Kavya Mathur & Varsha Raman
This is the 20th post of our COVID19 series
Almost all major world economies, including India, are at a standstill due to imposition of covid lockdowns. Perplexingly, Kashmir was recently stuck in a three-tier lockdown. People in the now 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.
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. 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. With more than a thousand coronavirus cases in the region, this piece attempts to highlight the need for restoration of 4G internet in the region.
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, 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 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. 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 population.
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. The risk of misinformation a 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, due to social-distancing.
The internet plays an enabling role in incentivizing people to stay at home and practice social distancing. Increasingly, media, and social media in particular, is used by governments to educate people about the virus and precautions to be observed especially with rolling out the contact tracing app – Arogya Setu – in India. Kashmiris are also fighting another battle with social isolation, deprived of socialization via digital platforms. 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 toll is worsened as the government is not-well positioned to meet the citizens’ minimal sustenance requirements for staying at home. Assistance from outside NGOs and donors is also less generous as it is even harder to deliver relief packages in the region with difficulties in travel and staff deployment.
Owing to the pandemic, schools and universities across the world have shifted their learning online. However, with the internet shutdowns, more than 2,000 schools in Kashmir are unable to conduct classes, leaving the future of more than 2.7 lakh students hanging in the balance. 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 to be implemented, 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 deprived the Kashmiris of their fundamental rights for countless times.
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 workers. 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 crashed by a tune of $2.4 billion due to the abrogation of Article 370 alone. Agriculture, small businesses and tourism, Kashmir’s critical sector, are also brought to a deadlock. People engaged in the delivery business are also hit badly, due to lack of connectivity. All of this is interfering with Article 19 of the Constitution of India, 1950, which guarantees the fundamental right of livelihood.
Many companies have started conducting recruitment interviews and tests online in light of the ongoing pandemic; however, Kashmiri youth are not able to avail these opportunities. Kashmir’s working class, consisting mainly of daily wagers and small business owners, is struggling to survive in these peculiar conditions too.
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 means and information will only further escalate the virus. This collection of potential issues makes Kashmir the most extreme example of government’s irresponsibility in the midst of a health emergency. Restricting internet speed and thus access to healthcare, education and work online is directly countering the fight against COVID-19. 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.
The Authors are students at NLU Jodhpur.
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