Internet as essential service

Kashmir Times. Dated: 3/21/2020 11:34:19 AM

The divisions created in the Indian society by the digital divide and differential access are being underlined by Coronavirus

It is interesting to note that the Coronavirus pandemic may have struck prosperous, consumerist countries disproportionately hard, but it has equally impacted the lives of the common masses in India to a large extent with government machinery totally silent about miseries of this silent majority. The crisis has outlined more sharply than ever the digital divide and differential access which are pushing the poor and marginalised sections of the society to high risk behavior. In the hutments and temporary habitations not only in metropolitan cities but smaller towns also, residents with poor access to clean water are denied the first line of defence - the ability to wash their hands regularly. The previous experiences have shown that these marginalized populations in the urban areas do not have access to basic cleanliness and hygiene during normal times, how can they have access to these special measures when the risk of pandemic is round the corner. Apart from this, it is true that in industrial belts in many states of the country, workers on production lines and in ancillary units do not have the luxury of working from home. In fact, only people working in sectors with completely dematerialized products are able to work from home in a sustained manner. The digital divide reduces access to information on the pandemic and measures which the less fortunate could take to contain the spread of infection. Their access is limited to television, which has a dynamic and compulsions of its own, while the educated can rely upon websites tracking the pandemic, which offer broader and more detailed information. But it is unfortunate that Internet lockdown in a place like Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, newly created Union Territories is continuing and deny access to information to the people. The people have been urging the NDA-government has not taken any decision on this issue despite appeals from the Amnesty International and other elected representatives within the country. The internet connectivity continues to remain conditional for common masses except for the government officers and those employed by the semi-government organizations. This is the need of the hour so that people can share the information about the infection and well-being of the near and dear ones.
It is also important to note that in a digital economy facing a disease against which caution enabled by public information is the only safeguard, the disconnected have-nots are most at risk, both of suffering themselves and of amplifying the footprint of the infection. There are divides across geographical borders, too. In the US, Google and Facebook are in talks with the government to help track how people move and gather, using phone data. This will put sensitivities about citizens' privacy to the test. But, like in times of war, personal priorities may be set aside in favour of the public interest. This question may not even arise outside the US, since companies in other countries do not have location data of similar depth. On the other hand, in metropolitan cities, the government agencies are using phone GPS to monitor home quarantine and ensure that it is not breached, a novel use for an old technology. For almost two decades, public interest groups in several countries have argued that the internet should be regarded as an essential service, and access to it be recognized as a fundamental right. Whether it is for working remotely or for accessing information and maintaining communications while in isolation, the case for reliable connectivity looks more convincing than ever. In pandemics of the future, it could make the difference between countries that are able to shield themselves from contagion, and those that are simply inundated by the wave.



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