Pakistan’s Great Digital Divide

 In N11

In a widely shared video posted to social media, more than half a dozen Pakistani police per­son­nel are seen running after a girl and scream­ing, “Catch her! Catch her!” A female offi­cer grabs the neck of the pro­test­er, then her arms, and throws her in a prison van. She was not the only stu­dent arrest­ed. On June 24, around a hun­dred stu­dents were sub­ject­ed to vio­lence, thrown in police vans, and locked up till night­fall in Quetta, the provin­cial cap­i­tal of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most impov­er­ished province.

The pro­test­ers were demon­strat­ing against class­es moving online due to COVID-19. They are of the view that online class­es can’t take place in Balochistan because the major­i­ty of areas in the province do not have fiber optic lines. Nine out of 32 dis­tricts com­plete­ly lack mobile inter­net ser­vices, as the inter­net was shut down due to secu­ri­ty rea­sons.

On March 13, Pakistan announced the clo­sure of all edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions fol­low­ing the arrival of COVID-19 in the coun­try. Since then all class­rooms have remained shut, prompt­ing a huge crisis in the edu­ca­tion sector at all levels. Pakistani author­i­ties have ordered uni­ver­si­ties to make class­es online only to help curb the spread of the virus.

From Hunger Strikes to Petitions in Courts

Students across the coun­try, from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to Balochistan, have been protest­ing against online class­es, not only on social media but in front of var­i­ous press clubs, uni­ver­si­ties, and on roads. They have observed token hunger strikes, ral­lies, and demon­stra­tions. But the gov­ern­ment has not paid much heed to their demands.

“Online class­es are ridicu­lous with­out inter­net,” Sabiha Baloch, vice pres­i­dent of the Baloch Students Action Committee (BSAC), said in an inter­view with The Diplomat. “Students across Balochistan have demon­strat­ed [in] protests, but vio­lence was unleashed on us just because we demand inter­net ser­vice. If the gov­ern­ment is con­cerned about the future of stu­dents, it must restore the inter­net in rural areas. The gov­ern­ment should wake up and resolve the issue.”

After their protests did not bear fruit, stu­dents filed a peti­tion in high courts across Pakistan against online class­es. Munir Jalib, the gen­er­al sec­re­tary of Baloch Students Organization (BSO), along with his friends and some lawyers of the province, sub­mit­ted a peti­tion in the High Court of Balochistan, Quetta, against online class­es.

“We were left with no option other than going to the court,” said Jalib. “The Balochistan gov­ern­ment turned a blind eye to our demand for the restora­tion of the inter­net.”

On June 30, in its first hear­ing, the high court asked the Balochistan gov­ern­ment to con­sti­tute a com­mit­tee on the matter and report to the court about the devised mech­a­nism on the issue on July 13.

Students also sub­mit­ted a peti­tion in Islamabad High Court. Before sub­mit­ting the peti­tion, Syed Muhammad Kazmi, a stu­dent from the erst­while FATA, now part of Khyber Pakthunkwa province, met local admin­is­tra­tion, mil­i­tary offi­cials, and wrote an appli­ca­tion to the chief min­is­ter of KP. Mobile inter­net ser­vices were shut down in the tribal region after armed clash­es between Afghanistan and Pakistani forces at the Torkham border in June 2016.

The “chief min­is­ter also signed the letter, but it did not work,” said Kazmi, “I wrote to the prime min­is­ter of Pakistan but all in vain, then I sub­mit­ted a peti­tion. The court order came in our favor on April 14. The court asked the author­i­ties for restor­ing the inter­net in the former tribal areas.”

Kazmi fur­ther said that it’s not only stu­dents who are suf­fer­ing due to a lack of mobile inter­net ser­vices in former FATA. “There are many expats living in the Middle East. They need to com­mu­ni­cate with their fam­i­lies and wire money. Many e‑commerce busi­ness­es are being affect­ed across Pakistan. It has its eco­nom­ic impacts as well.”

Pakistan’s Rural-Urban Divide and Economic Disparity

In a joint state­ment, the Digital Rights Foundation and Bolo Bhi, a civil soci­ety orga­ni­za­tion engaged in advo­ca­cy, policy, and research in dig­i­tal rights, said an uncrit­i­cal embrace of tech­nol­o­gy should not ignore the fact that access to these tech­nolo­gies is still a luxury for many and pro­vi­sion of the inter­net is very low in coun­tries such as Pakistan.

Unequal access to the inter­net is a mul­ti­fac­eted issue; there are var­i­ous rea­sons such as infra­struc­ture gaps, the rural and urban divide, and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in Pakistan. Many impov­er­ished regions and far-flung areas of Pakistan don’t have access to the inter­net.

According to The Inclusive Internet Index 2020, Pakistan fell into the last quar­tile of coun­tries, over­all rank­ing 76th out of 100 coun­tries (24th out of 26 Asian coun­tries). Besides a low level of dig­i­tal lit­er­a­cy and poor qual­i­ty net­works, the coun­try also scored poorly in the afford­abil­i­ty indi­ca­tors. Internet access in Pakistan stands at around 35 per­cent, with 78 mil­lion broad­band and 76 mil­lion mobile inter­net (3/4G) con­nec­tions.

“Around 35 per­cent of Pakistan lacks inter­net infra­struc­ture,” Amin ul Haque, Pakistan’s min­is­ter for infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy, told The Diplomat. “There is an urban and rural divide. Most pri­vate com­pa­nies invest in urban towns for com­mer­cial rea­sons and ben­e­fits. They refrain from invest­ing in rural and far[-flung] areas.”

Haque fur­ther said that the gov­ern­ment is trying its best to pro­vide inter­net facil­i­ties to people. It has set up a uni­ver­sal ser­vice fund (USF), a gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive that aims to extend fiber optic con­nec­tiv­i­ty to the unserved. “We have recent­ly invest­ed 600 mil­lion rupees in Shahdadkot and Sanghar, two dis­tricts of Sindh, for the dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture. Billions and bil­lions are needed to end this dig­i­tal divide,” said Haque.

Around 65 per­cent of people in Pakistan live in rural areas. From Balochistan to Sindh and from the former FATA to Gilgit, stu­dents living in rural areas com­plain about lack of access to the inter­net and online class­es.

“It is impos­si­ble for me to take online class­es from my home. During this pan­dem­ic, I have tried to attend many Zoom meet­ings but I failed,” Mehtab Roy from Umerkot dis­trict in Sindh, told The Diplomat. Roy is study­ing law in Karachi.

“Broadband and PTCL [Pakistan Telecommunication Company Ltd.] ser­vices pro­vide inter­net facil­i­ty to only 5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion in former FATA,” said Kazmi. “The gov­ern­ment should restore mobile inter­net ser­vices in tribal areas or pro­vide broad­band facil­i­ties.”

Due to a lack of inter­net facil­i­ties in many rural areas of Balochistan, former FATA, and inte­ri­or Sindh and Punjab, stu­dents and teach­ers are pan­ick­ing and leav­ing for urban areas where they could access inter­net facil­i­ties – even when doing so means putting them­selves at risk from the pan­dem­ic.

“There are hardly any COVID-19 cases in my home­town, Awaran, Balochistan. On the other hand, Karachi has one of the high­est COVID-19 case [rates] in Pakistan. Despite know­ing this, I had risked my life to come back to Karachi because I don’t have the inter­net ser­vices in my home­town. Therefore, I can’t attend online class­es from there and [had to] come to Karachi,” Zaheer Baloch, an IR stu­dent at Karachi University, told The Diplomat. 

“Bahria University, Islamabad gave the course which I was teach­ing to anoth­er lec­tur­er, as I had no inter­net during the pan­dem­ic in former FATA,” Sibte Hassan, from Kurram dis­trict of former FATA, a vis­it­ing lec­tur­er at Bahria University and Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, told The Diplomat. “Now I am com­pelled to go to Islamabad as I don’t have the inter­net. I can’t teach online class­es from my home­town. I can’t even apply for job and other oppor­tu­ni­ties.”

Like other regions, Pakistan’s dis­put­ed region with India, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) also has inter­net issues, and stu­dents there have like­wise taken to the streets. GB is a moun­tain­ous region in the north of Pakistan. Much of the region doesn’t even have mobile ser­vices, like alone the inter­net.

“We live in a tough and dis­tant ter­rain of Pakistan and there has been no devel­op­ment for pro­vid­ing inter­net facil­i­ties. In most areas there is no elec­tric­i­ty, no PTCL and no phone,” said Naveed Saleem, a stu­dent from GB. “Even 10km away from the city we don’t have mobile ser­vices, and the offi­cials ask us to attend online class­es — this is brutal.”

As of this week, a social media cam­paign call­ing for high-speed inter­net in the region — #Internet4GilgitBaltistan – was trend­ing on Twitter.

Beyond the rural or urban divide, other issues are affect­ing the edu­ca­tion system during this pan­dem­ic. “Our teach­ers are not trained nor is our ped­a­gogy ready for online class­es. Turning towards dig­i­tal class­es all of a sudden is very dev­as­tat­ing,” Zahabia, orga­niz­er of the Progressive Student Federation (PRSF) in Karachi, told The Diplomat.

“Other than the rural and urban divide, there exists the class dif­fer­ence too. Such as the University of Karachi, which has over 30,000 stu­dents, in the met­ro­pol­i­tan city of Pakistan. A major­i­ty of stu­dents belong to work­ing-class fam­i­lies. Despite being in the city, they either lack gad­gets or can’t afford to have costly inter­net pack­ages. So, how can we go for online class­es amid these huge inequal­i­ties?” ques­tioned Zahabia.

Like stu­dents, many of the teach­ers also dis­agree with the idea of online class­es.

“As many of us belong to rural areas, so we have lim­it­ed or no inter­net access. Many of us lack resources like lap­tops, inter­net devices, or the cost of inter­net pack­ages,” Saddam Jamali, a lec­tur­er and head of the Computer Science Department at University College of Dera Murad Jamali, said.

“There are unserved and under-served areas in Pakistan. They have to be uplift­ed. We are trying our best,” said Haque, the min­is­ter for infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy.

Security Concerns and Internet Shutdowns

But in some regions, inter­net access is pur­pose­ful­ly cut off or restrict­ed due to secu­ri­ty con­cerns.

“The Pakistan Army has a monop­oly of pro­vid­ing inter­net in Gilgit Baltistan, as the only ser­vice we have had for years was SCOM, a mobile net­work by the Special Communications Organization (SCO),” said Saleem, the stu­dent from GB. “Recently, Telenor opened its ser­vices in the region. But all com­pa­nies have to take per­mis­sion from the Army for open­ing their ser­vices. The Army should invite other com­pa­nies to invest in the region.” The SCO is main­tained by Pakistan Army and pro­vides ser­vices in Jammu and Kashmir and GB.

Senator Kabeer Muhammad Shahi, in his speech in the Senate of Pakistan, said that in many dis­tricts of Balochistan the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion has improved; there­fore, the 3G/4G ser­vices should be restored. In more than seven dis­tricts of Balochistan the inter­net still is closed.

In a 2019, report for The Diplomat about the inter­net shut­down in Balochistan, a lawyer from the province, Shakeel Zamurani, nom­i­nat­ed the Balochistan gov­ern­ment, Ministry of the Interior, and other con­cerned min­istries in a con­sti­tu­tion­al peti­tion against the inter­net shut­down.

“I just argued that the shut­down of these ser­vices was affect­ing the masses and insti­tu­tions eco­nom­i­cal­ly, edu­ca­tion­al­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, etc.,” Zamurani told The Diplomat. “These ser­vices are not just wishes, but have become a need for the public.”

But Zamurani could not see the case to its end. He had to with­draw the case from court after he was told that he was chal­leng­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty by ques­tion­ing the mobile inter­net shut­down.

Likewise, since June 2016, mobile inter­net ser­vices have remained shut in former FATA due to secu­ri­ty rea­sons.

The Islamabad High Court has ordered the restora­tion of the inter­net in the region, which bor­ders Afghanistan. The order, which The Diplomat has seen, demands that the author­i­ties “explain as to why access to the inter­net has been denied to the peti­tion­er and the gen­er­al public of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas… In the mean­while, respon­dents are direct­ed to take appro­pri­ate mea­sures to restore the inter­net 3G/4G facil­i­ties in the former [FATA].”

“The author­i­ties have not restored the inter­net 3G/4G ser­vices in former FATA despite the court order. All stu­dents and Pakistanis should have inter­net access as it is a need. There should be no dig­i­tal divide,” argued Kazmi.

“Peace and secu­ri­ty of the coun­try come first,” said the min­is­ter for infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy. “We are in touch with secu­ri­ty offi­cials and we can’t restore mobile inter­net ser­vices until we get per­mis­sion.”

Shah Meer Baloch is a free­lance jour­nal­ist from Pakistan.

Zafar Musyani is a researcher and free­lance writer.

The Diplomat source|articles

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