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The Curious Case Of Internet Blackouts In PM Modi’s ‘Digital India’

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What Happened To The Right to Access Internet In Digital India?

The Internet enables individuals to connect and communicate with each other while eroding physical boundaries. It provides a breakneck corridor to generate, broadcast and disseminates information within seconds to any distant place. It has dramatically transformed the contours of our personal, social, political and economic life.

The United Nations Human Rights Council, in a report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression 2011, notes, “The Internet, as a medium by which the right to freedom of expression can be exercised, can only serve its purpose if States assume their commitment to developing effective policies to attain universal access to the internet.” In countries like Estonia, France and Costa Rica, access to the internet has been declared as a fundamental right.

In the judgement in Shirin R.K vs. State of Kerala, 2019, the Kerala High Court maintained that the right to access the internet is a fundamental right. The court further mentioned that access to internet is an inalienable part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Unremitting and equal opportunity for participation in the digital territory must be pronounced as a prime and pressing necessity in a digital age.

Digital mediums such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube with minimal constraints emerged as alternative spaces for people to voice the actual concerns of the citizens. Further, reliance on such channels diminishes the authority of mediocre in mainstream media,  masquerades as a champion of citizen’s rights.

Digital India initiative’s official website notes that to empower its citizens digitally, need to digital infrastructure as a utility to every citizen must be fulfilled, further, under the nine pillars of Digital India, Universal Access to Mobile Connectivity, Internet Access Programme and Information for all are majorly highlighted. The mounting pace of internet shutdown nevertheless makes us ponder about the seriousness of the objective envisioned for Digital India.

The Government of India had launched it to advance a pan-digital character of India. On the contrary, the government deprives digital citizenry of accessing the internet. When a large part of the country geared up for Digital and online India, Kashmir was deliberately pushed to remain under continuous digital darkness, since the last 152 days.

Since the last 152 days, Kashmir has been deliberately pushed to remain under continuous digital darkness. Image via Getty

Having discussed that, the question that springs then is why is the government blacking out internet across the country? In the name of ‘law and order’, it is an intentional move to neutralize all kinds of anti-establishment demonstrations and protests. The idea is not to let civil society and university students criticize, plan and assemble for peaceful protest/gathering/demonstration. Conversely, unceasing expansion of inclusive and diverse online demographies, integrated subalterns and marginalized communities to express, assert and represent themselves.

An internet shutdown is defined by Access Now (AN), which works for digital rights around the world as when someone—usually a government—intentionally disrupts the internet or mobile apps to control what people say or do. Shutdowns are also sometimes called “blackouts” or “kill switches”. According to a report published by AN, in the number of internet shutdowns by a country (Jan–July  2019), India tops the list with total 80.

The study of this report further indicates that every year, there is a continuous alarming rise in the internet shutdowns in India, as well as across the world, mainly in Asian and African regions. Though SFLC.in records that between 2013–2015 access to the internet has been blocked only nine times across four Indian states.

Anti-CAA protest
Why is India shutting down the internet more than any other democracy around the world?

Financial aspects of the internet shutdown cannot be spurned. Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) New Delhi, conducted a study, prepared and released a report about the impact of the internet shutdown upon the Indian economy on 25 April 2018. The report maintains that during 2012 and 2017, the economy suffered from approximately $3.04 billion. The figure might reach $11 to 12 billion if we add the caused mislay from internet shutdown in 2018 and 2019.

Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019, considers the necessity of the collective culture that helps to foster a free and fair digital economy. Considering the scale of data on internet shutdown in India, digital economy and objective of Digital India will merely result in another chimera for Indians.

Right after the anti-CAB/CAA protest flared up in Assam and other northeastern states, the internet was put to complete shut. In Assam, the internet was shut down for more than a week; however, due to the timely intervention from the Guwahati High Court internet services were restored. Internet services were shut down seven times due to the anti-CAA protest in dozens of districts of Uttar Pradesh including Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Prayagraj and Kanpur. In Delhi-NCR, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh internet were suspended in limited parts for less than a day on 19th, 20th and22nd December.

This is paving the way for digital poverty, discrimination and divide; surprisingly, there seems to be no abrupt, definitive move from the government to bridge this widening crack to justify the aims of Digital India.

According to the Internet Right (2011), an initiative of Digital Empowerment Foundation, development deficits and divided cannot be bridged unless information access and services are denied. Hence, restricting somebody from accessing the internet is a gross violation of human rights and undermines one’s right to information/access information. It’s undemocratic and unconstitutional in nature. The government can never reject the right to freedom and to access information exercised through the internet.

India must seriously deliberate to declare the internet as a fundamental right to nurture its soul and standing in the world.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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