Jaipur: At a time when the Centre is trying to strengthen the digital infrastructure in the country, the BJP government in poll-bound Rajasthan has sent out a series of mixed signals. While the Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje-led government has initiated several IT and internet-based schemes in last five years, Rajasthan is also reportedly the state with the second highest number of internet shutdowns, following Jammu and Kashmir.
In April this year, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations published a report stating that Rajasthan incurred an economic cost of $80.24 million in 2017 alone due to 'Accounted Ordered Internet Shutdowns'.
The state has marked 56 internet shutdowns in the past four years according to Software Freedom Law Centre, India. The introduction of the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules in August 2017 to tackle arbitrary shutdowns has done little to help.
In 2017, the Supreme Court had allowed the state home departments to implement complete internet shutdowns in case of public emergency and in situations pertaining to national security. However, Rajasthan decided to block internet while conducting examinations. The latest curfew reportedly took place on 5 August during the Rajasthan Administrative Service Prelims Examination.
"Public security is good but shutting the internet down in the entire city for police exams is a system failure. We are welcoming 5G now, which will enable activities like robotic surgery, how will this work in such scenarios?" asked Nisheeth Dixit, a Jaipur-based technology consultant.
Sources suggest the Rajasthan Department of Information Technology and Communication (DoIT&C) has suggested other alternatives to the home department instead of removing all access to the internet. "There are multiple options instead of a complete shutdown like the port block option available with all service providers. For example, if WhatsApp services have to be blocked for a certain period of time, the ports on which WhatsApp is transmitting the data can be closed. Blocking social media applications is another suggestion. Implementation depends on the home department," an official from DoIT&C said on condition of anonymity.
Information Technology and Digital India initiatives, personally taken care of by Raje, have been a priority for the current government throughout its tenure. The department also received recognition from various outlets for its digital initiatives — the recent one being from New York University for its Bhamashah Digital Parivaar Yojana.
Launched in September, the scheme funds rural households to buy mobile phones with internet connections. Under this scheme, the woman of the house gets a Bhamashah Card which is linked to the family’s bank account. The state government then directly transfers benefits like pensions, rations cards, technical and higher education, and medical expenses. However, conflicting ground reality shows that Rajasthan still needs to fix things before calling itself a ‘digital state’.
In order to provide online G2C and B2C services like payment of bills, fee deposition, recruitment applications, grievance redressal, booking of tickets and admission in educational institutes, several e-mitra kiosks and Atal Seva Kendras have also been set across the state. However, many of these kiosks struggle for a stable internet connection on most days.
"The Atal Seva Kendra in our panchayat apparently does not have internet, so e-mitra does not work. All the employees at the Kotra Block in the Udaipur district have to sit in private spaces to run e-mitra. When an e-mitra is tracked through GPS, it is supposed to be at the panchayat-level, but it is found at the block-level. The reason given for this is a lack of electricity and internet," said Sarfaraz Sheikh, an Udaipur-based social worker. The internet at the kendras is provided through the 'Rajnet' initiative under which the government provides a secure VPN network to each centre.
Internet woes affect residents at the grassroots-level as well. "Rations are now available only through e-PDS (Public Distribution System) after a proper biometric analysis. Since the internet does not function properly, especially near the hilly areas, most residents are sent back without ration as the shopkeeper keeps waiting for the internet. The PDS machines are sometimes taken a few kilometres away from the shop to find network," said Nesar Ahmad, coordinator, Budget Analysis Research Centre, Jaipur.
Locals, especially in the tribal areas, also struggle with the ‘self-dependent’ Bhamashah ATMs due to a lack of digital knowledge and accessibility.
"Residents at panchayat-level are not technologically-equipped and are less educated, so they have to depend on panchayat heads for small tasks like withdrawing money," Sheikh explained.
Furthermore, government websites and data are not fully secured. "None of the systems in Rajasthan have been notified as a 'secured system' and is not declared as Critical Information Infrastructure (CII). All government websites are hackable to some extent. The punishment, however, is imprisonment for three years in case of attempt to hack the website, and 10 years in case the hacker is trying to access critical data," Dixit said, "The government needs to take full responsibility for data security."
Several cyber law experts believe that Rajasthan is not yet ready for a digital overhaul. "The cyber police and adjudicating authorities are not updated and are not prepared. It is all superficial. The Rajasthan government promotes IT and startups, but they are not equipped. There is no dedicated authority that can track and avoid digital red-tapism," said Prateek Kasliwal, a Jaipur-based lawyer, "Telecom is now considered an essential service and internet shutdowns can actually impact the overall Digital India movement. It also violates several human rights like the right to livelihood," he added.
A PIL has been filed in the Rajasthan High Court regarding the shutdowns, however, a decision is still pending. Taking note of the PIL, the HC in July reportedly issued a notice to the state government seeking the laws under which internet was shut in order to conduct the examination.
The author is a Jaipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2018 12:32:08 IST