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Pakistan’s Great Digital Divide

  • Shah Meer
  • Aug, 2020
  • 188
  • Pakistan Rural-Urban Divide

A new reliance on virtual life in the COVID-19 era has laid bare the lack of internet access for much of the country

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.

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