When this is over, what will the internet be? Inequities in access thrown into sharper relief by coronavirus outbreak
India has 451 million active internet users, second only to China. A solid 66 million of these are between 5 and 11 years old. This is the kind of data point that puts a gleam in the eyes of tech bros who think that India’s education crisis can be solved with a mobile phone in the hand of every child.
When this is over what will we be? This is a question that my friend Brinda, an expressive arts therapist, is trying to answer in a shaman class that she signed up for. She is in Bengaluru, the shamans in the US. Shamans have been teaching Brinda and other students to respond to the pandemic with a sense of expansiveness, an expansiveness that can take in a grief as global as the pandemic.
When this is over, what will we grow? Kannaiyan Subramaniam, a farmer in a district 170 km from Bengaluru posted a video on Twitter to find a buyer for his 100 tonnes cabbage crop for a barely breakeven price. Three hundred thousand views later, he doesn’t have a buyer but other farmers — all suffering from a country under lockdown — have gone online for the first time to find a white knight for their produce.
When will this be over? In most of stand-up comedian Danish Sait’s hit lockdown Instagram videos, characters wonder about the future in the distinctive, east Bengaluru patois that have made Sait’s videos a sensation. A video called “Conversations with Friends” ends with a character saying, “This will go on till June-July-August-September-October-November-December.”
The internet is where a small population of India is living currently.
Even under an extremely strict lockdown, this population is able to work from home, connect with family, take free fitness classes, binge-watch, and crucially, buy groceries. They can adopt, mock or riff any sourdough trends. When this is all over, they make promises to themselves. When will all this be over, they ask online.
Even more than usual, the upper middle class India is projecting their astral bodies all over the internet via quarantine meals on Instagram and dance challenges on TikTok and operatic versions of housework. This coupled with those working from home means that India’s internet consumption has risen by 13 percent in the month since the national lockdown began on 24 March. Everyday Indians have used an average 308,000 terabytes (TB) of data — from the newly ubiquitous Zoom call to recipe sharing to rivers of fake news and corona realities. Pornhub recently reported a 95 percent increase in traffic from India. While certainty and the pleasingly consumable outside world are gone, they have been replaced by the internet — pleasingly consumable even for the jaded.
Since 24 March, the day the national lockdown began, thousands of workers have been making tragic journeys on foot to their villages hundreds of kilometres away from the cities where they worked. The lockdown came with no warning, no preparation and certainly no arrangements for those who would be immediately rendered homeless. A month later, the caravan is still walking and hunger has become as big an issue as the virus that started it all. The government has decided in a move that makes all Marie Antoinette comparisons meaningless, that ‘excess’ foodgrains would be converted to ethanol for hand sanitisers. Yet it is right that alongside civil society bandaging the food crisis, some activists are raising their voices to ask the government for more internet. Now. Not when this is over.
Around the world there is a well-documented history of librarians saving books and readers from all manner of marauders: from governments and armies, from censors, censoriousness and from well-meaning bores. In the courageous tradition of librarians from Timbuktu to Baghdad to Havana, a small group of librarians in New Delhi have stepped up.
Working in underserved neighbourhoods since 2014, The Community Library Project, a small non-profit chain of libraries in the National Capital Region, has over 4,000 members, children and adults. The libraries are multilingual, beautifully curated and on an average weekday buzzing with activity. That ended on 24 March.
S, a 27-year-old, has a degree in nursing and has been a librarian at TCLP for two years. She lives in Sikanderpur, alongside her members but she wasn’t prepared for the stream of calls from her young readers and their families. S was shaken by the realisation that for many of them she was their only source of information. They couldn’t step outside their doors without fear of the police and they didn’t have the internet. For a large subset of her readers’ families, the question that had to be answered was urgent — where could they find food?
On 4 April, as Mridula Koshy, novelist and director of TCLP, reported on Facebook, “Early calls are finding members in distress, sometimes severe distress wherein food is being rationed or even cases where food has entirely run out.”
Within three weeks, the librarians had massively revamped their operations. TCLP decided to act as a hub of information. Purnima Rao, a spokesperson for the libraries said, “We’re calling every single member we can to check up on them, give them information about ration shops, nearest food distribution points, medical help and what to do if landlords are harassing them.” Rao tells the story of a reader with a heavily pregnant wife who called the library. Public transport was closed and the police were already acquiring a reputation for violently enforcing the lockdown. It was a TCLP staffer who persuaded the man to go introduce himself to the policeman on patrol and lobby for unhindered passage.
India has 451 million active internet users, second only to China. A solid 66 million of these are between 5 and 11 years old. This is the kind of data point that puts a gleam in the eyes of tech bros who think that India’s education crisis can be solved with a mobile phone in the hand of every child. TCLP’s leadership has also been told in the past that physical libraries are passé. But TCLP believed in physical libraries and the space of refuge and revolution they hold. It was a place where members could meet as equals, access thousands of books and also learn to use the internet.
Almost no TCLP member’s family owns a laptop. A modest number of families have a smartphone, usually in possession of the man of the house. The rest of TCLP’s community have basic phones which are also shared in a family. What can these phones do? Koshy tells a story. On the first day of the lockdown she got a WhatsApp message from seven-year-old Badal who has had access to books, games and the internet at the library. The message he sent was a two-second long audio file just saying “Hi ma’am”. On Day 3, Koshy sent him a video of a librarian doing a read aloud. He replied in a message three seconds long to say he did not have enough data to open the video. As Rao says, “Even our librarians said that one Zoom call wiped out their data quota for the day.”
The library saw right away they needed to create a library of new audio material for their members and have done so with a speed and nimbleness that makes the head reel. But without much improved access to the internet, working class children are left out of everything, including the government’s new Zoom classroom plans. The hundreds of millions of users only add up to 36 percent of Indians. Which is why the librarians are campaigning for the government to work with mobile operators, telecom providers, ISPs and give everyone data urgently.
At the other end of the country, in the state of Kerala as lockdown began, the government held talks with telecom service providers to increase bandwidth by 30 to 40 percent. And in a not unrelated development, this state has had the greatest success in flattening the infamous curve, raising doubling time to 70-odd days.
As TCLP librarians argue, treating access to data as luxury is wrong and reflects a deeply paternalistic attitude towards the working class. As Koshy pointed out on Twitter recently, “If we accept that such access is part of how one accesses one’s citizenship, then denial is denial of rights. We fail to see as essential for the working class what we see as essential for ourselves. It’s a short road from this to where we decide who gets access to ventilators based on who can pay.”
When this is over, what will the internet be?
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