Internet shutdown in India shows the dark side of digital dependence to businesses and livelihood

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In the years between 2012 to 2017, India lost around USD 3 billion due to mobile Internet and broadband shutdowns. This is according to a research report (opens in new tab) filed by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. Since then, the number of bans imposed on the accessibility of the Internet across India has only risen. More than 95% of Indians use the Internet on their phones, which is why a blanket ban on the Internet remains the more natural way for authorities to curb the nuisance and spread of misinformation. (opens in new tab) is a tracker of instances where a particular district or state is reportedly under a government-imposed internet shutdown. The website also collects and collates reports from across India during such cases. Over 70 instances of Internet shutdown in 2017 to 134 in 2018, India topped the list of countries imposing Internet restriction last year earning the title of “Internet shutdown capital of the world.”

While 2019 has comparatively seen lesser internet shutdowns reported, the longest ever ban imposed on access to the Internet is still under effect in Jammu and Kashmir. The state went under a complete lockdown of mobile and internet services from August 4 as a preventive measure due to the abrogation of Article 370 (opens in new tab). Still, it has been 139 days that the users were barred from using internet services.

According to Sheikh Ashiq Hussain, President of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the economy of the state has poorly hit, and they estimate losses to the tune of Rs 15,000 crore (opens in new tab) ($150 billion) since the clampdown.

From regular people who are unable to connect to the Internet or call their families to businesses, internet shutdown affects everyone. Business sectors, such as banking, tourism, e-commerce, education, and healthcare, among others, are the most impacted in such regions.

A telecom operator incurs a minimum loss of Rs 1.5 crore ($15 million) every day in a state under total internet shutdown, according to Rajan Mathews, Director General, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) reports (opens in new tab) the Economic Times.

Since December 10, the Internet has been shut down entirely or is being throttled in major cities across India due to protests against the country's Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). This has affected many people, and there seems to be no respite for many of these cities still.

The states where Internet suspension has been ordered include Assam, New Delhi, Karnataka, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh (UP). And the unavailability of access to the Internet has sent a jolt of a shock to the general mass, including business owners.

Food and grocery delivery services such as Zomato, Uber Eats, Swiggy, Grofers, and Milk Basket are unavailable in cities like Lucknow, which is the capital of UP, the largest state in India. In Lucknow, the internet services were suspended on December 19 with intermittent relief in between for a day before the suspension was "extended" till December 25.

A report (opens in new tab) by Times of India notes that "Food delivery apps have seen volumes dip by 10-20%" in 24 districts of UP, Delhi, and other internet prohibited areas." Grofers has rescheduled close to 25,000 grocery orders in Lucknow alone due to the imposition of ban on the Internet.

That's not all.

Internet shutdown is hurting local residents and businesses

With the imposition of restriction on access to the Internet, residents are unable to

  • contact other people over the internet
  • access emails on their phones
  • pay for bills online
  • use services like Paytm, PhonePe and UPI
  • use credit/debit cards for payments
  • and more...

In a massive setback, students are unable to access study material available on the Internet or fill forms of important examinations that will be conducted in 2020. 

Facilities such as Petrol/CNG filling stations are only accepting cash payments as their wireless card machine is not working due to the clampdown. Moreover, one-time passwords (OTP) are not being delivered due to the ban on SMS service as well.

"While broadband services are still working, the general day to day activities involving phones have been hampered due to the internet shutdown. People are not receiving OTPs, and office goers who rely on cab aggregators, food delivery apps are facing difficulty to reach office or even arrange daily meals," says Varul Mayank, founder of Knocksense (opens in new tab), a local news-cum-recommendation platform present in four of the cities facing internet shutdown.

"Our website traffic has shown a massive dip-- almost 70% after the internet ban was imposed in many cities around India," adds Varul.

Amitesh Pandey, owner of a popular chain of restaurant and a fuel pump in Lucknow, says that "After the Internet ban, I'm losing a huge chunk of my revenue on online orders that used to come in regularly. Sales from dine-in customers at my restaurant are also down by 40% as we are unable to accept payments via credit/debit cards or Paytm."

"Even if a customer manages to order food, the delivery person needs to have an internet connection on his phone to be assigned any order. At my fueling station, sale from Ola and Uber's vehicles dipped by 80%; those coming can only pay by cash. The administration should come up with better ways to handle security measures as imposing a ban is rather extreme," adds Amitesh.

Cab owners who work with OLA or Uber are losing more than Rs 2,500 every day as people cannot book cabs on the said apps. A mobile shop owner in the city told (opens in new tab) India Today that "Since the suspension of internet services, I haven't sold a single mobile phone because people generally prefer payments through debit/credit cards, but the swipe machine is also not working. We cannot sell sim cards and recharge phone numbers until the internet is restored."

The internet ban imposed by the government in different regions, especially in the country's capital city Delhi is receiving flack. It is being termed "illegal" by some Digital Rights activists. Mishi Choudhary, a lawyer with Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), told (opens in new tab) the Economic Times that an Internet ban in India "can only be ordered by a competent authority like Union home secretary or state home secretary, but this [December 19] order was not issued by them.”

The impact of internet shutdown is more significant on small and medium enterprises, as they don't have enough means to switch to an alternative with ease. Arguably, governments can resort to such bans as unavailability of the Internet in such extreme situations does more damage to the livelihoods of people daily.

Across the web, it is being suggested that informing the citizens before imposing a ban would help to prepare themselves for such a change. Also, the government can target specific areas of interest where the ban can be imposed instead of flipping internet switches of an entire city.

And while the Indian government fiddles with arguments for and against the ban on the Internet, China, a mass surveilled country cited India as an example in People's Daily (opens in new tab), their largest newspaper saying, "It means that shutting down the internet in a state of emergency should be standard practice for sovereign countries." Is the joke on us?

Siddharth Chauhan
Siddharth Chauhan is the Consumer Technology Reporter at Digit India. He used to work as an Assistant Editor at TechRadar India