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Mobile internet restored in most parts of Punjab

Updated - March 21, 2023 09:48 pm IST

Published - March 21, 2023 10:47 am IST - PATIALA

As most of Punjab emerges from India’s 700th recorded internet shutdown, some ask why all citizens should suffer because of the crimes of radical preacher Amritpal Singh, who is still evading arrest

Patiala residents intently checking their phones shortly before Internet curbs were lifted in Punjab on Tuesday. | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Punjab’s government lifted the mobile internet shutdown imposed in the State on Tuesday afternoon, even as police continue to pursue pro-Khalistani preacher Amritpal Singh, who has so far evaded arrest. Telecom operators reinstated internet connectivity to their subscribers in the State over an hour after the internet suspension order extending restrictions till Tuesday noon had elapsed. This was India’s 700th recorded internet shutdown, according to the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC)’s Internet Shutdowns Tracker.

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Restrictions will remain in place, however, in the districts of Tarn Taran, Ferozepur, and Sangrur; as well as in Amritsar’s Ajnala Sub-Division and in the areas adjoining YPS Chowk and the Airport Road in the Mohali district, according to an order by Punjab’s Home Department. Security remained high at entry points to the State, with dozens of police officers stationed at the Ambala–Patiala crossing to check vehicles passing through.

Business impact

Due to the mobile internet shutdown, businesses faced difficulties accepting digital payments, which hit their income over the weekend. “This is an industrial area with a lot of bulk cash transactions, so ATMs ran dry quickly,” said Sanju, a shopkeeper in Rajpura’s Shambhoo Khurd district. So even though ATMs were working, Mr. Sanju said, people who usually paid digitally couldn’t withdraw cash or pay. Residents were seen outdoors checking for connectivity shortly after the lapsing of the order.

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Other aspects of business and daily life went about as usual, as authorities did not restrict wired internet connections or SMS messages related to banking. This is in contrast with the months-long communications blackout in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, where all digital communications were restricted for 552 days.

Home connections rise

However, the number of fixed line home internet connections in Punjab is starkly lower than the affected populace: according to data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Punjab had only 11.2 lakh home broadband connections as of December 2022, while the number of wireless connections was over 3.5 crore.

Even though residents did not appear too fazed by the curbs, some appeared to seek to protect themselves from similar restrictions in the future. Parminder Singh Sarwara, who works for a local internet provider on the city’s outskirts, said that enquiries for new home connections had increased dramatically since Saturday. “Before, we used to get 20 to 25 calls a day, but now we’re getting that many in one hour,” Mr. Parwara said.

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‘Blunt instrument’

SFLC, the New Delhi-based non-profit that runs the Internet Shutdown Tracker, criticized the State government for imposing a broad ban on mobile internet in its pursuit of Mr. Singh and his associates. “Whether it’s examination of grade 3 students or police operations, Indian authorities’ first reflex action is to deprive everyone of access to the Internet,“ the Center said in a statement after the shutdown was imposed. In spite of the damage to businesses, students and hospitals, “India continues to use this blunt instrument,” the SFLC said.

The SFLC approached the Supreme Court last September to restrain the governments of Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat and West Bengal from curbing internet access during examinations in order to prevent cheating. In light of the upcoming exams in these States, the SFLC moved the court to consider the issue urgently on Monday. The case has been listed to be heard in July.

Referring to the fugitive preacher that the government of Punjab shut down mobile internet to pursue, Jaspal Singh, a worker at the city’s grain market, said, “He committed a crime, and he should be punished. Not us.“

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