‘No network’ in times of crisis

Bangladesh shut down telecom services along the border citing security reasons, but revoked it later.

Published - January 04, 2020 09:40 pm IST

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Bangladesh shut telecom networks along the border on December 29 apparently to forestall any inflow of undocumented migrants in the aftermath of India’s new citizenship law. Just two days later, regulators reversed the ban, saying the restriction was temporary.

Telecom outage was expected to hit 10 million people living within 1 km of border areas. The worst was soon averted as the ban was quickly lifted, but it illustrates a growing trend of shutting telecom and Internet networks by governments in South Asia and beyond.

“It is impossible to thwart any illegal border crossing by shutting down mobile networks,” said Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, a Colombo-based ICT policy think-tank. “The movement of human beings across the border is unstoppable unless you erect a wall the way Israel did or whatever Mr. [Donald] Trump is contemplating,” Mr. Khan said. “If a group decides to cross the border, they will cross the border at any cost. There may be a debate on the motivation of such migration, but the fact remains that it’s happening and it will keep on happening.”

Key challenge

Authorities may reduce or stop the flow in some hotspots, but the huge border with India is a key challenge. “If you stop at one place, they will find out another,” Mr. Khan said, referring to a fertile frontier of more than 4,000 km that the two countries share.

With the focus cast on the frontier, Major General Shafeenul Islam, Director General of Border Guard Bangladesh, provided some clarity on illegal border crossings. Bangladesh arrested about 1,000 people for illegal crossings in and out of India in 2019, with 445 of them returning home in two months: November and December, Mr. Islam said at a media briefing in Dhaka on January 2.

After the Upper House of the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in December, it sparked fears of illegal crossings into Bangladesh. Mr. Islam, however, did not link the arrests to the fallout of India’s new law. He said those migrant workers, all identified as Bangladesh nationals, crossed into India in search of jobs. Jhenaidah and Satkhira emerged as the two major illicit migratory routes.

Risks of illicit crossings across the frontier deepened after all residents of the State of Assam, along the Bangladesh border, had to produce documentary proof that they or their ancestors had lived in India since 1971. About 2 million of Assam’s population of 33 million — a mix of Hindus and Muslims — failed the test. They now run the risk of becoming stateless.

As the protests over the new law spread, India shut down the Internet in Assam and some other areas. The Internet shutdown in Kashmir is now the longest-ever imposed in a democracy, according to Access Now, an international advocacy group that tracks internet suspensions.

Mr. Khan calls it counterproductive. “In doing so, India is antagonising its own people. And telecom carriers are losing money,” he said.

The shutdowns of mobile and internet networks have unintended consequences and take a toll on economic life in both urban and rural areas. In Bangladesh, for example, mobile phones are the fastest way for people to transfer money in outlying border areas, where conventional banking is almost non-existent.

That means the network suspension is akin to shutting down a large part of business activity in remote areas. Millions of Bangladeshis living alongside the frontier are largely engaged in cross-border trade of medicines, agricultural commodities, milk and livestock. “More and more society migrates into digital payment systems, the Internet becomes more important simultaneously. It’s like oxygen in life.”

Bangladesh has a history of shutting down or slowing the Internet over security concerns. During a road safety campaign by students in 2018, regulators briefly blocked 3G and 4G mobile Internet services to quell protests, leaving users in the lurch.

“I find no reason to shut down the Internet to thwart civil protests because people communicate despite the shutdown. These are not political decisions, but bureaucratic decisions. The bureaucracy has taken over the politicians’ space and their over-adventurism is the prime driver of this hegemony,” Mr. Khan said.

The regulator’s latest decision to shut the frontier mobile networks and retract it shortly afterwards reflect a lack of coordination between government agencies and weakness of the regulator itself, according to Mr. Khan.

( Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka )

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