Even as a ray of hope emerged to see the Internet remains plugged after the Supreme Court verdict last week ordered a review of the restrictions imposed on internet in Jammu and Kashmir, the limited access allowed by the Government that too in selected pockets of the region is unenthusiastic. Let me not get into the politics of Internet shut down, but deliberate upon the issue in the context of its impact on trade and commerce in the country.
A look at the economics of Internet shutdowns in the country speaks about lot of disruptions almost in all sectors of economy caused by these shutdowns, leading to economic losses. In the first term of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government, digitization was one of the frontline initiatives. Whole population, especially those dependent on the Government welfare schemes were forced to move to the digital platform. Prior to this, they were brought within the ambit of formal financial system through world’s biggest financial inclusion drive – Jan Dhan Yojana. The Government has been continuously promoting internet based trade and commerce where e transactions are fast becoming preferred mode of payments.
While looking at the recent past scenario, we find a phenomenal upward push in the digital economy driven under the ‘Digital India’ programme. The programme, launched in July 2015, is run with a vision of transforming the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy which will ultimately improve the living standard of the people.
So far, the digital journey has seen a strong foundation of digital infrastructure and vastly expanded Internet access to reportedly 560 million subscriptions. New digital applications have been put in place having a significant impact on almost all sectors of the economy.
A research report ‘India’s trillion-dollar digital opportunity’presents India’s digital vision and the potential of India to achieve one trillion dollar of economic value of digital economy by 2025. The government, as stated in the report, intends to build a future-ready foundation of technology infrastructure and capabilities, extend ubiquitous and affordable digital access to all Indians, and enable new digital ecosystems and digitally transformed business models to solve many of the country’s economic and social problems.
Among other things the primary purpose of the research was to identify gaps and determine what needs to be done to unlock sizable economic value to raise country’s productivity, unlock efficiency, remove barriers to growth, and improve the quality of life for millions of citizens. The research also aims to find out ways and means to become a digital leader in the world by capturing a greater share of rapidly growing global digital flows and act as a magnet for investment in technology sectors.
The report is encouraging in the sense that it has listed all such measures which makes India capable of becoming the world leader in digital economy. By virtue of the analysis it carries, achieving one trillion dollar target of internet economy by 2025 is not a big deal.
Now in the second term, on one hand the country is leveraging the power of Internet to pursue ‘Digital India’ initiative, on the other the Government is resorting to internet shutdowns, which is a severe breach of contract. The growing incidents of unplugging the Internet are proving a major impediment to the growth of digital economy. It leads to cessation of e-commerce, including Aadhaar-enabled payments at small retail outlets, digital banking transactions, including all one-time-password-related services, and wage and social welfare payments under various social welfare schemes. Precisely speaking, Internet shutdowns have direct as well as indirect impact on every sector of economy and comprehensively obstructs consumption and leads to economic slowdown.
Currently we are witnessing a prolonged economic slowdown across multiple sectors of the country’s economy. Here it’s the digital economy, also known as Internet economy, which is looked upon as the ‘lone bright spot’ to pull back the economic engine to active mode. But the circumstances enveloping the potential of Internet economy poses a serious question. Is Internet economy really going to propel the engine of growth and steer the country out of this economic slowdown?
The clampdown on technology driven services by frequently shutting down the Internet is only proving counterproductive and harming not just communications but the economy as well. These frequent shutdowns have attracted attention of researchers across globe who are busy in analyzing the intensity of turmoil these shutdowns cause to the economy.
Let me quote a research report – The Anatomy of an Internet Blackout: Measuring the Economic Impact of Internet Shutdowns in India – by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER). The research report while measuring the impact of Internet shutdowns in India says the rising number of communications shutdowns “epitomises the difficulties on the pathway to realising India’s digital ambitions”.
During 2012-017, reveals the report, 16,315 hours of Internet shutdown cost India’s economy around $3 billion, the 12,600 hours of mobile Internet shutdown about $2.37 billion, and the 3,700 hours of mobile and fixed-line Internet shutdowns nearly $678.4 million.
As the ICRIER study has noted, the Internet today is a “primary driver of entrepreneurship” among the young. Many of them are into e-tailing, delivery services and similar ventures for which they bank on the Web. Many of them use digital payment options. So obviously an Internet blackout means that most of their socio-economic existence is threatened or stalled. Further, Internet shutdowns simply cut off channels of information for different segments of population – be it teachers, students, researchers, entrepreneurs, health professionals etc.
When a country like India is aiming to become a $5-trillion economy and wants to anchor the growth on its information and communication technology sector, Internet shutdowns send all the wrong signals. With country’s e-commerce sector poised to touch $150 billion by 2020, it makes business sense to keep the Internet as plugged as possible.
The Internet economy is believed to evolve substantially over the next decade, fueled by innovations in technology and business models. No sector of the economy will be untouched by technology and only those who adapt quickly to these changes will be successful. Looking at the option to unplug the Internet needs to be done away with. The Governments need to invest in better public communication and counter-speech whenever there is any untoward situation threatening national security.
Let educative campaigns be launched aimed to address hate speeches, provocative messaging and rumour-mongering. Even some studies have found that fact-checking on fake news also helps to neutralize the efforts of mischief mongers. Strict laws should be put in place which can deal firmly with the architects of fake news, rumor mongers and those who are abusive while on the Internet.
Besides, the Government can bank upon the service providers and Internet companies to nab online miscreants instead of directly resorting to unplug the Internet. Precisely, the effort should be to find alternatives and in the current economic slowdown scenario, it makes a sense to keep the Internet plugged as it has the potential to substantially contribute to the prime minister Modi’s ambitious target of India becoming a $5-trillion economy by 2024-25.
(The views are of the author are personal and not the institution he works for)