The government’s efforts over years to make India a digital economy will be set back by internet shutdowns that are being resorted to at the hint of law and order problems. The country has made major strides in terms of MIS, analytics, less-cash discipline and banking and financial operations. India has close to 50 crore internet users and the focus should be on enhancing penetration, spread and speed of internet for creating an effective governance model.
Frequent and long-drawn internet shutdowns will reverse India’s achievements by forcing people to resort to cash transactions. Cash drawals, cash in hand, and domestic cash savings are on the rise following the closure of internet in Kashmir, Bihar, Jharkhand and some districts of UP. The shutdowns undermine Digital India, the signature campaign of the Narendra Modi government. The foundation of Digital India is consistency and trust of the user.
India topped the list of world nations resorting to internet shutdowns with 54 such incidents in 2017, according to the Shutdown Tracker Optimisation Project. Pakistan which was no 2 on the list had only 10 shutdowns, while Iraq, Syria and Turkey shared the third spot with 5. India had mobile only and mobile plus fixed line internet shutdowns. The maximum number of shutdowns in 2012-17 period happened in J&K, Rajasthan, Gujarat, West Bengal and Bihar. The economic impact is estimated to be $3 billion, says the report.
The year 2018 saw more such disruptions. Law and order is always a priority for the government, but it is equally important not to negate the achievements of Digital India in terms of becoming a less-cash economy and improvements in services, data storage, data transmission and data protection. The reversal will be hugely damaging and it would be difficult to recover to the earlier peak levels. The fear of possible disruptions will force people to hold more cash.
Internet-based crimes have also become a cause of concern for governments across the world. At a localised level, use of social networking sites have become a common trait of criminal activity. Popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are being leveraged for illegal activities. Apart from the transfer of social protection funds, the banking mechanism, education, tourism, navigation, logistics, e-commerce are also getting impacted. Wider information exchange is a double-edged sword — but it can also be used to give correct information.
At the moment, there is no fresh thinking on how to minimise the impact of Internet shutdowns. The impact can be minimized by reducing the time of shut down and by the use of technology that allows targeted shutdowns – for specific areas or specific apps. Long-drawn shutdowns result in people losing out due to loss of businesses such as tourism, travel, manufacturing and call centers. There is a need to work out a protocol for shutting down the Internet and restarting it once the law and order situation is under control.