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Over the past week farmer protests have been met with a painful slowing down of internet services in several parts of Delhi, plus their suspension at Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri and adjoining areas. In Haryana mobile internet and SMS services were suspended in 17 districts. This is in fact becoming standard operating procedure in states across India. Despite all the research showing that digital blackouts encourage rumours not peace, abuse of this blunt instrument is growing. Education, health, the public distribution system, banking, every sector becomes collateral damage, as access to the internet has become a fundamental requirement for so many of citizens’ essential transactions.
Note that government itself is at the forefront of this civilisational shift with the Digital India campaign. Indeed digital platforms became lifesavers during the Covid lockdown, facilitating everything from work from home to medical services. Recourse to frequent internet shutdowns actually reflects a schizophrenia in governance. For example, the just released Economic Survey 2020-21 bats for online schooling to reduce inequalities in educational outcomes, and there is wide consensus on this. But at the same time states now resort to suspending internet services to prevent cheating in exams, something that leaves educationists scratching their heads. Jammu & Kashmir meanwhile has not had full resumption of internet services since August 2019.
Even as Indians look forward to 5G technology to usher in a digital revolution, existing services are really in the global backwaters – we ranked 129th in the world for mobile internet speed and 65th for broadband speed in December. Government can’t champion a digital economy with subpar internet speeds and by enforcing the most internet shutdowns in the world. Digital is supposed to empower people while internet shutdowns have an undemocratic feel.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.