Digital Discrimination

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Despite the growing public clamour and the petitions in the Supreme Court, Government has refused to restore the high-speed internet for general masses. The ban is not only weakening the public fight against the pandemic but also wrecking the education of children, reports Khalid Bashir Gura

Kashmir artist Masood Hussain’s recent work making a demand for the restoration of high-speed internet for fighting the Coronavirus.

At the peak of a pandemic, the Jammu and Kashmir continue to be a victim of the digital divide with the government refusing to restore the high-speed internet. Often, it even withdraws the snail-pace 2G taking the security route.  This is being enforced at a time when the bureaucracy, police, judiciary enjoy high speed and Jio-Fibre Service also provides a much faster facility to its customers.

After every “review” meeting, the UT administration in Jammu comes out with justification for the communication restrictions “in the interest of the sovereignty, integrity, the security of the state, and maintaining public order”.

In its affidavit before the Supreme Court in response to the petitions seeking restoration of the facility, the administration refused to accept it as a fundamental right, insisting: the internet “as an enabler of rights and not a right in itself.” There are three petitions in the apex court seeking restoration of the high-speed internet service, filed by Jammu and Kashmir Private Schools Association (PSAJK), Foundation of Media Professionals, and by Advocate Soayib Qureshi.

“There are serious issues in Jammu and Kashmir. It’s a question of national security. Recently, a militant was killed and 500 people showed up for his funeral,” Attorney General KK Venugopal told the bench. He asserted that the access to the internet “can be curtailed” in the interest of the “sovereignty”, “security” and “integrity” of India. He denied the low speed was impacting access to education, or health care.

At the peak of the ‘social distancing’, the low-speed internet is coming in the way of almost everything.

“This is so frustrating,” Iqbal Saleem, a professor of surgery at the Government Medical College, wrote on Twitter after trying to download guidelines for intensive care management. It had taken him an hour to partially download the document of 24 Mbs.

“It is difficult for him to conduct classes online as the speed is excruciatingly slow as he has to upload material,” a government teacher wishing anonymity said. “The students face difficulties with downloading of material. Teaching is about communication and when one can’t communicate effectively in the absence of high speed what is the point?”

“One can’t see students, and at times can’t listen to them and the problem persists on both sides. The videos hang at times and there are frequent disruptions. Besides, very few students turn up for online classes because of speed,” the teacher added.

Zubair Ahmed, 19, a Srinagar college student from said he could not download the Zoom application for hours. When finally he did, the app had both audio and video issues. He switched over to Google classes, instead.

“Out of hundreds enrolled, only a couple of students attend online lectures,” said Tahseen Qazi who studies at a government higher secondary in Srinagar.

“All the relevant work including browsing for relevant data, downloading research papers, communicating work and correspondence with our collaborators is affected by slow internet connection,” insisted Musa Mubarak, an associate with Central Government Research Facility and Indian Institute of Integrated Medicine (CSIR-IIM), Sanatnagar.

Kashmiri students enrolled with foreign universities are frustrated and depressed because of the high speed. “We are lagging because of the lack of high-speed internet. It is a terrible struggle amidst the pandemic,” said Salman Majeed.

The lack of high-speed internet has resulted in health professionals not being able to access the high-quality digital resource, mostly videos, that would help them in better understanding of Covid-19 management.

“I am speechless because as the government says this internet is not a fundamental right but an enabler,” Dr Suhail Naik, President Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK), said. As a doctor, he considers it indispensable considering the profession of dynamic medical science. He agrees that the internet is crucial to the field indirectly. “Doctors need to attend webinars conducted by medical scientists throughout the globe to update knowledge and skills especially in times of Coronavirus. And the access has been kept free these days. But unfortunately, high speed is hampering participation,”  he asserted.

Even the Prime Minister reiterated for online consultations with doctors in order to practice social distancing and allay the burden of health care sector says the president. “But due to slow speed, we feel a lot of hiccups,” says the doctor. Save Heart Doctors through a WhatsApp video call, however, managed to save a patient because of on-time, online consultation during the lockdown.

Digital Stratification

Restrictions apart, it is still possible in Kashmir to download a 2-gigabyte video in just 150 seconds. It is also possible to watch YouTube in HD, seamlessly browse the world-wide-web, watch web series and download bigger files in lesser time?

Srinagar’s various areas are able to use the internet at a much higher speed, courtesy Jio Fibre Broadband Service by Reliance. It offers internet services from 100Mbps, going all the way up to 1Gbps, along with a host of other services like free voice, TV calling, gaming, and entertainment.

A Jio-Fibre official said they have rolled out their service in various areas including some pockets of Nishat, Soura, Buchpora, Lal Bazar, Nowshera, Qamarwari, Bemina, Raj Bagh, Rawalpora.

The work on expanding the services has been halted due to pandemic and once it is over, the company may expand its services to other parts of the city.

“I am bored of the internet now,” Nazir Gillo, a teacher and the Jio user in Soura said. “Initially, the speed used to be around 90 Mbps but after August 5, it was reduced. Now the speed goes up to 50 Mbps and we are able to connect our devices including smart-phones, TV, laptops to it and browse, watch and download from the internet seamlessly.” With an installation of around Rs 4500, the subscribers pay a monthly rental of Rs 1000.

Though Nazir is able to teach online effectively, his students are helpless because they have 2G services. “I have to compress the data and at times visit them in person to share it.”

“One doesn’t even get such a speed in Delhi,” Rameez Tasaduq, a user from Alamgari Bazar, said. “Once I returned from Delhi I couldn’t put up with the slow speed. I got it immediately installed just a few months back.”

The Jio Fibre service has dented the official stand on denial of the 4G to the people. “If the use of 4G hurts the national interest, how is Jio Fibre usage patriotic?” Jehangir Ahmed, a Srinagar resident, asked. Adds Owais Ahmed, a student from South Kashmiri, whose studies often get disrupted because of low-speed internet: “Even in times like these when the Coronavirus pandemic has confined the whole world indoors we are deprived even of low speed frequently.”

About Author

A Mass Communication and Journalism postgraduate from the University of Kashmir, Khalid is a writer by choice and a journalist by chance.

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