I traveled to my hometown of Lucknow, reaching there on December 17, 2019.
Shortly after this day, anti CAA protests started all across the country, including in Lucknow. For some reasons, the UP government thought that Internet and SMS services should be shut down, perhaps to avoid spread of rumors, so on December 19 or so, the Mobile Data and SMS services were shut down, indefinitely.
Wired Broadband services continued to work, so anybody who had a wifi at home or office, or institutions like banks and perhaps government institutes too, could continue working, but if you’re like the mass of India, depending on mobile data, you wouldn’t get Internet to work.
We were lucky, we coincidentally got a wifi connection right before the data services would shutdown, without knowing it would ever happen, so we weren’t completely disconnected, but continued to face different kinds of issues.
For example, I couldn’t hail any Uber or Ola cabs, since they stopped working, because the cab drivers rely on mobile data. Similarly, food delivery services like Swiggy, and a few local players, also shut down.
Google Maps also couldn’t load navigation because of unavailability of mobile data. I realized it only once I ended up needing it. Thankfully, I had a working wifi at home, so once I got back home, I downloaded offline maps for Lucknow and that gave me a relief.
I had to get something done in my Vodafone phone number, and since SMS was not working, I couldn’t get that work done in time, and had to make alternate arrangements.
One of the biggest problems we faced was while booking a flight for our cousin. Since SMS services were not working, online payment was not working either, because even if you have Internet, the debit and credit card transactions in India send you an OTP on your phone via SMS. We were blocked for quite a while from booking the air ticket, until an idea clicked in my head, that UPI based apps don’t need SMS OTP, so we used Google Pay and got the flights booked.
All this, because I had some privileges. I had the privilege to know that Google Maps allows offline download, that UPI was working for us, and the very fact that our home had wifi.
For millions of Indians, their mobile phone is their first Internet device, and their mobile data is their only Internet connection. If this connection, along with SMS, goes down, most of their connectivity is gone in an instant. This shutdown remained in effect for more than 6 days, and on one Friday too.
The main argument of UP government (or any Indian government) behind such a shutdown was that it will prevent rumors from spreading. I haven’t seen any factual evidence or research, yet, which suggests that his practice is effective at a high rate. A simple question to the government at this point is that, if the shutdown is not a proven method to stop rumors, then why still do it and cause so much inconvenience?
During one of the days, we heard over the phone from someone, that there was some trouble going in an area called Lalbagh. We immediately called our relatives there to get their well being, and they told us that nothing that they know of had happened. Later that evening we learned that there was some ruckus, but not at a scale to be worried about.
Same thing happened the next day too, this time we heard it from the Moulviganj area, with a similar outcome – the ruckus wasn’t too big to be worried about. Imagine if the lack of authentic knowledge had mobilized some excited mob to ‘do something for the trouble’ between protestors and the police.
Generally when such things happen, the police department can tweet from their official handles, clearing any misconceptions, and either many people read the tweet, or, the screenshots of those tweets start circulating on Whatsapp, clearing any confusions or doubts among people. But with the Internet gone, this wasn’t possible at all.
These days, the Internet is not just a means of entertainment, but also a crucial medium for delivery of many essential services. I personally saw many small shop owners, who would generally receive customers requesting a print-out of any document that would be sent over Whatsapp or email, or online form filling of various services and exams, sitting empty and waiting for the Internet to be restored.
Many people whose employers don’t use payroll processing but still transfer salaries online, were waiting for their salaries towards the end of the month. Similarly, many POS machines which depended on mobile data, were not working, so retail stores couldn’t process credit/debit card payments.
The star of Digital India and cashless payments during the Demonetisation era, PayTM (and other wallets too), also stopped working obviously, so people who had their money locked in PayTM wallets, sat there without any use, for at least 6 days. I don’t know if you can even withdraw that money in cash from an ATM, like you can do from a traditional bank account.
This was a holiday season, and we don’t yet know how much loss the shutdown has caused. I am not counting how many people who use Aadhar authentication to receive welfare services were affected. One of my friends recently highlighted that fingerprint authentication needs the internet, and that would have stopped too.
I don’t know how much inconvenience and financial loss this shutdown would have caused, but according to IndiaSpends, our shutdowns are overall very costly. On top of that, every subscriber pays for their data connection, and when it’s down for 6 days, millions of subscribers essentially lose the value that they paid for, and nobody talks about any compensation.
The argument behind shutting down the services was to control the law and order situation. We saw how at least in my observation, that wasn’t the case. While I still haven’t found if there is any evidence that the shutdown helps in keeping the order, but we at least have enough data telling us how much of a loss it is.
Such actions deteriorate the public’s trust in Internet based services too, and force them to stop using them, which is also a loss of Internet businesses and startups in the country.
I hope we learn from this as a system and that good sense prevails. Lest we forget that the infrastructure that is ultimately used to deliver the services like mobile data and SMS, is built using the same public’s money which time to time loses access to the services it rightfully deserves.