Throttling internet speeds to 2G has not impeded COVID-19 control measures, including accesses to information for general public and health workers, administration of justice, or education in Jammu and Kashmir, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy claimed in Lok Sabha on Sunday. He said that e-learning apps and websites of the government of India and government of Jammu and Kashmir “are accessible over 2G internet for downloading e-books and other study material”.

Reddy was answering a question raised by Congress MP Uttam Kumar Reddy Nalamada (Nalgonda, Telangana) who wanted to know the economic loss caused by the internet blockade and its impact on services such as healthcare, education, and access to justice. The government did not give any concrete figures for the economic impact of the internet shutdown; it just said, “businesses have had access to internet through fixed line connectivity and internet kiosks opened in large numbers across the Valley without any speed restrictions”.

All means of communication were snapped in Jammu and Kashmir on August 4 midnight, a day before the central government abrogated Article 370 that granted special status to the erstwhile state, and created to union territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — instead. It is at the end of January 2020 that fixed line services (with Mac-binding, but no speed restrictions) and 2G mobile data services were restored. However, access was limited to a whitelist of 301 websites and access to social media sites was enabled only in March. 4G internet services were restored in only two districts — Udhampur and Ganderbal — on August 16 on a trial basis.

Despite Reddy’s claims that suggest that the internet shutdown had practically no impact on people in Kashmir, stories from the new Union Territory tell a starkly different story. Reddy’s response came a day after Union Minister Jitendra Singh had convened a meeting to review the “alarming” COVID-19 situation in the union territory where it has amongst the lowest recover rates, 43%, in the country. At the time of publication, the UT had 40,957 COVID-19 cases and 1,001 deaths.

Critical medical services crippled, obsolete information on COVID-19

Doctors from Kashmir had earlier told MediaNama that even in middle of a global pandemic, they were constrained by slow internet. “It takes hours to download an advisory document released by the World Health Organisation (WHO),” a doctor had told our journalist. They have been unable to attend online conferences, programs, and access medical journals that could have helped them deal with the pandemic.

If that was not enough, pathology labs in Kashmir, that already lacked sophisticated testing equipment, depended on labs in bigger cities to send reports over internet. That came to a standstill as reports could not be sent for over four months. The owner of one such lab had told our journalist that the internet shutdown could end up being fatal for many of the patients.

WhatsApp groups that connected junior doctors across the state to senior specialists for advice and consultation came to a standstill. Telemedicine consultations have also been impossible in the absence of reliable and fast internet.

Students robbed of resources, unable to apply for key tests

Contrary to what Reddy claimed in Lok Sabha, students faced significant issues in the region. In the absence of internet, disrupted newspaper distribution, closed schools, students had no way to find out the deadlines to submit examination forms to the Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education, MediaNama had found.

Attending classes online, during the COVID-19 related lockdowns, at reduced 2G speeds, was practically impossible, multiple students had told our journalist. Downloading PDFs of lecture notes takes hours. Access to video content, especially useful to understand scientific concepts, was non-existent.

Teachers, too, have found it difficult to teach as network interruptions and slow speeds mean that students can’t remain engaged. One teacher had told our journalist, “I don’t think we will be able to compete with outside world students with this quality of studies. It seems we are still stuck in the 20th century.”

Even undisrupted access to crawling 2G internet was not always guaranteed since complete internet shutdowns were imposed when gunfight broke out between militants and government forces. Between January and June 2020, there have been 55 instances, according to a report released by two Kashmir based Rights groups, JKCCS and APDP, where mobile internet services were completely shut.

Kashmiri businesses face bankruptcy

A July 2020 report from Forum for Human Rights said that Jammu and Kashmir registered economic losses to the tune of a staggering ₹40,000 crore (US$5.3 billion) since August 2019 and saw half a million people lose their jobs. This was calculated on the basis of the estimates by the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries (KCCI).

MediaNama had earlier reported that people in Kashmir had not expected the communications shutdown to last more than a few weeks. As a result of the prolonged shutdown, businesses have suffered adversely and are on the brink of closure. Those who depended on e-commerce could no longer serve their customers due to internet shutdowns. This included logistics companies as well as merchants who relied on e-commerce. Even after restoration at 2G speeds, marketing was practically impossible since video content promoting the products could not be uploaded by producers or watched by potential consumers.

Multiple people that our journalist spoke to said that the internet shutdown had dissuaded them from starting business in Kashmir owing to the lack of economic security.

Feet on the ground: Read our on-ground reports on the impact of the internet shutdown: