“No Internet Means No Work, No Pay, No Food”

In August 2019, the Indian government completely blocked all communication networks in Jammu and Kashmir, including landlines, fixed line internet and mobile networks. The authorities sought to prevent Kashmiris from organizing protests after the government revoked the state’s constitutional autonomous status, splitting it into two separate federally governed territories.
While some services were gradually restored, mobile 4G internet access remained effectively down for over 500 days, until February 2021. Mobile internet is used by 96 percent of the population, and thus the shutdown impacted every aspect of daily life. As one journalist based in Srinagar, who asked not to be identified, told Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation:
Just imagine the number of times you use the internet in a day. For entertainment, for information, for job applications, for education, to connect with your loved ones, for checking up on things, for ordering things, for travel, for ticketing, for studying—it’s for every aspect of life. You start to realize its importance when it is taken away from you.
While the length of the 2019-2021 internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir was unprecedented, denying access to the internet has become a default policing tactic by Indian authorities, including to shut down protests or criticism of the government, and even to prevent cheating in school examinations. Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more often than any other country in the world. According to one estimate, India was responsible for the most shutdowns in 2022, for the fifth consecutive year, with 84 shutdowns out of 187 globally. While this report covers shutdowns up until December 2022, in March 2023, the entire state of Punjab had been placed under a three-day mobile internet blackout to track down a separatist leader. In May, the internet was completely blocked on both mobile and fixed line services in Manipur state for weeks following violent ethnic clashes.
The authorities contend the shutdowns are needed to prevent violence fueled by rumors circulated on social media or mobile messaging applications. “There is a big song and dance about the internet being cut. Now, if you’ve reached the stage where you say an internet cut is more dangerous than the loss of human lives, then what can I say?” said India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in September 2022.
Women working at an outdoor job site
However, as the Kashmiri journalist pointed out, the first challenge during the communications shutdown is the inability to share or access information. “It pushed you into a bubble and also created a fertile ground for rumors,” he said. Often, according to experts, internet shutdowns are kneejerk reactions and disproportionate in the harm caused.
Meanwhile, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s key digitization initiatives are being harmed by internet shutdowns. “Digital connectivity should become as much a basic right as access to school,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in 2015, and since then, his government has assiduously pursued this policy. The “Digital India” project aims to use technology to improve delivery of public services and implement government programs.
This has made the internet essential for access to government welfare schemes (or programs) for social protection, including its right to work guarantee, its public distribution system under the Food Security Act, and for e-governance in rural areas. The population, particularly marginalized communities, have become particularly vulnerable during internet shutdowns. “All the government schemes are now dependent on the internet, so you can no longer get access to any of it without internet; even getting food rations require biometric authentication,” said Laavanya Tamang, a senior researcher at LibTech India, a nonprofit organization that works on improving public service delivery in India.
This joint report by Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation, based on research in India and over 70 interviews, documents the harm caused by internet shutdowns. Among those most affected are the country’s marginalized populations who depend on government programs and social protection systems. An annex to the report provides a comprehensive list of internet shutdowns in India’s 28 states (excluding the eight federally governed union territories) in the three years since the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in January 2020, which highlighted the importance of internet access for fundamental rights protected by the Indian Constitution.
The two organizations examined whether Indian state governments are complying with the court’s directives and found that decisions to snap internet access are often erratic and based on a vague, tenuous, and unsubstantiated understanding of a law and order problem, which does not satisfy the international legal threshold of a public emergency or a threat to public safety. Shutting down the internet to stem protests or criticism of government, for instance, does not constitute a legitimate aim and instead violates the right to peaceful assembly.
Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation call upon Indian central and state governments to end broad, indiscriminate shutdowns, and instead uphold commitments to “an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet” for everyone, and ensure that its restrictions on internet access do not undermine the rights and entitlements of the country’s marginalized communities.
Impact on Poverty and Social and Economic Inequality
Access to the internet is not only essential for freedom of expression and association, but also for a range of economic and social rights. As governments continue to digitize and automate core social security programs, internet access has and will increasingly become vital for the realization of the rights to social security, education, health, work, and the right to food, among others.
In India, most shutdowns involve cutting off access to the internet on mobile phones within a certain area. But this translates into an internet blackout for most of the population within this area, because 96 percent of internet subscribers in India use their mobile devices to access the internet, while only 4 percent have access to fixed line internet. Mobile connectivity is even more critical in rural areas, as 94 percent of fixed line connections were concentrated in urban areas. As such, these shutdowns especially harm people who cannot pay for fixed line internet, as well as those living in rural and remote areas where there is little to no access to fixed line internet.
For instance, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) provides vital income security for over 100 million households in rural areas by guaranteeing them employment for 100 days. Through this program, workers earn a daily wage ranging from 204 rupees (US$2.47) to 333 rupees (US$4.02) depending on the state they are in. Access to this income security program is vital given the lack of employment opportunities in rural areas. It has been especially vital for women’s empowerment: 58 percent of program participants in 2022-23 were women, most of whom came from socially and economically marginalized households.
However, as the government has moved to digitize NREGA, including its attendance checks and wage payments, adequate access to the internet has become essential for people’s ability to receive these vital benefits. Network coverage is already poor in remote areas covered by the program, causing serious challenges and setting back progress on poverty reduction, but shutdowns that cut off internet access only make the situation worse.
Since January 2023, the government has required all NREGA workers to be geo-tagged and photographed twice a day, on an online attendance app ostensibly to increase transparency and improve citizen oversight over NREGA work. Apart from the privacy concerns this raises, it also conditions people’s livelihoods on often unreliable internet access that stalls completely during internet shutdowns. In February 2023, hundreds of NREGA workers from across the country gathered in Delhi to begin a 100-day protest against the mandatory app-based attendance.
Several NREGA workers told Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation that they would not be paid if attendance was not registered in the app. “When the internet was shut down in 2022 [during protests opposing a government policy], the block officer asked us to stop work since we could not mark our attendance,” said R.C., a supervisor for NREGA in Haryana. “They said they could not pay without online attendance.”
“Just stop connecting NREGA to the internet,” said N.P., a 29-year-old Dalit woman from Rajasthan. “We travel far to reach our worksites, but have to go back home if the internet does not work. Entire families depend on NREGA for sustenance. How will we feed our children?”
Women working at an outdoor job siteClick to expand Image
Women working at a job site in a village in Rajasthan under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which requires internet access for wages to be paid, September 2022. © 2022 Jayshree Bajoria/Human Rights Watch
Apart from harming the government’s efforts to ensure the right to livelihood, as enshrined in the Indian constitution, internet shutdowns also impact a key social protection policy to provide subsidized food grains under the National Food Security Act through a targeted public distribution system. In 2017, as part of schemes to digitize the government’s social security system and ostensibly increase administrative efficiency, the government required all people eligible for subsidized food rations to link their ration card with Aadhaar—the country’s biometric identity system. This was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2018.
As a result, ration shops now require internet for Aadhaar authentication before providing food grains. R.K., who runs a shop under the public food distribution system, explained that when a customer comes, he uses an internet-linked machine to authenticate fingerprints with the biometric card. “The machine uses a SIM, similar to what we insert in a mobile phone, so when there is no internet, it doesn’t work,” he said, which prevents him from delivering the subsidized allocations.
A man uses a machine for biometric authenticationClick to expand Image
A ration shop dealer in a village in Rajasthan with the machine used for Aadhaar-based biometric authentication. The machine requires internet access to authenticate biometric IDs before people can get the subsidized or free food grains to which they are entitled each month, September 2022. © Jayshree Bajoria/Human Rights Watch
To help people navigate the e-governance systems, state governments have set up common service centers in villages to help with basic banking, paying utility bills, registering for Aadhaar or other forms of government identification, as well as applying for and accessing official documents. These centers generally function on mobile internet, and shutdowns completely halt their work. These centers have also generated employment for local youth who lose their earnings during internet shutdowns. Said one common service center operator in Sonipat district in Haryana:
There was an internet shutdown at the time of farmers protests in 2022. When people came to withdraw money, they couldn’t do it. We faced similar issues during the shutdown because of Agnipath [a government scheme for military recruitment] protests as well. Also, we are paid on a commission basis, so we don’t earn any money when there is no internet.
The 2019 communications shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir, coupled with movement restrictions, severely affected access to medical and other emergency services, education, and livelihood. For months, Kashmiris could not use online banking, make digital payments, or order supplies. There was no contact with the outside world. As a 28-year-old Kashmiri professional said, “It felt like the silence of the graveyard.” The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the six-month long communications shutdown cost more than $2.4 billion, and led to nearly 500,000 job losses.
On August 22, 2019, United Nations human rights experts issued a joint statement on Jammu and Kashmir urging the government to end the communications shutdown:
The shutdown of the internet and telecommunication networks, without justification from the Government, are inconsistent with the fundamental norms of necessity and proportionality…The blackout is a form of collective punishment of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, without even a pretext of a precipitating offence.
Legal Loopholes for Arbitrary Internet Shutdown
India’s laws to regulate internet shutdowns use overbroad language and lack adequate safeguards to ensure principles of necessity and proportionality. There is no effective accountability mechanism or judicial and parliamentary oversight, allowing frequent misuse and arbitrary decision-making.
The central and state governments of India are permitted to restrict or temporarily suspend internet services using the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017.
The Telegraph Act allows authorities to suspend internet services in case of public emergency or in the interest of public safety, including in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, or for preventing incitement to the commission of an offense. However, these broad terms of public emergency and public safety are not defined in law.
Under the Telecom Suspension Rules, only a union or state home secretary can issue internet suspension orders, although there is an exception in case of emergencies, which allows an officer of a lower rank to issue internet suspension orders. These rules require the order to contain reasons for a shutdown and for the authorities to immediately forward the order for approval to a Review Committee, taking into account public holidays or weekends. However, Review Committees are made up of three officials of the central and state governments and thus lack independence. They are tasked with examining the legality of internet suspension orders and are required to meet within five days after the order is issued. The Review Committee cannot provide necessary oversight because it simply records its findings and does not have the power to stay or set aside suspension orders even when they are illegal.
In 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology, in its report examining the impact of shutdowns, said, “The Suspension Rules have been grossly misused leading to huge economic loss and also causing untold suffering to the public, as well as severe reputational damage to the country.” It added that “the Government’s thrust is on digitization and knowledge economy with free and open access to internet at its core, frequent suspension of internet on flimsy grounds is uncalled for and must be avoided.”
The authorities also use section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which empowers district magistrates—government administrative officials—to take any preventive measures to deal with imminent threats to public order. This allows them to suspend the internet to maintain law and order, often maintaining secrecy around these orders by not publishing them, with complete lack of accountability or any form of oversight. The provision also allows magistrates to pass such orders ex parte—done on the basis of only one party—in circumstances of emergency, circumstances that were determined by them, without any in-built review mechanism.
In January 2020, in a landmark judgment, Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Ghulam Nabi Azad v. Union of India, the Indian Supreme Court held that suspension of internet services is a “drastic measure” that must be considered by the state only if it is “necessary” and “unavoidable,” after assessing the “existence of an alternate less intrusive remedy.”
Noting the lack of adequate safeguards in existing regulations, the court also laid down procedural safeguards for suspending internet services. It directed the authorities to always publish internet suspension orders and to ensure that the orders are lawful, necessary, proportionate, and limited in scope. The judgment directed the executive to ensure internet shutdowns are temporary and not indefinite. The Review Committee constituted under the Suspension Rules must ensure periodic review of internet suspensions every seven working days, the court said.
Arbitrary Internet Shutdowns
Human Rights Watch and Internet Freedom Foundation identified 127 shutdowns in the three years between the Supreme Court’s Anuradha Bhasin judgment in January 2020 and December 31, 2022. Of 28 Indian states, 18 shut down the internet at least once in these three years. Local authorities used internet shutdowns in 54 cases to prevent or in response to protests, 37 to prevent cheating in school examinations or in exams for government jobs, 18 in response to communal violence, and 18 for other law and order concerns.
This number does not include internet shutdowns in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir where the authorities continued to shut down the internet more than any other place in the country.
202306asia_india_stateshutdowns_graphicClick to expand Image
Out of the 18 states that shut down the internet, at least 11—Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Telangana—did not publish suspension orders as directed by the Supreme Court. Even if orders were published, the authorities often failed to justify the apprehension of risk to public safety. Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, and Assam governments shut down the internet to prevent cheating in examinations, which was clearly an unnecessary and disproportionate response.
The 2021 Parliamentary Standing Committee report concluded that “the principle of proportionality and procedure for lifting the shutdown are vague and lack clarity.”
An analysis of 85 shutdown orders from Rajasthan revealed that a majority, 44, were to prevent protests or in response to them, at least 28 were to prevent cheating in examinations, 9 to prevent communal violence or in response to it, and 4 to address other law and order concerns. Internet Freedom Foundation analyzed 26 internet suspension orders issued by Udaipur divisional commissioner and 30 suspension orders issued by Jaipur divisional commissioner between January 10, 2020 and September 25, 2021 and found that the authorities issued shutdowns frequently, followed a copy-paste template, and failed to ensure they were lawful, necessary, and proportionate. Most of the shutdowns were ordered to quell the right to protest and were imposed even when less restrictive measures may have been available.
Bar graph that compares the rationale for internet shutdowns in Rajasthan stateClick to expand Image
The Indian government does not collect any data on internet shutdowns and has not provided any evidence to show that internet shutdowns are effective in countering terrorism or maintaining law and order. In 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee noted:
So far, there is no proof to indicate that internet shutdown have been effective in addressing public emergency and ensuring public safety. The Committee are of the view that using internet shutdowns to deal with Public Emergency and Public Safety reflects poorly on the part of the law and order machinery of the State to deal with such issues…Shutting down of internet to deal with such situation in countries like USA or European countries is unheard of and reflects poorly on India.
In February 2023, the Parliamentary Standing Committee in response to action taken by the government on its 2021 report, said it “deplored the [government’s] indifferent attitude” and strongly urged the authorities to commission a thorough study “so as to assess the impact of internet shutdown on the economy and also find out its effectiveness in dealing with public emergency and public safety.”
Karti P. Chidambaram, an opposition member of parliament and member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee that authored the report, said internet shutdowns reflect a “colonial policing mindset,” and are a form of draconian law enforcement. “Our immediate reaction is to impose a curfew, shut down, keep people at home. It is still very British and that is still continuing. It is a very crude policing tactic and they have simply taken that and applied it to the internet, too.”
Lack of Monitoring and Accountability
Analysis of review committee orders from some Indian states show a lack of effective monitoring. Most committees simply agree with the government suspension orders, never challenging their legality or whether they meet the necessity and proportionality test.
Out of 28 states, 12 have established review committees. Kerala, which has never suspended internet access, said it has not constituted a committee, while 15 states did not provide any details in response to Right to Information requests on government policies on internet shutdowns. States do not make review committee findings public and rarely ever provide them in response to Right to Information requests.
The Rajasthan state government, for instance, said its review committee does not even meet or record findings, and that internet suspension orders are circulated to the responsible officers who merely provide their approval.
West Bengal shared the findings of its review committee with the Calcutta High Court during the hearing of a petition challenging the legality of a March 7, 2022 order suspending internet services in several districts to prevent cheating on exams. The review committee had upheld the order, saying it had a legitimate goal. But the High Court stayed the order, saying that it did not meet the proportionality test and was not passed by a competent authority provided under the legal provisions.
India’s International Legal Obligations
The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016 unequivocally condemning internet shutdowns and called upon all states to “refrain from and cease such measures.” UN human rights experts have said blanket internet shutdowns violate international human rights law and in 2021 the UN secretary-general noted the need to reinforce universal access to the internet by 2030 as a human right. He emphasized that the UN would work with governments, business, and civil society to find alternatives to disruptive blanket internet shutdowns.
In June 2022, India signed a statement along with G7 nations and four other countries, committing to ensure “an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet.” As a signatory to the Resilience Democracies statement, India also resolved to protect “the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline and ensuring a free and independent media landscape through our work with relevant international initiatives.”
Access to the internet is widely recognized as an indispensable enabler of a broad range of human rights guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights instruments to which India is a party. States have the obligation to respect and ensure the right to freedom of expression without distinction of any kind. Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression are only permissible when they are provided by law and are a necessary and proportionate response to a specific threat. Given their indiscriminate and widespread impacts, internet shutdowns rarely meet the proportionality test.
Related Content
June 13, 2023 News Release
India: Internet Shutdowns Hurt Vulnerable Communities
Arbitrary Restrictions Incompatible with ‘Digital India’ Mission
Women working at a job site in a village in Rajasthan under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), September 2022. NREGA is the Indian government’s income security program in rural India.
Key Recommendations
To the Indian Central Government and State Governments
End broad, indiscriminate, and indefinite internet shutdowns.
Ensure any restriction on internet access is lawful, necessary, proportionate, and limited in scope, and ensure compliance with international law as reflected in the Supreme Court directives in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India.
Review and revise the Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services (Public Emergency or Public Safety) Rules, 2017, after consultation with civil society groups, digital rights experts, and other stakeholders to bring the rules in line with international legal standards.
Publish every internet suspension order with details on the reasons for shutdown, duration of the shutdown, legal provision under which the internet was suspended, and what efforts were made to ensure the suspension was necessary and proportionate.
Establish a national-level database for all internet shutdowns in the country in which should be recorded all suspensions ordered, the reasons, duration, legal provisions used, the decisions of the competent authority, and decisions of the Review Committees. The database should be available publicly to ensure transparency and accountability.
This is a joint report by Human Rights Watch and New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation.
Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) is a registered charitable trust that advocates for the digital rights of Indians. Its mission is to ensure the growth of digitization with fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. IFF works on a wide range of issues, specializing in internet shutdowns, digital access, and free expression. It has provided legal assistance on internet shutdowns to petitioners before the Indian Supreme Court in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, 2020, and Foundation of Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, 2020. IFF is also involved in litigation challenging illegal, frequent, and arbitrary internet suspensions in the states of Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Assam. The group is involved in advocacy for preserving internet access, including by filing Right to Information applications to increase transparency surrounding internet shutdowns, and making representation before officials and regulatory bodies of the central and state governments in India.
This report is based on field research and interviews conducted in India from July 2022 to February 2023. Human Rights Watch and IFF interviewed over 50 people affected by internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan, Haryana, Jharkhand, Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya. Jammu and Kashmir has had the most shutdowns in the country, closely followed by Rajasthan.
In addition, the two organizations spoke to more than 20 lawyers, lawmakers, digital rights experts, civil society activists, and journalists to understand how internet shutdowns affect access to other basic rights, and the government’s compliance with domestic and international law, and orders from Indian courts.
The report also includes information from Right to Information requests filed by IFF with 28 state governments in February 2022. The Right to Information applications asked the governments to provide details regarding all internet shutdowns that they imposed in their territories after the Supreme Court, in its January 10, 2020 judgment in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India & Ors., set out procedural safeguards for suspending internet services. It directed the authorities to publish internet suspension orders and to ensure that the orders are lawful, necessary, proportionate, and limited in scope. The Right to Information requests sought to monitor state government compliance with the ruling as well as applicable law. Fifteen state governments responded to the Right to Information request. The findings are recorded in chapter V and in the appendix.
In cases in which the authorities failed to respond or refused to provide information, IFF filed first, and if necessary, second appeals. At the time of writing, second appeals were pending before the State Information Commissions of Punjab and Jharkhand.
The appendix documents a comprehensive list of internet shutdowns over three years following the Supreme Court’s Anuradha Bhasin judgment in January 2020, until December 2022, in all 28 Indian states.
The report also draws upon secondary literature, including research published by other rights groups, United Nations human rights experts, media reports, government reports, and court rulings.
The report uses pseudonyms for interviewees where requested, with identifying information withheld to protect interviewees’ privacy and safety. Human Rights Watch and IFF provided no remuneration or other inducement to the interviewees.
I. Background
Internet shutdowns are measures taken by a government to intentionally disrupt access to, and the use of, information and communications systems online. Experts define internet shutdowns to include actions that restrict access to the internet completely, or slow down speed, or restrict certain content.[1] Governments can slow down speed by throttling bandwidth or limiting mobile service to 2G, which, while nominally maintaining access, renders it extremely difficult to make meaningful use of the internet. In particular, bandwidth throttling interferes with the ability to share and watch video footage and live streams. Another intervention is to allow access to some websites and services, also known as “whitelisting,” while continuing to shut down access to the rest of the internet. Shutdowns may affect towns or regions within a country, an entire country, or even multiple countries, and may last for periods ranging from hours to months.Internet shutdowns are different from website blocking when certain websites or services are shut down. This report examines internet shutdowns in which the authorities completely cut off access on mobile phones, cut off access on both mobile and fixed line internet, deliberately slowed down or throttled internet speeds, or whitelisted certain sites.
Since 2018, India has shut down the internet more than any other country in the world. While the authorities have imposed a complete internet blackout in some instances in some parts of the country, more often, the shutdowns involve cutting off access to the internet on mobile phones. This, however, amounts to an internet blackout for the majority of the population because, as of November 2022, according to government data, 96 percent of internet subscribers accessed it using mobile devices while only 4 percent had access to fixed line internet.[2] Mobile connectivity is even more critical in rural areas, as 94 percent of fixed line connections were concentrated in urban areas as of March 2021.[3] The shutdowns thus disproportionately hurt people who cannot afford fixed line internet or those in rural and remote areas, where there is little to no access to fixed line internet.
Two pie charts showing that most Indians rely on mobile to access the internetClick to expand Image
Lack of Official Data
There is no official data on internet shutdowns because the central government does not keep a record.[4] However, some rights groups and technology companies collect data on internet shutdowns. The international digital rights group Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition reported that in 2022, India was responsible for the most shutdowns in the world for the fifth consecutive year, with 84 shutdowns out of 187 globally.[5] In 2021, according to the tech giant Meta, there were 101 intentional internet disruptions globally, out of which 41—more than any other country—were in India.[6] While their numbers may differ depending on their sources and methodology, most data show that the largest number of intentional internet disruptions by the authorities took place in India.
Digital India
Internet shutdowns run contrary to the commitments to digital freedoms made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In June 2022, India signed a statement along with Group of Seven (G7) nations and four other countries, committing to ensure “an open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet.”[7] As a signatory to the Resilience Democracies stat