In an order issued on November 12, the J&K administration has once again extended the ban on 4G internet in the region until November 26. Such extension on the restriction on high speed internet has been a continuous cycle since January 2020.
The administration cited the recently announced elections to 280 District Development Councils and bye-elections to more than 13,400 posts in panchayati raj institutions/urban local bodies across J&K as one of the reasons behind continuing the ban.
“During the last fortnight, there have also been targeted killing of the civilians, political activists, that manifest the nefarious designs of the (militants) to dissuade general public from participating in the election process,” stated the order issued by Principal Secretary Home Shaleen Kabra.
“Such unlawful acts heavily rely upon high speed mobile internet connectivity and are required to be thwarted by taking appropriate pre-emptive measures to create an environment of safety and security for the contesting candidates and the general public,” the order further states.
In August 2019, Jammu and Kashmir, among other restrictions, had their internet suspended completely. The communication blockade remained throughout the festive season, New Year’s Eve and was partially lifted in January, 2020 after the apex court hit the gavel. Internet was restored in 2G speed and restriction on access to social media was also eventually lifted. Although it remains a mystery how any social media platform would load on 2G internet speed.
The region was barely managing when coronavirus hit the world and even essential services such as education, health care and justice system went virtual. For a Union Territory that had been under lockdown since August 2019, the nation wide lockdown did not structurally make much difference, except that it was now all the more cut off from the rest of the world and now even bore the risk of losing a school year or worse, losing lives. Unable to access services online with the snail paced 2G internet, the people have been only left in a lurch. While the rest of the country was keeping itself together by having at least access to adequate and good speed internet, J&K remained to be at comparatively more of a disadvantage than the rest of us.
A ray of hope was the petition filed in the Supreme Court highlighting the real issues being faced by the region, especially in the times of an unprecedented health crisis. The petition filed by Foundation for Media Professionals stated, “With limited and restricted access to the internet by allowing only 2G speed in the UT, patients and doctors are unable to access latest information, advisories, and guidelines”. The petition laid out real time difficulties being faced by health care personnel in the UT and stated, “Various public health practitioners, medical professionals, and doctors have repeatedly expressed their concern about wasting precious time trying to download the latest studies, protocols, manuals and advisories on treatment and management of COVID 19. In some cases, doctors are not able to access these resources at all, due to the internet speed being too slow to download heavy files.”
Yet, while making its decision in April, 2020, the top court did not pass any specific orders for restoration of 4G internet instead set up a Committees led by the Secretary of Ministry of Home Affair to review the situation and consider the alternatives suggested by the petitioners. A contempt petition had to be filed to get this Committee in motion and when compelled by court orders to give a report after review, the committee decided to restore 4G internet in just 2 districts, Ganderbal and Udhampur, on trial basis.
The outcome is, the Union territory continues to use low speed 2G internet for anything and everything they might need to do virtually.
Recently, the Department of Telecommunications amended its rules which effectively meant that the validity of any administrative order of suspension of internet cannot be for more than 15 days. Since the situation in J&K is no longer of complete suspension but only of partial ban on speed of internet, the situation has been left in a limbo.
The order may be read here.