On 6th December 2017, MediaNama held a discussion in Delhi, on the Impact of Internet Shutdowns, with support from Facebook. The following is part 2 of notes based on the first session of these discussions. Read part 1 here.
Internet shutdowns have a huge impact on the people that depend on the internet — which is everyone. There are huge implications of shutdowns on education, banking, commerce, and even on the very law enforcement and administrations that impose these bans.
Working professionals mostly got impacted, Manish Adhikary, who runs the Teesta Herald in Darjeeling, said. “So who were affected by the ban? Mostly it was working professionals, especially journalists. A journalist from DNA and I went to Darjeeling when the 100 day shutdown in Darjeeling was going on, and we had a nightmarish experience trying to send the stories across to our offices; I was freelancing for TOI, and Bimal Gurung, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha president, addressed a press conference and we were there. He gave us an exclusive one-on-one interview, and we both filed around 1000-word copies, and at first, we tried sending it across through SMS, and it just was not possible.” Adhikary later filed the story after a local guided him and the other journalist to the “Jio Hills”, where there were faint Internet tower signals from across the state border in Sikkim.
Aakash Hassan, a journalist with 101Reporters, wrote a story on militant leader Burhan Wani’s execution by Indian security forces, but couldn’t file it. “For four days I couldn’t find an internet connection to file the story. Finally, I traveled around 20 kilometers and reached a District Magistrate’s office and lied that I was a student who had to file a document in University to get admission, can you please give me internet access? Thankfully they gave me access, and I filed the story for the newspaper.“
Adhikary pointed out that the 100 day internet shutdown in Darjeeling impacted students both inside and outside the state. He explained: “So imagine if you’re a student from Darjeeling studying in a college in Bangalore and you received your pocket money from back home via netbanking and the banks were shut down because there was no Internet, and because the parents could not go anywhere outside Darjeeling because of the indefinite bandh going on back then. The kids had to fend for themselves, there was no money coming from home for them.”
Hassan pointed to how students began studying without relying on online resources: “In the education sector, Kashmiri students now say that they don’t rely on the Internet. They don’t want to be reliant on the internet. Nobody considers internet access reliable in Kashmir. You never know when it will be snapped. There is no prior warning. There is nothing. A friend of mine told me that the internet was like a drug. You’re addicted to it and suddenly you snap it. What happens then? You’ll be frustrated. Most schools don’t have internet access. People can study on YouTube, but then the internet can get snapped. So if anyone is preparing for examinations, they make sure that all material they’re using is in print form.”
Safeena Wani, also a journalist with 101Reporters, said: “Young people face mental pressure and depression after internet gets snapped in Kashmir. According to MSF data, 45% of the population in Kashmir is adults, and they have symptoms of mental distress. According to the records, we have only ten mental health specialists in Kashmir, who are treating the entire population. Recently in 2016, there was a huge six month-long internet shutdown. If I ask you people to keep your phone switched off for an hour, imagine how many messages you will miss, and how much you get frustrated. For six months, we were in isolation.”
When protests erupted in Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, journalist Saurabh Sharma said, “The girls [living in the hostels] were asked to evacuate within 5-6 hours, and I met a girl from Bangladesh who was doing a Fine Arts degree, she was a first year and had just moved to India. And they were told to get out immediately. And even if she got a hotel room, then she would have to walk 3 kilometers just to reach the campus main gate. And she couldn’t book a cab because there was no internet. Jio was used by everyone because the kids didn’t have a lot of money. So they all did WhatsApp calls to talk to family. She said, I just have ₹700, and they have given us an unannounced holiday and forced us out of the hostel. She didn’t have a train ticket, or a reservation. If she went out, there were police. The police had previously gone into the hostel and beat students up. Many of the college students were holed up in the bathroom, hid in the boys’ hostel, and in the warden’s quarters.”
Kumar, another 101Reporters journalist, was in Haryana when riots broke out protesting rape convictions of Dera Sacha Sauda leader Ram Rahim Singh. The state government shut the internet down in some districts in an effort to contain misinformation. “So we went to check on the ground, and hospitals shut down. Because of the violence, a lot of people went to the hospitals. In the hospitals, many people’s lives could have been spared if the internet was running and the equipment was up. At least ten people died because the Internet was not running. They couldn’t order blood, medicines… many of them were government hospitals. Doctors couldn’t communicate. Ten avoidable deaths occurred. Three people’s corpses got to their kin only after five days of death. They were not from Panchkula, so their families couldn’t be tracked down so quickly.”
Wani pointed out that the entire medical profession in Kashmir was paralyzed without internet: “We have a psychiatrist there, Dr. Arif Maghribi Khan, he had started a Facebook page for online counseling around two and a half years back. In 2016 he was treating patients online, because he has patients from around the world. People in Kashmir living abroad and in the rest of the country contact him through the online page and take counseling and advice from the doctor; he even advises medication for them. But he had a case in Dubai, a lady he was treating for 9 months, but when it started, the internet shut down for six months. Then in January 2016, he has to restart her therapy. You can just imagine. The second important thing, if we have some cases of drug addicts in Kashmir, they sometimes feel shy to come forward to the doctor and reveal their identity. They use fake accounts on Facebook or any other social app and contact their doctor to get drug addiction counseling. But once internet is shut down you can think how frustrating it can be.
She continued, “We have a bone and joint hospital in Srinagar. Last year, the fiber wire was cut down because of some rats in the room. So when the CT scan machine was not working, there was only one operator who can actually make that machine again working, but he was living in some far area in other district, and the situation was worse, people were not able to come to the hospitals, the staff. The doctors. Somehow they were managing to come but the engineer was in South Kashmir and it was already a volatile situation. When doctors and authorities tried to contact him, his prepaid mobile phone was already closed, because prepaid phones weren’t working at that time. WhatsApp and email didn’t work since that was also banned. The hospital authorities had to contact the manufacturer’s Delhi head office. And they told them, we are sorry we cannot send anyone to Kashmir because the situation is worse there. And a lot of people who were injured at that time had to suffer because of that machine not working.”
Roshan Gupta, another 101Reporters journalist, said: “The hundred day strike hit hard on the banks, especially. On 18th June, when banks were closed down, we interacted with bank employees after the Internet shutdowns. The size of the book decreased, which means that if there are transactions like opening an account, or doing any transactions, they face a loss. Every account is a profit to them. They faced a huge loss. People who couldn’t pay their EMIs were branded as defaulters and had to pay a penalty for it. Same goes for tourism. Every year we have a footfall of 80-90% in the hills. This year it was around 40%. So the Internet ban made people go bizarre. Banks were told that they will be open two days ahead of the ban, so when the employees went to the bank, they didn’t get any connection. So they had to clean the bank and go away. So that was the worst part of it.”
E-commerce companies particularly suffered. Wani said, “When there was an internet shutdown, an online entrepreneur took a loan of 3 lakh rupees from JK Bank. And the irony is that when it was shut down, she was not able to sell her goods online, so she had to pay the instalment without earning a penny. Second there’s another lady, her name is [unclear] she too started through Instagram, called [unclear]. She’s selling the handicraft items there, she too faces the losses. Recently she was telling me that either she has to close down all the products or she’ll go for another private job. Because there is no option, she never knows when there’s an internet shutdown, she can’t sell these products.”
Traders couldn’t file their taxes either. Saurabh Sharma said: “One such case has come to our notice from Saharanpur. When caste clashes happened there in May or June, there was a businessman who deals in handicrafts made with wood. He was not able to pay his taxes, he was penalized, and lost 10-12 lakhs, from the five-six day shutdown. He hasn’t challenged it.”
Government and law enforcement
Surprisingly, governments themselves suffered when they shut the internet down, and so did the police who many times requested them in the first place.
Adhikary said, “One very interesting the way the ban affected people was on politicians and the administrative functionaries themselves. We have a trend back in Darjeeling where most politicians prefer to speak to each other over WhatsApp. They find it very risky to make phone calls to each other, for the obvious reason they fear that the calls may be tapped. The same goes for administrative officials as well, probably because WhatsApp call quality is much better.”
Kumar pointed out how even law enforcement suffers.: “When these riots happen, police is unable to gather a lot of evidence. The police has a lot of photos to gather from social media to pursue their cases, but this goes away when there’s a shutdown. A lot of people could have been identified as to who incited violence, and they said we’ll use drones to keep an eye on people. But without internet, they couldn’t even fly the drone properly. So when they couldn’t control the huge number of people with existing police force deployments, they had to shoot people down. A lot of people died.”
Wani recounted an incident soon after the ban: “When I was roaming around Lal Chowk, the city centre of Srinagar, one of the police officials was asking a teenage guy “What is a VPN? Can you download it for me on my phone? I also want to use WhatsApp because I don’t know what’s going on in my district.” When social media was blocked, from policeman to common person, everyone suffered.”
Quotes are edited lightly for clarity.