We,the undersigned organizations and individuals, strongly condemn the internet shutdowns imposed by central and state government authorities to suppress the farmers’ protests at the borders of the National Capital Territory of Delhi. At present, there are lakhs of farmers who are protesting against the central government’s attempt to deregulate and privatize India’s agricultural sector which they believe would destroy their livelihoods. The farmers have been peacefully protesting at the Singhu, Tikri and Ghazipur borders for two months. However, subsequent to the Republic Day tractor parade on26 January 2021, there has been a crackdown against the farmers protesting at the borders with electricity and water supply also being allegedly cut off in some areas. Most disturbingly, there have been reports of violence being inflicted upon the farmers by unidentified mobs and police personnel. It is against this backdrop that we raise alarm about the use of internet shutdowns by government authorities to suppress the free flow of information related to peaceful assembly and the fundamental right to protest.
Internet services were first shut down by the central government on 26 January 2021 in Singhu, Ghazipur, Tikri, Mukarba Chowk, Nangloi and adjoining areas from 12:00 to 23:59 hours. Subsequent to this, orders were issued by the state government of Haryana suspending internet services in several districts from 27 January 2021 to 30 January2021. 17out of 22 districts in the state of Haryana have no internet. 3 of these districts have had a complete shutdown for more than 72 hours.Furthermore, SMS services are also suspended with exception of banking and mobile recharge. Most recently, the central government has issued an order suspending internet services in Singhu, Ghazipur,Tikri and their adjoining areas from 23:00 hours on 29 January 2021to 23:00 hours on 31 January 2021. These internet shutdown orders have been issued under the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services(Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017 and they do not adhere to the standards of necessity and proportionality endorsed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India
The internet shutdown orders are impermissibly vague and they do not provide any specific facts and figures which would demonstrate proper application of mind prior to their issuance. In fact, the use of internet shutdowns may be counterproductive because empirical studies suggest that internet shutdowns incentivize disorganized violence by cutting off channels for communication and coordination which are necessary for planned peaceful protests. There is already substantial police and paramilitary presence at the protest sites to identify and stop individuals who may be engaging in illegal activities, and a blanket internet shutdown which deprives lakhs of people of internet access is wholly unnecessary.
The harm caused by these internet shutdowns outweigh any speculative benefit. The government authorities have expressed concerns about the farmers’ protests leading to property damage while justifying the internet shutdowns. However, we urge the government authorities to remember that internet shutdowns caused US$ 2.8 billion losses to the Indian economy in 2020 and telecom operators lose INR 2.4 crore for each hour of an internet shutdown. Further, these internet shutdowns are causing massive inconvenience to the general public living near the protest sites and in adjoining areas. The residents of these areas are unable to access online education and remote work facilities which are essential during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.Finally, these internet shutdowns have made it practically impossible for journalists to provide real time updates about the protests and taken away the farmers’ ability to present their version of events through social media. Since the farmers have raised serious concerns about the mainstream media not covering their protest in anaccurate and fair manner, it is imperative that they are allowed to put forth their perspective through their own social media channels.Moreover, shutting down the internet also prevents citizens from verifying news that they receive, therefore it doesn’t stop the spread of fake news and misinformation. Farmers are also finding it hard to get supplies in absence of internet and SMS services which is impacting their right to life.
For these reasons, we call upon all central and state government authorities to respect the fundamental rights to freedom of speech and expression and peaceful protest guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Internet services must be immediately restored at the borders of the National Capital Territory of Delhi and such arbitrary and unnecessary internet shutdowns must not be imposed in the future.
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