Internet shutdown in India shows the dark side of digital dependence to businesses and livelihood

Internet shutdown in India shows the dark side of digital dependence to businesses and livelihood

By Faheem Usmani Qasmi

Initially localized to certain states like Jammu & Kashmir, The practice of internet blackouts by the Indian government has become very common across the country. The most recent shutdown took place in Uttar Pradesh on Thursday, December 27, 2019, when UP government had blocked out Internet connectivity in 21 districts over concerns of further protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act erupting after the Friday prayers. New Delhi, India’s national capital also saw internet shutdown in several parts of the city in the month of December.

Since 2012, the internet has been shut down in India a total of around 375 times and most of them have occurred during the last two years – 134 in 2018 and 103 in 103 in 2019.

A website – https://internetshutdowns.in/ (Internet Shutdowns) – is a tracker of instances where a particular district or state is reportedly under a government-restricted internet. The website also collects and collates reports from across India during such cases. Over 70 instances of internet shutdown in 2017 to 134 in 2018, India ranked first in the list of countries which imposed internet restriction last year gaining the title of “Internet shutdown capital of the world”.

The website also recorded the longest ever ban imposed on access to the internet which is still under effect in Jammu and Kashmir. The state went under a complete lockdown of mobile and internet services from the August 2019, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated by the Parliament of India. The J&K was bifurcated into the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. There was a preventive shutdown imposed in the state which is yet to be lifted, the beginning of the communication blockade saw landlines as well as Mobile services restricted, the ban on landlines was lifted but suspension of mobile internet continues in the valley.

In fact, India has turned so infamous for it during the last few months that China –known for its surveillance of online activity – is citing India as an example. An editorial by Qing Qin in People’s Daily – China’s largest newspaper and a controlled entity of the country’s ruling party, said, “The internet shutdown in India has once again proved that the necessary regulation of the internet is a reasonable choice of sovereign countries based on national interests, and a natural extension of national sovereignty in cyberspace.”

Internet shutdowns in the country are ordered under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. Under these rules, an officer – of no less than joint secretary rank in the state or Union government – may order the suspension of telecom services “due to public emergency or public safety”.

The cost of shut down

India lost $968 million because of internet shutdown between July 2015 and June 2016, a study by the think-tank Brookings Institution found. According to another research report filed by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, in around five year-period –2012 to 2017 –, India lost around USD 3 billion due to mobile internet and broadband shutdowns. Since then the number of bans imposed on the accessibility of the internet across India has only risen. More than 95% of Indians use the internet on their phones, which is why a blanket ban on the internet remains the more natural way for authorities to curb the nuisance and spread of misinformation.

“A telco loses a minimum of Rs 1.5 crore a day per state if its internet services are shut down. It the stat holds a large population and the ban is for a longer duration, then the loss is larger”, said Rajan Mathew, director general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). The body represents all three private players Bharti Airtel, Reliance Jio and Vodafone Idea.

“We’ve highlighted the cost of these shutdowns,” COAI director general Rajan Mathews told Reuters. “According to our computation at the end of 2019, with the increase in online activities, we believe the cost (of internet shutdowns) is close to 24.5 million rupees for an hour of internet shutdown.”

Since December 15, the internet has been shut down entirely or is being throttled in parts of Karnataka, UP, Delhi, Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal and Gujarat due to ongoing protest against the country’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This has sent a jolt of a shock to the general mass, including business owners and affected many netizens, and there seems to be no respite for many of these places still.

From regular people who are unable to connect to the Internet or call their families to businesses, internet shutdown affects everyone. Business sectors, such as banking, tourism, e-commerce, education, and healthcare, among others, are the most impacted in such regions.

Food and grocery delivery services such as Zomato, Uber Eats, Swiggy, Grofers, and Milk Basket are unavailable in cities like Lucknow, which is the capital of UP, the largest state in India. In Lucknow, the internet services were suspended on December 19 with intermittent relief in between for a day before the suspension was "extended" till December 25.

report by Times of India notes that “Food delivery apps have seen volumes dip by 10-20%” in 24 districts of UP, Delhi, and other internet prohibited areas." Grofers has rescheduled close to 25,000 grocery orders in Lucknow alone due to the imposition of ban on the Internet.

Cab owners who work with OLA or Uber are losing more than Rs 2,500 every day as people cannot book cabs on the said apps. A mobile shop owner suffers a lot as he cannot sell even a single mobile phone because people generally prefer payments through debit/credit cards, but the swipe machine is also does not work. They cannot sell sim cards and recharge phone numbers until the internet is restored.

That's not all. Internet shutdown hurt local residents of the concerning area and businesses with the imposition of restriction on access to the Internet, residents are unable to contact other people over the internet, access emails on their phones, pay for bills online, use services like Paytm, PhonePe and UPI, use credit/debit cards for payments and many more tribulations.

In a massive setback, students are unable to access study material available on the Internet or fill forms of important examinations that will be conducted in 2020. 

The impact of internet shutdown is more significant on small and medium enterprises, as they don't have enough means to switch to an alternative with ease. Arguably, governments can resort to such bans as unavailability of the Internet in such extreme situations does more damage to the livelihoods of people daily.

The Writer is research excutive at MMERC, Mumbai