Is 4G Ban Failing Kashmir’s Covid-19 Fight Back?

A doctor at SMHS Srinagar showing her resolve to defeat the virus inspite of challenges- KO Photo Abid Bhat

Despite the recent Supreme Court of India’s notice to Raj Bhavan, the union territory’s administration has once again extended 4G internet ban in J&K. Besides drawing a sharp and scathing social media response, the high-speed internet blockade has equally distressed Kashmir’s Covid-19 forefront fighters.

Jyotsna Bharti

On the evening of April 15, as a government review committee sat to decide the fate of the high-speed internet in Jammu and Kashmir, Dr. Murtaza became hopeful in his hospital chamber.

The 2G internet had played a big spoiler in his efforts to get online interactions with overseas experts and download research matter and guidelines on the Covid-19 crisis.

However, the evening of April 15 looked promising for this PPE-donning Covid-19 warrior in Kashmir.

And given how Supreme Court of India had recently served a notice to the union territory government about the high-speed internet in the region further assured him of its full restoration.

But to his chagrin, and that of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, many of whom took to social media to accuse New Delhi of being ‘insensitive during the global health crisis’, the young doctor had to make uneasy peace with the status quo, once again.

That evening, instead of long-awaited high-speed internet, came another date of the review: April 27.

“Problem is,” Dr. Murtaza said, “they’ve made 4G internet a repeated casualty of security situation in Kashmir, when it’s a basic human right for all of us.”

The doctor unwittingly invoked the Indian apex court’s recent ruling wherein it termed the internet as the “fundamental right” for every citizen.

“But in Kashmir,” the doctor continued, “the internet remains caught between the wishes and whims of Babus, who’re bent to administer Kashmir through repeated internet gags. They should understand that such iron curtain move to manage Kashmir and its inherent problems won’t help.”

While extending the 4G ban in J&K till April 27, Principal Secretary to the government, Shaleen Kabra cited the recent Sopore militant funeral and the Keran gunfight as some of the grounds for maintaining the blockade in his fresh review order.

“The ban justification is totally insensitive,” Dr. Murtaza continued.

“We’re in the middle of a pernicious pandemic, for God’s sake! And to tackle it, we need the 4G internet facility. The doctors leading the pandemic fight back have to regularly update themselves with the global breakthroughs in the Covid-19 crisis. Thing is, we’re facing a humanitarian crisis today, and this government is only escalating it by denying us the much-needed high-speed internet.”

The anger is prevalent, so is the anxiety.

However, at a time when government has debarred medics from talking to media, not many are ‘minding the mess’, as they believe they’ve a bigger task at hand.

“We’ve been saying this from day one that 4G matters the most during this health crisis,” said Dr. Shabnam, another Covid-19 warrior from Kashmir. “But the administration seems to have some other plans.”

This was the time, the lady doctor said, when the medical body could’ve actually started the intensive online interactions for creating more awareness in the locked down community.

“A strong 4G-driven doctor campaign could’ve also spared the administration from creating those concrete barriers in red zones. We need to change minds, and not our main roads. While bureaucratic hurdles can’t be the answer to this crisis, the full-scale internet-driven awareness can surely create a difference during this crisis hour.”

Perhaps sensing the same surging crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently announced the extension of national lockdown till May 3.

But while people across India are fighting a pure pandemic lockdown, Kashmiris are grappling with pandemic as well as partial internet.

Besides being an eye to the emergency medical force, a fast internet connection is need of the hour for accessing the crucial guidelines on Covid-19 from the global healthcare bodies, like WHO.

“One can’t download those WHO health guidelines with the slow-internet,” said Dr Suhail Naik, president of Doctor’s Association Kashmir.

“Leave WHO, we can’t even fight Covid-19, without downloading the guidelines of Indian Council of Medical Research. The persistent 4G ban is coming in the way of Covid-19 fight back in Kashmir.”

It’s been eight months since the high-speed internet was snapped in J&K.

New Delhi imposed the communication gag last August after Kashmir was stripped of its semiautonomous status.

While the low-speed 2G mobile internet was restored early this year, the limits on faster services remain the same.

The authorities are regularly ordering a continuation of the ban “in the interest of the sovereignty and integrity of India,” after a review of the situation in Kashmir.

To express their disapproval of the repeated 4G ban, many doctors took to social media and raised their concern over its impact on the health crisis tackling efforts in the region.

The medics are raising these concerns, when mental illness triggered by lockdown has created an additional healthcare challenge for them in Kashmir.

“You need a 4G-internet connection in your smartphone to counsel people through a basic video call,” said a clinical psychiatrist at IMHANS, the mental care body that lately prescribed the community window talks ‘for keeping sanity intact’ amid lockdown in Kashmir.

“The telephonic consultations [started initially when OPDs were closed to dedicate some major healthcare centres for exclusive Covid-19 treatment] don’t always help. You need to see and read the body language of patients suffering from mental issues to diagnose them properly. But alas, it’s not happening amid high-speed internet gag in Kashmir.”

Otherwise schooled in the conflict-hardened healthcare system, these Kashmiri medics term the Covid-19 a different crisis, with a clear existential threat.

“And therefore,” the mental specialist at IMHANS said, “we cannot afford Covid-19 complacency.”

But as the government looks in no mood to restore the high-speed internet in J&K, the challenges for these healthcare workers in the landlocked region have only increased manifold.

Perhaps now, as some enraged netizens responded to the latest extended 4G ban, Raj Bhavan should rise above its “Tareekh pe Tareekh” style of administration, and restore the ‘fundamental right’ in Kashmir and create some confidence in Covid-19 forefront fighters.

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