A new report from human rights organizations Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation highlights the detrimental impact of India’s frequent and arbitrary internet shutdowns, particularly on the country’s most impoverished population who heavily rely on government social protection programs.
The 82-page report, released on Wednesday, emphasizes that blocking internet access, especially on mobile phones and devices, directly affects individuals who depend on programs like rural jobs guarantee and government-subsidized food grains.
Additionally, internet shutdowns create obstacles for rural communities in performing basic banking transactions and paying utility bills. The report sheds light on the negative consequences of these shutdowns on vulnerable communities and their access to essential services and resources.
“In the age of ‘Digital India,’ where the government has pushed to make internet fundamental to every aspect of life, the authorities instead use internet shutdowns as a default policing measure,” said Jayshree Bajoria, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cutting off access to the internet should be the absolute last resort with safeguards to ensure people aren’t deprived of their livelihoods and basic rights.”
Internet shutdowns have become a common strategy employed by Indian officials for various reasons, such as curbing protests, preventing communal violence, maintaining law and order, and even combating cheating during exams.
Recent instances include the northeastern state of Manipur, where ethnic clashes have led to significant casualties and displaced thousands of people, and the region of Kashmir, where the revocation of its special autonomous status resulted in extended internet closures.
The tactic has also been utilized during farmer protests against agricultural laws, nationwide demonstrations against a controversial citizenship law, and efforts to apprehend separatist leaders.
In 2023 alone, India experienced internet shutdowns totaling 2,257 hours, costing the country over $249 million, as reported by the UK-based research group Top10VPN.
Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation highlighted that since 2018, India has witnessed the highest number of internet shutdowns compared to any other country.
While most shutdowns primarily target mobile phone internet access, the report reveals that this leads to near-total internet blackout since 96% of Indian subscribers rely on mobile devices for internet connectivity, while only 4% have access to fixed-line internet.
Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with more than 70 individuals affected by internet shutdowns, including regions like Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Haryana, Jharkhand, Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya, to gather insights for their report.