.
Another policy, the National Food Security Act, which provides subsidised food grains also requires internet, as all people eligible for subsidised food rations are obliged to link their ration card with Aadhaar.
Meanwhile, the report said the internet shutdowns disrupt the rural communities’ basic banking, online bill payments and application and access to other official documents creating hardship among them.