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Denial of high speed internet to J&K hinders fight agains Covid19

Ever since the breakdown of Covid-19 from the Wuhan market in China, subsequently declared a pandemic by WHO, has taken the whole world by a shock. Unprecedented and exponential rise in the Covid-19 cases has brought everything to a halt, the globe seems to have literally frozen, an ice-age of a sorts seems to be in progress amid an undeclared emergency that the whole world is grappling with.

Despite exhausting all the available remedies, science seems to have failed to combat this fatal virus. There are more than half a million infected cases and around 40k deaths and counting. Italy which has the second best medical healthcare facilities has seen the worst of all and recorded the largest number of fatalities.

Amidst this global health emergency, that the world is struggling to contain, Kashmir, the most volatile part of the world, is still waiting for highspeed internet. Delhi had suspended the internet services in Jammu & Kashmir on the abrogation of the autonomy of the region, and recently when restrictions were lifted, the speed was kept at abysmal low. The Indian apex court observed that the indefinite suspension of internet is not permissible, that the government should maintain the principle of proportionality.In a significant ruling on Jan 10, 2020 the Supreme Court said that access to the Internet is a fundamental right under Article 19 of the Constitution.

India is embroiled in a very perplexed situation, since World War IIas the threat of Covid-19 looms large.On March 24, 2020 thegovernment announced a three-week nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of Coronavirus in the country. For Kashmir, lockdown is not new but the restrictions on the internet to fight the battle of Covid-19 is dangerous. The government extended the restriction on high speedinternet. All this in done in the name of public safety, public security and national interest. The notice issued by the administration stated the same ground of restriction.

Terms like “public safety” and “public security” aremost widely used in public administration, yet undefined. The word “public interest” is entitled to a broad and open interpretation and is nowhere defined even in the Constitution. The Supreme Court of India in the case of B.Singh vs. Union of India & Ors defined public interest as: public interest law is the name that has recently been given to efforts which provide legal representation to previously unrepresented groups and interests. The Australian senate committee on constitutional and legal affairs described public interest as “aggregating any number of interests that may bear upon a disputed question that is of general — as opposed to merely private — concern”. 

Citizens are entitled to protect or furtherown interests. As Justice Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court once said: “the most important thing we do is not doing”.  According an expansive meaning to ‘public interest’ may well turn out to impair the interest itself whereas governments act, or at all events are constitutionally required to act, in the public interest. 

There is a growing concern among the populace around the pandemic restrictions and the fetters placed on the dissemination of information adds to the horrors. What matters here is not the life of people but, on the pretext of public interest and safety, State intrudes and justifies the conundrum.

The biggest threat to the erstwhile state of J&K is access to healthcare. Slowing down the speed of internet slows down everything else. Due to 2G mobile internet, doctors, patients and people across J&K are unable to access crucial information, and this is a gross violation of basic human rights. Access to medicine, which is recognized by international and municipal legislations as a basic human right, is at stake.

Amnesty International India has stated in an official release that the government of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir must restore uninterrupted 4G internet services to ensure that people have access to health and safety-related information. People are deprived of the information disseminated from WHO or from doctors across the world. The latest Situation Report issued by the World Health Organization on 17 March recommended that that public must be informed of the situation so that they can take appropriate measures to protect themselves and their families, but internet acts as a barrier for masses in J&K. Theirony is that it’s being justified on the basis of national interest and public safety, cognition and protection.

The right to health, as guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides for the right to access healthcare. Access to health-related information is also a crucial part of the right to health. Right to health is a fundamental right. The Constitution permits “reasonable restrictions” on these rights but it’s unfortunate that restrictions are being prioritized over their corresponding rights.

Dr B.R. Ambedkar was aware of this when he said that a good constitution could be undermined in the hands of bad people, and that it was possible to pervert the Constitution without amending it by administering it in a way that is inconsistent with its spirit.

Public health is of paramount importance where no compromise is possible, especially during this global health emergency. Public interest includes protecting public health. By April 2ndJammu and Kashmir reported 61 positive cases of COVID-19, of which two died and two recovered.Whether the state should prioritize security or the safety of people during these turbulent times is a fundamental question, that needs an earliest response. When the life of an individual is at peril what matters most is not the security but safeguarding life. State apparatus thereby undermines and underestimates the ideals instead of upholding them.

The question that remains unsolved is whether state will let Kashmir to become a hotbed of Covid-19  or will bring some changes in its previous regressive policies by restoring 4G internet.

Mohammad Ayub Dar is research scholar in the Dept of Law, AMU and Saqib Rasool Bhat is a student of law, AMU. They may be contacted at saqibbhat742 [at] gmail.com

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