Pakistan’s Tribal Areas Are Seeking Better Internet Services
Access to internet is a basic human right in the digital era of 21st century. According to the United Nations (UN), “disconnecting people from the internet violates the rights laid out in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is against international law”. States around the globe should not treat access to internet as a luxury for a few who could afford it. Instead, it is a fundamental duty of every state to provide internet services to all its citizens. However, former tribal areas of Pakistan are still deprived of internet and avail poor digital services in this modern era.
This region is one of the few places in the world where residents constantly protest for the restorations of internet services in their areas. Normally, it’s a duty of the government to provide internet without forcing its citizen to demand it through petitions and protests.
There have been numerous protests and sit-ins by the residents — especially by the students of tribal areas — to push the government to provide them with internet so they can continue their online studies. A resolution in this regard has also passed by the KP Assembly and many questions have been asked on the floor of the house. Relevant officials have been summoned to the committees hearings to brief the parliamentarians on the issue and petitions filed in the courts seeking extension of internet services to former FATA. But despite all these efforts government has failed to provide internet facilities in the merged districts. Government claimed that tribal areas have been cleaned from terrorists and currently no active military operation is going on in the region. In such a scenario, one wonders why the people of tribal areas still do not have the same rights as enjoyed by their fellow Pakistanis in other parts of the country.
The perils of no internet in the tribal region are not negligible. They are numerous and significant to the social, political, educational and economic life of tribal people. One cannot imagine living without internet in this modern era. One of the first casualties of no internet is the education of millions of enrolled students in the region. Following a lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus in the Pakistan, universities across the country were ordered to shut down and Higher Education Commission (HEC) directed all universities to switch to online classes. This decision gave enormous mental stress to the students of tribal areas as they predicted wasting their educational year because they were not able to attend online classes due to the unavailability of Internet . The severity of the issue and concern of the students can be gauged from the fact that only Wana, a town of 152, 881 people, has 1,500 university students including 40-plus female students. Imagine the number of students in whole of the tribal areas and imagine the mental stress the students and their parent went through just because the government is not serious to provide internet to the region.
The spread of Covid-19 brought another challenge for the communities around the world. In the case of Corona virus, authentic and timely communication and information is everything to fight this health emergency. We have seen how internet is helping people understand the nature and threat of this disease, connect health authorities with people to halt the spread of the virus through joint efforts and information sharing. However, more than 90 percent of tribal citizens are at risk of not knowing what kind of challenge Covid-19 poses for their health in the absence of authentic and updated data about the virus, which otherwise they could easily get from internet.
The non-availability of internet has huge negative impact on economic and business activities in tribal areas as well. During the lockdown in Covid-19 epidemic, the State Bank of Pakistan directed all banks to waive all charges on funds transfers through online banking. Regrettably, people in erstwhile Fata cannot avail such facilities due to curbs on the internet. They have to travel miles to the nearest cities to use ATMs, pay their utilities bills and send or receive money. It is not only dangerous for their health but it’s also time consuming and costly. Throughout the country, businessmen use modern technology to conduct businesses while using social media Apps such as Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok. It is very unfortunate that the businessmen of tribal areas are still deprived of these facilities to help their business grow and survive.
Apart from this, tribal region has been at the political and governance periphery from 1947. This has led to the worst kind of human rights violations, corruption, marginalization and radicalization of its youth. The abolishment of the draconian law of Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) and the region’s merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa presented great opportunity to mainstream the area, protect human rights, share information about the new laws, government initiatives and development plan. In the absence of internet, the region still remains in the dark. For instance, the people of the entire Pakistan can use the Pakistan Citizen Portal for reporting their grievances , reporting official corruption, and demanding lawful community service. It is very sad that the people of tribal areas cannot avail such services in the absence of internet.
Access to internet is a constitutionally guaranteed right and an integral part of the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 19 and 19-A of the Constitution. So far the government has failed to present a solid and valid reason for its inability to provide internet service to the people of ex- FATA. The inactivity of the government compelled a student from tribal areas to file a petition in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) for the provision of internet services in his area. IHC Chief Justice Athar Minallah, while hearing the case, remarked that the tribal areas were part of Pakistan and their inhabitants shall have all constitutionally guaranteed rights. The interior ministry official informed the court that internet services were disconnected in FATA in 2016 due to security reason in the area. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) sought time for the development of internet infrastructure in ex-FATA. Chief Justice Athar Minallah said in the detailed order that “this is not occupied Kashmir, therefore people of these areas are free to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights,” “Access to internet has become so vital that it inevitably affects the quality of life and thus its inaccessibility violates the right to life guaranteed under Article 9 of the Constitution,”
Past week Pakistan’s re-election to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a fifth time was celebrated with great pride and jubilation by the government and Prime Minister Imran Khan. But the same Council has also condemned the countries that intentionally disrupt citizen’s internet access. Since his government on three occasions, Prime Minister Imran Khan himself during his visits to District Mohmand,Khyber and Bajaur promised the restoration of 3G/4G internet services to tribal regions, but nothing has been done yet. One wonders why despite the public promises and willingness from the highest executive office of the country, people of ex-FATA are still without internet.
The non-availability of internet to the people of tribal areas means denial of their their political, social, economic and human rights. So far online and street protests, court petitions, and resolutions in the parliament have all failed to push the government to provide internet access to millions in regions which has witnessed decades of conflict, poverty, discrimination and human rights violations. It is right time for the government to make sure it treats all its citizen with equality, honor its national and international obligations and grant internet access to millions of its citizens living the tribal belt.