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Needed: Seamless Internet

As another year comes to a close, wish lists are being drawn up in plenty all over the place for 2020. If there could be any pecking order for wish lists, my top choice would be a ban on internet shutdown, whether it’s Delhi or Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh or Kerala. Even though the government motivation to stop internet is mostly driven by its desire to check violence or maybe public unrest by restricting social media, the outcome of an internet shutdown is catastrophic to put it mildly.

As we saw in some parts of the country recently, including in NCR that houses a fairly large number of professionals working in India’s capital city, no internet meant no cab booking on the mobile app, which has emerged as the most popular mode of travel for many however much you may hate Uber, Ola and the like. No internet also meant no food ordering on a click, even if Swiggy and Zomato are the only names one remembers while hungry, irrespective of the nature of meals they aggregate and deliver. Add to that the challenge of e-commerce and m-commerce. While home-grown traders must have rejoiced at the thought of Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart losing business due to no internet, it’s the consumer who lost out big time. With no internet, banking too was at a standstill for those who got used to transacting online. Digital payment was a casualty as well and cash was again the only go-to option. So many other services, which are supposed to ensure safety and convenience for the people of the country, went for a toss.

It was then that it occurred in real sense what Kashmir might have been going through for months. Often cut off from the mainstream, Kashmir is like a different universe and its issues rather remote to most. The Internet shutdown, following the nationwide protests against the citizenship law, brought Kashmir and its problems closer home. Kashmir has been dealing with no internet and restricted phone connectivity for long, but it was a matter of intellectual debate only, till recently. Not anymore.

The government should think before shutting down internet as the country aspires to go up the rankings in World Bank’s ease of doing business. India is still not in the top 50 club of countries. Blocking internet, for whatever reason, will not help the country in achieving its goals. With international press watching India-related developments closely, cutting off internet connection will only have an adverse impact on the future ease of doing business rankings.

Besides, some of the flagship government schemes like Digital India and Start Up India would have no relevance left if internet continues to be treated like a state-run commodity, if not a “walled garden”. The same goes for the government effort to reduce the use of cash. If demonetisation forced us to adopt non-cash methods, any further clampdown on Internet will move us away from digital payments.

Since the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised red carpet for investors before it was elected to power in 2014, any going back on that promise might not be a good idea. Also, breaking the silence of the previous UPA government, the Narendra Modi regime went on a social media high to reach out to the people of the country like never before. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown the way to exploit all possible digital platforms—Twitter to FaceBook, to the app named after him—to talk about the achievements of the government and to even crowd source for all major schemes and programmes. It’s odd for such a big backer of all things digital to shut down Internet and block data that should be flowing free.

India wants to be a $5 trillion economy and as the PM himself said recently, it would mean a much higher degree of ease of living. Indeed, one thing should lead to the other. But the dream of $5 trillion economy may remain a dream if curbs are imposed on internet and data. Data is the new oil, as many have authoritatively pointed out. If that is so, why should there be any restriction on data or internet at any time? To be able to belong to a first world club, the state machineries should not mess around with internet. In times of national contingency or for security, access to internet should widen to scotch rumours and “fake news” if at all, and not the other way round.―Business Standard

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