Large parts of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir were subjected to a total telecommunications blackout this week, as the Indian government passed new legislation to reduce the region’s political autonomy

Kashmir’s mobile and fixed line telecoms networks fell silent this week, as the Indian government implemented a telecommunications blackout following escalating tensions in the troubled province.

On Sunday evening, the Indian government cut telecommunication lines in the region, leaving Kashmiris without mobile phone or fixed line communication services.

The move came as the Indian government announced that it would be revoking Article 370 – a special decree that gives Kashmir a greater degree of political autonomy than any other Indian state. In doing so, it has sparked huge unrest in the province and ramped up the already fractious dialogue between India and neighbouring Pakistan.

Kashmir has been a flashpoint for separatist violence since India was granted full independence from British rule in 1947, with religious and ethnic tensions flaring between those who favour Indian, Pakistani and even independent rule.

The current escalation in tensions shows how critical telecommunications infrastructure is to people’s everyday lives. If you want to render a militant group or insurgency movement inert, the first thing you do is to shut down the region’s mobile phone networks. It works – but in the process you are also grinding the day to day lives of your citizens to a halt and causing potentially life-threatening isolation.  

The situation in Kashmir raises so many questions: To what extent should the government be able to revoke access to connectivity? Have we reached a point where people are entitled to demand connectivity as a fundamental human right? When do the interests of national security trump the rights of millions of people?

For everyday Kashmiris, the telecommunications blackout is having a profound effect on their ability to do business and provide basic services. Worse still, it is already affecting key services such as healthcare.

“We are managing for now,” a senior hospital official in the region’s main city of Srinagar told journalists from Reuters, adding that conditions were worsening.

Shop keepers in the region also warned of imminent food shortages, unless the telecommunications blackout was lifted soon.

“No provisions are left in my shop, and no fresh supplies are coming,” grocery store owner, Jehangir Ahmad, told Reuters.

As the Indian government struggles to suppress the growing resentment on the streets of Kashmir, the State’s telecoms blackout could end up being a catalyst for dissent, as people rail against the disruption to their lives.


Indian Telcos haemorrhaging money at a time when they can least afford it

In addition to the bevvy of practical and philosophical questions the telecommunications blackout raises, there is also the very real question of who will be expected to bare the financial cost.

Indian mobile network operators are already surviving on starvation rations, with the average ARPU for the industry hovering somewhere between $1.50. All this at a time when they are expected to be investing multiple billions of dollars in capex for their 5G networks, due to launch next year.  

A report in the Business Standard said that the enforced blackout could end up costing Indian telcos as much as $40-$50 million per day in lost revenues (4-5 crore rupees). The report shows that Bharti Airtel stood to lose the most, with 5.64 million subscribers in Jammu and Kashmir. Next up was Reliance Jio with 3.31 million, whilst the newly merged Vodafone Idea had 1.34 million and state owned BNSL another 1.21 million. None of those operators will relish the prospect of having to reimburse customers for failing to provide services – especially given that the current situation is way beyond their control.

As the crisis in Kashmir continues, civilians and MNOs alike will be hoping that critical telecoms services can be restored as soon as possible.

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