A recent research report pegged the economic cost of India’s internet shutdowns in 2019 at $1.3 billion—third only to Iran and Sudan.
The Supreme Court, last week, in the context of the internet shutdown in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), ruled that the freedom of speech and right to carry on trade and business were protected by Article 19(1) of the Constitution and that the internet is now a crucial tool for these to be exercised. It also ruled that any curbs on these must be temporary, in keeping with the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Service) Rules, 2017, and must pass the test of proportionality, under Article 19(2) and (6). Thus, there is now no doubt that a prolonged shutdown, like that in J&K, is untenable. To the extent that the judgment will help matters normalise, aid the restitution of livelihoods, and even allow the people of the newly-declared Union Territory communicate with their families, it should restore the faith of the J&K body politic in the law of the land.
J&K has been in a virtual lockdown, with mobile and internet facilities suspended, for 163 days; some curbs have been lifted, but these are nowhere near what is needed to claim that there is normalcy in the UT. Meanwhile, Kashmiris living outside the states have had to learn of family members’ death weeks after their passing, the UT has suffered a Rs 10,000 crore loss in terms of suspended economic activity, as per the business community’s estimates, and, indeed, people have had to physically go to a fire station to report a fire. To be sure, in the aftermath of the decision to revoke Article 370 of the Constitution and bifurcate the former state of J&K into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, there was a need to preempt the backlash, including possible violence and terror attacks, which would not have been possible without some manner of curbs on digital and telephonic communication. But, as the SC noted in its judgment, the state must pronounce complete, broad suspension of internet and mobile services as necessary and unavoidable only after having assessed the existence of “alternate less intrusive remedy”. Indeed, while saying that the government is “entitled to restrict the freedom of speech and expression” , the question is “one of extent rather than … the power to restrict”. While local authorities make frequent use of Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code to shut down mobile/internet services indiscriminately citing “national security” concerns, the court deemed such action abuse of power, and ordered the government to publish all orders on internet/mobile shutdowns to see if they met the test of proportionality. However, where the SC judgment falls short is in providing immediate, summary relief to the petitioners and the people of Kashmir. Instead, it creates the mechanism of a periodic review of the shutdown—with no such provision in the law—by the Union home ministry, which is akin to asking a cat to bell itself.
A recent research report pegged the economic cost of India’s internet shutdowns in 2019 at $1.3 billion—third only to Iran and Sudan. Whether that estimate is a close approximate or not is difficult to say; indeed, a 2016 Brookings study pegged the cost of internet shutdowns across the globe in 2015 at $2.4 billion, while an Icrier study from 2018 said internet shutdowns in India between 2012 and 2017 cost the country $3 billion. But, a prolonged shutdown, in the manner that has happened in J&K, will surely break the economic backbone of the UT, and with the curbs on civilian, peaceful dissent that it places, it could fuel even worse disenchantment with the Indian state than what, the latter argues, is being contained by the lockdown.