Cashless woes and Netflix lows in Guwahati

Source :SIFY
Last Updated: Tue, Dec 17th, 2019, 18:44:55hrs
Cashless woes and Netflix lows in Guwahati
Life took a turn for the better for Barnali – a single, working woman in Guwahati – when first Uber and Ola, later Rapido set app-shop in town. She felt a sense of freedom she never had, travelling in either overpriced rickshaws or overcrowded buses in town. “A few taps on my phone and like Aladdin’s genie, I had a chauffeur driven car drop me where I wanted to go,” she says.

Where she wanted to go was mostly to work or friends place, but on a few happy occasions – back and forth from a date.

Internet based, mobile apps have become an integral part of not just her work, but social, personal and romantic life. It’s no wonder that in the last six days that the internet has been suspended in Guwahati for fears social media would be used to spread rumours after massive agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill hit the Northeast, she has felt sort of… lost.

Also read: The changing fortunes of PM Modi in Assam

3 days ago – on Saturday - though, her most pressing concern was not this existential crisis, but the crisis of existence. As a person who relied heavily on credit and debit cards, she barely kept cash and with ATM’s out of money, swipe machines not working due to the internet ban and no way to order essentials online, she had panicked.

Also read: CAB and the unheard protests of Assam

3 years ago when Prime Minister Narendra Modi demonetized over 90% of currency in circulation, the second line of reasoning given (first was about curbing black money), was that it was time India went digital and cashless. The PM has also been pushing his flagship Digital India campaign since many years with gusto.

Also read: What keeps rebellion brewing in Assam

On the 6th day of internet suspension after the beginning of the unrest, that idea lies in shambles in Guwahati and many parts of the state and Northeast India.

Also read: Bharat Mata Ki Jai halted by Joi Aai Axom in Assam

Many things have gone kaput. Though curfew had been relaxed in the day since Saturday, services dependant on internet remained shut. Turns out these are most things.

First, the swipe machines became useless bricks so card payments were not possible. Though open, most establishments selling high value goods bore deserted looks.

The absence of ride hailing apps has put extra pressure on public transport. Rickshaws and the few taxis circulating have been charging exorbitant amounts. Till Sunday, I heard the asking rate for cabs to drop one to the city from the airport was 3,000. And that too on a shared basis. If you wanted to rent the car all for yourself, some have purportedly paid up to Rs. 10,000.

A normal day’s ride to or from the airport to the centre of the city usually takes around Rs. 500.

The irony is that this is happening even as 12,000 drivers of Ola and Uber sit at home helplessly, giving statements to local papers and channels that their livelihood has been effected by this internet shutdown. Many don’t know if they can pay the EMI on their cars next month.

Whether it was PM Modi’s call or the sheer convenience of it all, the Northeast – which is usually late in adopting technology, took to app based services with gusto. Besides Ola, Uber and Rapido there’s Tinder and Truly Madly popular here for dating. Flipkart and Amazon’s popularity is on the ascent. So is of AirBNB and Oyo. Many local businesses and services have their own apps as well.

That’s not all, spirituality also needs an internet connection these days. Saturday evening the followers of Shivjogi Shivanand were making frantic calls to each other wondering if they should go to Satsang the next morning that happens in the Sarvodaya Ashram in Chandmari. The reason these staunch bhakts had their doubts was because their guru Shivanand appeared and imparted knowledge live via broadband connection every Sunday morning at 9.

Finally, considering that not only would there be no internet, but the relaxation in curfew was to begin only at 9 in the morning, the shiv jogis decided not to risk it.

Life in Guwahati today, like any metropolis in the world, is heavily dependent on internet. And as the biggest city of the Northeast, Guwahati becomes a test case for the rest of the region.

Despite knowing this the authorities on the evening of 11th December announced that internet would be shut at 7 PM for 24 hours. When that time passed and no internet came back, people woke up to the fact that it had been extended for 48 hours. Even before this time was over, the ban was extended for further 48 hours and today though the broadband internet services have been resumed and curfew fully lifted, the ban on mobile internet has entered the sixth day and if no untoward incident happens today, it is slated to be lifted tomorrow at 9 AM.

Was it any surprise that activists at all the four major protests since the internet shut down – at Latashil ground on the 12 and 16th and Chadmari ground on 13th and 15th, have accused PM Modi of trying to do a Kashmir in Assam – lock it, bring in parachute journalists and claim ‘all izz well’.

Ironically, it is unlikely that PM Modi had anything to do with the internet shutdown in the region and as the media here is reporting, it was decided by a joint consultation between the state government and law enforcement agencies.

At a personal level, life without internet and the constant, urgent buzz of different apps on the phone has taken me back to the simple days three and half years ago when I owned a dumb phone. As it was with that phone then – the only two sounds my smartphone makes today is the ringtone when calls come and the ping of sms. The only difference – the Nokia phone then was ten times cheaper than this smart phone sitting like a lazy, useless bum on the table. It has potential yes, but no internet spark to actualise it.

For the first time in my life I don’t even mind the intrusive SMS ads trying to sell me discounted pizzas, cheap flats in Vasai, medicines and full body tests at throwaway prices and with 80cc tax exemptions. Somehow their pings seem like oxygen given to keep a patient alive. It helps me feel connected to the rest of civilization when nothing else on my phone does and when even friends living in fully interconnected zones refuse to understand my plight and answer my SMS on time perhaps because there’s no double blue tick to pressure them.

The weirdest part though has been sending these feature reports. It has taken anywhere between 15 to 30 big chunk of SMSes i.e. around 80 to 150 odd individual sms charges to send these articles. There are things I can’t write about because I can’t ask uncle google to research or fact check them. Once I did try calling a friend and asked her to google things and read them out to me. But it was such a tedious exercise, she has put our friendship on hold till the internet ban is lifted.

The one unhappier than me though is Barnali. Not just because these 6 days she has had to restrict her freedom or get news on what she calls ‘government controlled, biased’ TV media rather than her favourite news apps and social media, but for another reason as well.

“Being locked at home during a curfew is the perfect time to catch up on Netflix shows. But all I do now is stare at my Netflix app fondly and wonder how many series I could have binge watched,” she says.

Ironically, what the administration doesn’t realise is that internet suspension is also causing a self-goal of sorts. Bored out of her wits, Barnali trekked all the way to the musical protest on Sunday the 15th. I cannot help wonder how many of the thousands of youths protesting on the streets would have chosen to stay home if only they could have had the usual distraction afforded to them by affordable internet connections.

(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)

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