During the summer unrest of 2016, when Kashmir witnessed a complete communication gag, including internet shutdown for more than three months, many would have hoped that internet shutdown, longest till that point of time, would never repeat itself. But as they say records are meant to be broken, and four years down the line, 4G internet suspension just crossed 16 months of ban. It seems to have become a new normal, but beneath that normalcy lies immense losses of businessmen and shattered dreams of students and youth.
The high speed internet has remained in suspension mode since August 5, 2019 when the special Constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked. However, despite constant criticism from rights groups, business community and students to this “denial of basic right to people,” authorities continue to throttle internet speed in J&K barring Ganderbal and Udhampur, where it was restored “on trial basis”.
While for the last three years, the Department of Telecommunications which runs under the ambit of the Union Telecommunications Ministry has told several states, including J&K UT that “internet shutdowns should be the last resort to control law and order problems”, the 4G suspension here continues unabated.
Going a step ahead, the Union Communications ministry on November 10 this year, issued an order stating that “temporary suspension of telecom services” cannot be put into effect for more than 15 days. The ministry took the decision while issuing an order amending the “Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety Rules 2017). “The suspension order issued by the competent authority under sub rule (1) shall not be in suspension for more than 15 days” read the order.
However, time and again regulatory orders have taken a back seat when it comes to handling mobile, internet service regulation in the Valley.
Frequent suspension of Internet and mobile services in the Valley by the authorities during last several years has caused a body-blow to Kashmir’s economy resulting in losses worth almost Rs 4000 crore between 2012 to 2017, says a study conducted by Delhi-based think-tank International Council for Research on International Economic Relations ( ICRIER). The study “The anatomy of an Internet blackout: Measuring the economic impact of internet shutdowns in India” says most adversely affected sectors by the Internet and mobile service shutdowns are e-commerce and general trade. It says tourism, IT services, press and news media, banking, education, healthcare, manufacturing and heavy industries have also been hit by internet shutdowns.
As the political activity in Jammu and Kashmir after a year long hiatus, gained certain momentum, restoration of 4G internet service has found a mention in demands of most parties but to no avail yet. Similarly, digital rights bodies have also raised the issue of the continuous suspension of the internet in J&K at various national and international forums but to no avail.
In order to regulate the mobile and internet shutdowns, the Central government in September 2017 came up with rules to legislate the authority required and procedures to be followed to “temporarily suspend telecom services” in case of “public emergency or public safety”. Issued by the Ministry of Communications under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, these rules were codified as the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017. These rules confer the status of competent authority on the Union home secretary when the order is issued by the government of India. For a state government, the power lies with the state home secretary. In “unavoidable circumstances”, though, orders could be issued by an officer “not below the rank of a joint secretary to the government of India, who has been duly authorised by the Union home secretary or the state home secretary”.