INDIAN ADMINISTERED KASHMIR - Every day, Khalid Fayaz downloads text files from his email on a smartphone, transfers them to his laptop with a data cable, edits them, then transfers them back to the phone to email back to their writers for final approval.
Downloading or uploading a simple text file of 20 kilobytes, or about 2,000 words, takes four to five minutes. Fayaz has to repeat the process until the articles are finalized for his educational magazine, Zaanvun Lockchaar.
Every evening before going to bed, he sets up his phone to download print-quality pictures. At the speeds available to him, it usually takes all night. Sometimes, he wakes up to find the download failed.
“I and my team of two men have been doing it since November just to bring out the magazine for our readers,” Fayaz said.
Fayaz lives in India-administered Kashmir, a disputed region in the Himalayas that India and its neighbor Pakistan partially control. The two countries have fought three wars over it.
Both countries had given the parts of Kashmir under their control a special status granting it a great degree of autonomy.
In August, the Indian government took away that special status and turned India-controlled areas into union territories, ruled directly by the federal government.
To avoid violence in a region that was already tumultuous and where anti-India protesters often clashed with security forces, the Indian government imposed a strict curfew and a total communication blackout. All cellphone and internet connections were suspended.
Without internet access, thousands were left jobless. Students, researchers, the business community and journalists suffered.
Amid mounting international pressure, the government restored telephone and mobile services in phases. In the first phase, after seven months, authorities restored broadband internet services, followed by limited mobile internet services, but high-speed internet service for mobile users remains suspended. Cellphone users contend with speeds of just 20 to 80 Kbps.
With only 23,000 broadband connections available for a population of about 7 million, the majority, about 6 million, rely on their cellphones to access the internet.
Mukhtar Zahoor, a freelance photojournalist, used to upload photos and video on his phone for clients as news, such as a gunbattle between militants and security forces, was happening.
Task is 'Herculean'
“Our coverage has dropped significantly because we have to get back to places where we can find high-speed internet. Our job becomes Herculean when we are covering stories in far-flung areas that are hundreds of kilometers away from home or office,” said Zahoor, whose work has been published by various international organizations including the BBC and Al Jazeera.
“Amid all this tension we miss a lot of details and often we are not able to make it on time. As a journalist working for online platforms, where you have just hours to file the story, it is a professional disaster,” he said.
The COVID-19 outbreak and the ensuing lockdown have added to the miseries of an already besieged population.
“This is so frustrating. I am trying to download the guidelines for intensive care management as proposed by doctors in England. It is only 24 MBs. It has been one hour … still not able to do so,” said a professor of surgery, who asked not to be identified.
Data provided by the Private Schools Association Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK), which has also filed a petition in the Supreme Court of India for restoration of 4G connectivity, suggest that because of the throttled internet speed, about 98% of students are unable to access online classes.
“The low-speed internet is causing anxiety and other psychological problems among students and teachers. Parents feel helpless and frustrated,” said G.N. Var, president of PSAJK.
Sehar Murawath, a 10th-grade student at the International Islamic School, said the Indian government’s actions took away her “right to education.”
Her school was shut for seven months, initially because of the curfew and then because of the coronavirus.
“All of us installed Google Classroom and Zoom applications so that we can get education. But we were deprived of that, too, because of slow internet service,” she said.
The government recently decided to extend restrictions on high-speed internet, citing a “spurt in militant violence, the launch of new outfits and well-founded apprehensions of the field agencies regarding enhanced efforts by Pakistan for recruitment in the [militant] ranks as well as infiltration attempts, which heavily depend on high-speed internet.”
India accuses Pakistan of supporting an armed insurgency in parts of Kashmir under its control, as well as training and sending militants to carry out attacks on its security forces. Islamabad denies those charges.
In a recent hearing in the Supreme Court of India, the Indian attorney general, K. K. Venugopal, defended the speed restrictions as a “necessary measure to control terrorism in the region.” He stressed that it was a “policy decision” in which the court should “not interfere.”