Frequent Internet shutdowns cause billions of dollars in losses to the Indian economy

The number of Internet shutdowns in India, which has nearly 750 million Internet users, has been on the rise nationwide. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - In Udaipur, a tourist destination known as the city of lakes and palaces, college student Harsh Jaroli is exasperated that he does not always enjoy uninterrupted access to the Internet.

The 24-year-old said he had encountered everything from losing his way as he could not use Global Positioning System maps on his cellphone, to being unable to make digital payments or even do a Google search.

"I am affected... in many ways!" Mr Jaroli told The Straits Times. "In the modern era, my college classes were impacted due to this!"

Udaipur, with a population of 451,000, had 26 Internet shutdowns between January last year and September this year, according to the Internet Freedom Foundation, as the authorities had sought to stop cheating in exams and rein in protests.

Other cities and districts in the western state of Rajasthan have also faced Internet disruptions. On Sept 26, the Internet was shut down across the state of more than 81 million people for the Rajasthan Teacher Eligibility Test, sat by 1.6 million candidates.

The number of shutdowns in India, which has nearly 750 million Internet users, has been on the rise nationwide.

There were 129 instances last year, up from six in 2014, according to Internet Shutdowns, a website tracking online disruptions.

Rajasthan state, along with the Jammu and Kashmir region which has long faced a terror and insurgency problem, have seen the largest number of shutdowns in recent years.

Kashmir, which is at the heart of a dispute between India and Pakistan, had the world's longest Internet shutdown of around six months, imposed after the removal of its special status in 2019.

The government had said at the time that "the temporary suspension of telecom/Internet services is resorted to with the overarching objective of maintaining law and order under strict safeguards".

These frequent shutdowns have also come at an economic cost for the country.

A report by the United Kingdom-based privacy and security research firm Top10VPN put India's losses at US$2.8 billion (S$3.8 billion) in 2020. The country suffered the deepest economic impact out of 21 countries that curbed Internet access.

The Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations said the economy lost nearly US$3.04 billion between 2012 and 2017.

The Udaipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry said that businesses in the city were being adversely affected by the Internet bans and that it was considering legal options.

"What we have in Udaipur is a hospitality-focused industry. We have a good number of hotels and restaurants that all depend on online bookings. When the Internet shuts down for an entire day, they are quite impacted... Others impacted include online bus logistics (businesses), food delivery apps like Swiggy and Zomato. People can't use (ride-sharing apps) like Ola or Uber to book cabs," said Mr Koustubh Bhattacharya, chief operating officer of Udaipur Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"The Internet is a lifeline for businesses. We have Internet shutdowns on account of competitive exams, which is ludicrous."

Early last year, the Supreme Court, in response to a petition against the shutdown in Kashmir, ruled that an indefinite suspension of Internet services would be illegal and that orders for Internet shutdown must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality. A case is ongoing against Internet shutdowns in the Rajasthan High Court.

Critics believe shutdowns have no proportionality amid debates on whether they are legal.

"India sees the most number of Internet shutdowns in the world - more than twice as much as the rest of the world combined. In addition to being so frequent, Internet shutdowns in India are disproportionate, illegally ordered and lack any evaluation of whether it is the least restrictive method of achieving administrative goals," said Mr Tanmay Singh, litigation counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

He said that government officials have to consider the wider impact of an Internet suspension.

"In addition to the financial impact, and the constitutional impact upon our fundamental rights, we must remember that the Internet is fast becoming the primary source of communication, information, entertainment, healthcare, education, livelihood and is essential for the exercise of democratic values."

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