With more than 10,000 deliveries made, a three-year-old app delivery service KartFood was poised to grow in Srinagar in the Kashmir province of India.
“Things were going smoothly, and then the Internet ban hit,” recalled the 24-year-old Furqan Querishi, the company’s founder, in an interview in 2020.
Experts saw the blockade as the government’s response to stop mobilization of opinions through the Internet and social media, after the government revoked some autonomous powers in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir was the only Muslim-majority region to join India after its partition in 1947.
In August 2019, the Indian government blocked Internet service in the entire region, restoring it in high-speed form only in February of this year, after an 18-month block. On Jan. 14, 2020, after 160 days of complete blockade across the valley, the block was partially revoked. This decision made it possible to use websites and services such as email (Gmail, Yahoo), banking, education, employment, travel, utilities, and weather. On March 4 of that year, internet services including social media were fully restored for access on 2G bandwidth.
Shutdowns And Trickling Internet Service
Many saw the blockade as “digital apartheid” and the “collective punishment of the region’s residents.” The slow internet connectivity was not only a problem for residents, but also students who tried to study online and fill exam forms amid the lockdown due to COVID-19.
The government also decided against extending high-speed 4G connectivity outside Udhampur and Ganderbal citing concerns of misuse for “disturbing public order.”
The lack of efficient internet connectivity caused much damage to small business owners, entrepreneurs, and consumers, especially at a time when job loss affected numerous sections of India’s workforce and the GDP had shrunk to a new low, falling down by 23.9 percent in the first quarter of FY21.
“I did not know what happened to my employees—there was no way of contacting them or fulfilling orders; everything collapsed. It was even hard to find out if our employees got paid,” said Furqan who left Srinagar right after the crackdown and headed to the more internet-friendly Bangalore in southern India to explore other entrepreneurship opportunities.
The economic loss as a consequence of the blockade was huge. An analysis by Deloitte, an international accounting firm, revealed that the economy often pays the price for Internet shutdowns. The findings suggested that a shutdown could affect the daily economic activity by $6.6 million for ten million people in regions where the internet penetration is 49 to 79 percent.
In the case of Kashmir, a December 2019 report by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries revealed that the valley had lost over $2.4 billions since Aug. 2019.
In the larger picture void of more recent internet curbs, another 2018 report by Delhi-based think tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), revealed that internet curbs between 2012 and 2017 cost India $3.04 billions.
Internet Shutdowns On The Rise
India maintains that the internet shutdown is to prevent “anti-national” elements from conversing and to restore “normalcy” to the state. A key member of the governmental think tank NITI Aayog even went on to say that he could not see any significant impact on the economy because the people of Kashmir do “nothing other than watching dirty films online.”
But in India, internet shutdowns are not scant. The world’s most populous democracy has had around 434 recorded internet shutdowns between 2012 and 2019, according to data provided and recorded by internetshutdowns.in, a website that tracks internet shutdowns in India that is maintained by the Software Freedom Law Center, India (SFLC.in).
“We have a citizen reporting tracker that aggregates shutdown reports from people, but we don’t report any shutdown on the website until we verify it, which we do through local news reports and ground connections,” said Sundar Krishnan, the Executive Director of SFLC.in.
Internet shutdowns have been more common in India than anywhere else in the world. The number of shutdowns increased after the government’s decision to remove Article 370. Further bans were imposed after the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which provides amnesty to non-muslim immigrants from three neighboring countries, was passed in December.
But India is not the only one doing it. Access Now is a non-profit and human rights group which also looks at public policy and advocacy. The international organization group runs a global campaign to track internet shutdowns in conjunction with, as of September 2020, 220 organizations from 99 different countries around the world.
The data obtained by the organization revealed that the total number of recorded shutdowns in 2018 was 196, compared to 75 in 2016. In 2019, the organization reported 213 global shutdowns, with India recording 121 of these. Venezuela, with 12 shutdowns, was the second country in the list.
In recent years, at least a quarter of the countries in the world have resorted to internet shutdowns. Besides India, governments in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Myanmar have cut down access to the internet to maul voices of specific populations and regions — the ones that have criticized the government of oppressing and marginalizing minority groups. In Africa, nationwide shutdowns were common in 2019, and would continuously happen during protests, elections, and political instability.
“Most of the shutdowns are imposed when the government fears of public safety and rumors spreading on the internet, but beyond that, there’s a huge loss on the economy, healthcare, and education. There is not a single sector that is not affected by the internet shutdowns,” explains Sundar from internetshutdowns.in
Severe Effect On Startups And Businesses
In Kashmir, the hardest hit by the blockade were startups whose operations were frameworked on the internet. Once-flourishing local e-commerce businesses were significantly affected. Sparse communication made it extremely difficult for online companies to operate from the valley, primarily if a part of their work was based on social media.
While the entrepreneurial spirit of Furqan from KartFood got him to another city that was more welcoming than the one he left, businesses that were more locally rooted, such as Kashmir Box described as “one stop shopping destination for anyone who wishes to purchase from the vale of Kashmir.”, had to shut down their communication channels due to the internet blockade. They could only resume their services late in January after the rollback of broadband connections in the valley.
“Since we are dependent on the local market and an uninterrupted internet service, we had to completely shut down our office after 5 August,” said Sajid Nahvi, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Kashmir Box to Huffington Post.
He added that the company had to “face huge losses as more than 3,000 orders of different items were canceled on the site since 5 August.”
Kashmir Box did manage to resume its services, but other marketplaces met a different fate.
Danish Mir’s Kashmir Basket was also forced by the internet crackdown to close. Like Kashmir Box, his online marketplace offered a wide range of products from Kashmir, from handicrafts to home décor to spices to tea and other things grown or made in Kashmir.
Now that Danish has lost Kashmir Basket to a dysfunctional internet presence, he is working on a new travel startup called GoKash Adventures and is hoping that it will stay afloat despite a significant loss of revenue.
“Most of our clients from abroad are worried about the ongoing internet shutdown. Our clients need to stay in touch with their family through the internet—something that we cannot ensure when we are in the valley,” Danish said.
Even customers had to face the wrath of online shopping.
“The trust factor has certainly dropped. Yes, students or anyone who depends on the internet for their work have to face a lot of problems. When we talk about online shopping, the inconvenience around 2G internet has led to people doing a large part of their shopping directly from shops,” says Moimin, a student based in Srinagar.
The Advantage Of Brick And Mortar
The companies that are most vulnerable to shutdowns are the ones that operate online, such as online stores and food delivery services. An internet shutdown will hamper the services of a company if its operations are based locally through the internet.
While companies could have office spaces and servers in regions that are less vulnerable to Internet shutdowns, the entirety of making a business profitable and accessible in vulnerable places dissolves. Besides, finding a way out of the shutdown debacle could be just accepting a blow on one’s human rights.
Regardless of the justification for the shutdown, the UN thinks that internet shutdowns are a violation of civil and political rights. It also calls for countries to ensure access to the internet even in times of political unrest.
The situation is so unlike the United States. Besides a more robust amendment to protect the freedom of the press, no law provides authority to the US over its internet service providers. With thousands of ISPs in operation, the implementation of a shutdown even through legal courses can be quite hard.
The increase in Internet shutdowns is being combated by people who are taking actions to defend this right by seeking legal help. Advocates around the world are coming out and challenging their governments in the court against these arbitrary shutdowns. While a lot of these appeals are successful with apt consequences, several arguments have been put aside under the object of ‘national security’ during the times of political unrest.
Ribhu is a freelance journalist and publisher based in Bengaluru, India. He edits and publishes REH — a weekly newsletter and publication on rural, environment, and health in India. He can be reached at ribhu.live.