With the advent of 2020, the world has been pushed into a vacuity by an uninvited guest – the coronavirus. All major world economies, including India, are at a standstill due to imposition of strict lockdowns, in turn bogging down the entire global economy. Perplexingly, Kashmir was recently stuck in a three-tier lockdown. People in the now federally administered union territory have been bearing the brunt of a militarized lockdown since August 2019, when the government decided to put an end to Kashmir’s autonomous Statehood. Kashmiris were already reeling from the ruinous impact of a nine-month long shutdown when another communication lockdown was put in place recently.
It is difficult to accredit that while India is the second largest internet consumer in the world and is successfully sprinting alongside the world digitally, Kashmir has still not seen the dawn of speedy and universally accessible internet. With more than 180 internet shutdowns since 2012, the government is striving to make these recurrent communication blockades as the new normal for Kashmiris. This is despite the fact that the government has itself realized the importance of internet access, since such services have been deemed as “essential”, as per the Home Ministry’s March 24th notification. What is more unnerving is how the judiciary has chosen to sit silent over this issue by directing the Executive wing to review its own orders, and not realizing the true potential of courts’ vast powers As of today, with more than a thousand coronavirus cases in the region, this blog attempts to highlight the need for restoration of 4G internet in the region.
II. Three-Fold Implications of The Three Tier Lockdown
The pandemic, which has forced billions into lockdown and obliged them to work and/or study remotely, underlines the importance of internet access. While this crisis impartially affects everyone, Kashmiris, who are without any tools to safeguard themselves, are more vulnerable to this crisis and its impending economic and social impact. This risk is further heightened because pandemic response in the region is also struggling with fragmented authority, political violence, low-state capacity, high levels of civilian displacement, and low trust in leadership.
As early as 2017, organizations such as the American Medical Informatics Association, urged the governments to recognize internet access as a social determinant to health. Now, Kashmir, which already lacks befitting health services in normal circumstances, is more vulnerable in this crisis with ironclad restrictions on the internet. The Northern Command of the Indian Army, that is operationally responsible for the region, has also remained involved since many decades in caring for the health of the locals, especially in far-flung areas. Their responsibility towards public health in corona times is becoming more elaborate with the increasing military tensions along the borders. On the other hand, the existing manpower to run the health institutions is barely sufficient and the region is severely short on its nursing staff, medical practitioners and ventilators. The doctor to patient ratio in Kashmir is one of the lowest in the entire country – with 1 doctor for 3,900 people, as against the World Health Organization’s norm of having 1 doctor per 1,000 people. .
In dealing with a pandemic, reliable and correct information is of a paramount importance. Kashmiris are often oblivious to the events around them and they have to rely only on vernacular mediums and/or word-to-mouth, which reach very late to them. The fear of misinformation and miscommunication due to people’s frail access to information channels has disproportionately amplified their ignorance of significant government health warnings. Corona is a novel virus and everyday there are new leads published by experts from all across the world and many doctors in Kashmir have noted their inability to keep pace with these developments due to the painfully slow speed of 2G internet. Veritably, due to a nationwide lockdown, the speed of the internet has been further choked down due to heavy traffic online. To add to their agony, they cannot even stage their dissent in this regard, as the authorities, in an effort to curb free press, have threatened them for imprisonment if they talk to the journalists directly. Such actions remind us of China’s dictatorial decisions to block information regarding the virus to accelerate its own propaganda, which event]ually left a profound impact on everyone.
Increasingly, media, and social media in particular, is used by governments to educate people about the virus and precautions to be observed. In Vietnam, for instance, a cartoon musical video about washing hands went viral. Even in India, many aspects of the government’s pandemic response are communicated online; along with rolling out a contact tracing app – Aarogya Setu – which is considered extremely vital in subduing the spread of the virus. Now, in Kashmir, without these communication channels, it is strenuous to trace the source and determine how many people a patient got in contact with. Kashmiris are simultaneously fighting another battle with social isolation as they are abandoned in an increased socialization via digital platforms due to strict lockdowns. The internet plays an enabling role in incentivizing people to stay at home and practice social distancing. Accordingly, there has been a full-blown spike in depression and anxiety among Kashmiris as they are thwarted to maintain a status quo with their lives. This seismic toll on them is worsened as the government is ill positioned to meet the citizens’ minimal sustenance requirements for staying at home. Assistance from outside NGOs and donors is also less generous as they tend to focus more on domestic economies and it is even harder to deliver relief packages as travel and staff deployment is a herculean task.
Owing to the pandemic, schools and universities across the world have shifted their learning online. However, Kashmir’s current education system is designed only for face-to-face teaching and learning; and with the internet shutdowns, more than 2,000 schools are unable to conduct classes, leaving the future of more than 2.7 lakh students hanging to dry. Students in Kashmir have missed out on more than nine months of education now and they stand helpless in making a shift to online classes. The University Grant Commission of India brought out guidelines on the methodology to be adopted for imparting education during this pandemic, thereby directing the teachers and institutions to digitise all their resources and take the learning online. However, Kashmir lacks the basic requirements to abide efficiently by these guidelines. Similarly, only for Kashmir, the National Council for Educational Research and Training has advised the teachers to segregate the students into smaller groups and teach them over a phone-call. This is not only an absurd guideline in terms of implementation, but also not feasible as there are reiterative shutdowns of all forms of communication and mobile services by the government.
The Education Department of Kashmir has further brought out an alternative to teach the students via All India Radio, which is problematic for the students who reside in lonesome remote areas, where even such sort of communication is not possible. Moreover, these classes are flawed in their essence as they lack efficient engaging discussions, let alone become perfect substitutes for online classes. The institutions in Kashmir, just like any other institution in the country, require a robust internet connection to ensure that all the resources are digitised and then put to use. Several international organizations like UNESCO have introduced programs like Global Education Coalition, to patronize remote access for education by providing support to teachers all around the world, the benefit of which unfortunately the Kashmiri teachers cannot avail. Further, the United Nations has also declared the right to the internet in 2016 as a human right despite which India has triumphantly deprived the Kashmiris of their fundamental rights for countless times. Therefore, the actions of the Indian government have run aground to meet these international standards.
3. Unemployment Crisis
While the whole country is attempting to battle the abrupt discontinuation of their employment by adopting the “work from home” option, the restriction on the internet has been acting towards the detriment of Kashmiri employees. The health crisis comes with unfolding economic effects – greater poverty, debt, inequalities and most importantly, unemployment, which are threatening to cripple Kashmir. If the economic condition of the region does not improve, it will heighten the struggle to effectively combat the virus.
It has been estimated that the region’s economy in the past few months has practically crashed to the tune of $2.4 billion due to the abrogation of Article 370. Further, now with a new crisis in picture, it is opined that COVID-19 will cost the world approximately $10 trillion, which will lead 130 million people to poverty. In the interest of military curfews, agriculture, small businesses and tourism, the sectors that keep Kashmir’s economy rosy-cheeked, are also brought to a deadlock. People engaged in the delivery business are also hit badly, as the Kashmiri households do not even have the basic facilities to install relevant apps to order essentials to their house, a privilege which the rest of the country is privy to. All of this is interfering with Article 19 of the Constitution of India which guarantees the fundamental right of livelihood.
Many companies have started conducting recruitment interviews and tests online in light of the ongoing pandemic; however, the Kashmiris are not able to siphon these opportunities as well and are stuck in a pithole where sending a basic e-mail takes about fifteen minutes. Kashmir’s working class, consisting mainly of daily wagers and small business owners, is struggling to survive in these peculiar conditions too. The crisis Kashmir has been pushed into because of baffling decisions is something that will deepen the inequalities in the country and it will not be able to come out of without a hitch.
More than ever, the internet has become a fundamental enabler of the right to education, health and livelihood, and is now quintessential for saving peoples’ lives and key parts of the economy. Remarkably, it has been noted that closing the digital divide is necessary to preserve human rights during the outbreak. Governments, like Kerala’s, are in fact trying to boost the internet services for smooth usage for its people. Amidst fears of corona and its impact on the well-being of people, Ethiopia has also lifted its internet and telecommunication restrictions, imposed due to rising conflicts between government and armed groups, in the Oromia region. The government realized that denying one segment of population relevant instructions and information will only further escalate the virus. This collection of potential issues makes Kashmir the most extreme example of the government’s criminal irresponsibility in the midst of a health emergency. Restricting internet speed and making it toilsome to access information online is directly countering the global fight against COVID-19, and the Indian government should hand back unfettered internet access unhesitatingly. These government authorities have embarked on a journey of writing the darkest chapters in history and this journey lately seems to have no end.
Even when the ban on the internet is lifted, the government has to take cognizance of the fact that with the dying economy and upsurging unemployment, a lot of people will not have adequate resources to get a comfortable internet connection. Thus, the government, along with the telecommunication and internet service providers, must take steps to guarantee and enable people’s access to the internet, in compliance with international standards, and bridge the digital gap. Further, physical facilities, Common System Centres, to help citizens in accessing government information and services online should be established throughout Kashmir. However, these centres should strictly follow the germane norms of social distancing and sanitization. The relief would be more wholesome if the apex court orders powerful and palpable directions. In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, the Supreme Court had ruled that the right to access the internet for exercising free speech and profession is a fundamental right and therefore, must be protected under Part III of the Constitution. Despite the efforts initiated upon by the judiciary, it is a shame that not even a pandemic makes the Executive realize that not having internet access could have a baleful effect. There can be no scope for silences, half measures or excuses. Given the critical national security challenges in the valley, it is in the best interest of the nation that the court mandates the government to disclose the detailed reasoning for such severe restrictions even during these troubled times. This will ensure increased transparency and lucidity and give the judiciary an opportunity to assess the necessity and proportionality of these restrictions. With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc, we need our legislators and courts to stand up for us, now more than ever. This pandemic is a test of the government’s ability to provide effective governance, a key justification provided by the Home Minister for the abrogation of Kashmir’s statehood last year.
Every life matters equally and none of us will be safe until all of us are safe.
About the Authors: Kavya Mathur Final Year | National Law University, Jodhpur Editor-in-chief | Journal for Corporate Governance. Varsha Raman Third Year | National Law University, Jodhpur Chief Managerial Head | NLUJ Law Review.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Law School Policy Review.