41 rights’ groups, including Access Now, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Human Rights Watch, have asked the Indian government to restore 4G internet access in Jammu and Kashmir in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an open letter, the organisations said that the absence of 4G internet has hindered the work of health professionals, has prevented the public from getting information, and impeded the work of journalists, human rights defenders and others. The letter cites research showing that restrictions on 4G make video-conferencing “practically impossible to access and use effectively”.

The letter urgently appeals to the government to:

  1. Restore high-speed 4G internet access to full capacity to enable Jammu and Kashmir residents to be well-informed and to access crucial information; to ensure that journalists and human rights workers have the resources to do their work
  2. Lift all restrictions on the internet and telecommunication tools unconditionally and facilitate access to a free, open, and secure internet
  3. Work with ISPs and telcos to ensure a free, open, and secure internet in the union territory
  4. Implement the Supreme Court’s recommendation to review the text and functioning of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services Rules 2017, which allows for internet suspensions. The Supreme Court had observed that indefinite internet suspension orders under the rules are not permitted, and that orders can only be temporary. The court had also said that suspensions should be proportionate and should not extend beyond the required timeframe.

The letter also states that doctors in the region have to wait hours to download and access crucial information such as guidelines for intensive care management of the virus and best practices recommended by the WHO. Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP), Free Expression Myanmar (FEM), Open Net Africa are among the organisations who have signed the letter.

In its petition in the SC asking for restoration of 4G in the region, the Foundation for Media Professionals has also cited difficulties in access to online classes and accurate information, in delivery of healthcare in the territory, and the inability to “work from home” due to slow internet speeds. The Supreme Court has asked the Jammu & Kashmir administration and the Union government to file replies on the petition by April 26, and has scheduled the next hearing for April 27. Attorney General KK Venugopal reportedly opposed the restoration of services, stating that “It’s a question of national security”. He also cited an incident where 500 people gathered for the funeral of a militant.

Mobile internet services were restored in the union territory at 2G speeds last month after a 7-month internet blackout. Even this came after multiple whitelists allowing a limited number of websites — up to 1,600 per the last whitelist — were issued. Prepaid connections are allowed, but require the kind of KYC verification usually done for postpaid connections.

The first case of COVID-19 in Jammu & Kashmir was reported on March 9, and rose to 41 positive cases and 2 deaths by the time the petition was filed. It currently stands at 454 positive cases, while 5 people have died. Over 11,000 people are under home surveillance and 260 people are under hospital quarantine.