India has crossed 100 Internet Shutdowns in 2018, but very little is discussed about how they affect daily lives. MediaNama is publishing a series on the impact that Internet Shutdowns have on people’s lives. These were originally published by the Centre for Internet & Society, and written by reporters working with 101Reporters.com, in a report which was released on May 17th 2018.

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By Roshan Gupta

Darjeeling, West Bengal:

As the Internet shutdown in Darjeeling touched the notorious mark of 100 days in late September, its impact was felt by members of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) — the party agitating for a separate state of Gorkhaland. The state government’s move had managed to impair the communication and coordination among the agitators.

However, for most residents, lack of access to the internet meant months of crippled bank transactions and mounting financial strain. The impact of the move was felt by all sections of society and most services experienced a slowdown or complete paralysis.

Students from the town were among the worst hit as the internet ban cut off a steady flow of money from home for academic purposes.  

“I had to cut down my daily meals to once a day to save whatever little currency notes I had, especially since it was not clear when the ban would be lifted,” said Shradha Subba, a resident of Darjeeling who is pursuing her Bachelors degree in Kolkata.

Her parents were not able to send her money due to the ban and arranging cash from another state was also not an option. “I had no option but to borrow money and even that was difficult as all my friends were from the hills and faced the same problem,” said Subba.

The parents of many students also felt hard done by the shutdown and said they often found it difficult to communicate with their children. Transferring money for their monthly educational needs was also impossible. “We were able to make phone-calls to our children once in a while, but we could not see them as video-calling was out of the question. We also could not send the money for their semester fees on time and had to ask our relatives in Sikkim to arrange cash for them,” said a concerned mother whose daughter was studying in Delhi.

The ban on mobile internet was imposed on June 18, 2017. Two days later, broadband service was also restricted. The initial shutdown was meant to last for only a week but it had since seen several extensions owing to incessant agitations. Banks were left helpless especially in the face of uncertainty regarding when the restrictions would be lifted.

“None of the banking services were functional and no transactions were done during the period of the internet shutdown. Even the ATMs were closed and people could not be provided normal services,” said Jagabandhu Mondal, district branch manager, State Bank of India.

People routinely missed bill payments and no online transactions were done during the course of the ban. Reports emerged of people travelling over 80 kilometres, either to Siliguri or to Sikkim, just to withdraw some money.

Those who had purchased new vehicles found themselves struggling to pay their monthly installments despite having cash in their accounts. Travelling to Siliguri to pay the installment was also daunting as the road transportation was restricted by agitating political parties and supporters picketing on the streets.

Santosh Rai, a resident who had purchased a car just before the internet ban, said: “I could not go to Siliguri or even pay online. Now I’m facing claims for penalty. It was very hard for the vehicle owners to pay the EMI for three months along with a penalty. I asked for help from my friends but how long will they pay.”

He claimed that several people were forced to default on payments due to the blanket ban imposed by the government. “We could have deposited the EMI but the banks were closed, and that is not our fault,” said Rai.

Another victim, Mukesh Rai, also echoed Santosh’s sentiments while describing how he had to default on EMI payments towards his new car. “I used to walk towards Melli, Rangpo, or Singtam (all small towns in Sikkim) to withdraw money as my family and I were in need of liquid cash. Even that became difficult mid-monsoon,” he said.

Experts also pointed out that the ban was enforced even as the rest of the country discussed Digital India and a push towards cashless economy.

Another resident, Pema Namgyal, said he had lost a job because of the ban on internet services. He had opted to work from home for an advertising agency based out of Bangalore. “I had taken up an editing and copywriting job with an advertising agency. I had an issue with my spine and since long leaves are not possible in creative agencies, I opted to work from home. Five days after I reached here, an indefinite strike was called and the internet was shut down. I couldn’t work as per my client’s schedule and when I could not coordinate with him, he looked for another copywriter and asked me to refund an advance payment he had made,” said Namgyal.

The manager of an HDFC bank branch, Paul Tshring Lepcha, said, “We use BSNL connections usually for banking work and once the network was down we had a hard time updating our system… there are alternative portals like Airtel and Vodafone but even that was of no use at the time,” recalls Lepcha.

Book size of private banks too saw a drop in these 100 days and the regulation regarding monthly maintenance of ₹5,000 in their customers’ accounts could not be continued. Officials from Indusland Bank said that people even started preferring government banks as they have a lower maintenance requirement. “During the ban period, no new account holders were registered and the mutual funds market also experienced a lull,” said an official from a private bank.

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Roshan Gupta is a Siliguri-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Cross-posted here with permission under the CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Photograph by Syeda Ambia Zahan.