Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh is a place for ‘internet ka vanvaas’. The district’s 30,000-plus residents who live at an altitude of over 10,000 feet are cut off from the world for six to eight months of the year, thanks to the long winters. The physical isolation is likely to be addressed soon with the completion of the Rohtang tunnel, which will offer all-year motorable access to the valley. The region’s digital isolation, however, is another matter.
According to the last Census, less than 1 per cent of the district’s households had a computer or laptop with an internet connection. Mobile ownership was significantly higher, at 46 per cent, but connectivity remains a major challenge.
The area is served mainly by BSNL’s patchy 2G network, with 3G services also being offered in a handful of villages. The entire BSNL network was, however, down for the better part of the last six months after optical fibre cables were damaged during heavy snowfall. This is a fairly regular occurrence during Lahaul’s winters, which also sees mobile towers remaining out of service due to inadequate maintenance and power backup facilities.
Residents have highlighted these concerns to the local administration as well as the department of telecommunications. The lack of proper phone, internet and even postal connectivity in Himachal’s tribal regions is also the subject of a public interest litigation filed before the Himachal Pradesh High Court. However, these initiatives have not yet yielded any tangible results.
For most of us situated on the luminous side of the digital divide, the hardships of living in a near-permanent state of telecom and internet shutdown are fairly apparent. Lack of connectivity blocks vital communication links, it hinders the flow of information and creates barriers to accessing basic amenities under digitised government programmes. The internet is also a known enabler of socio-economic development. From online learning opportunities to advertising homestay options; from selling hand-knit woollen socks to export of the region’s sea buckthorn produce, internet awareness and access can be a gamechanger for the local economy.
The digital deprivation being faced by Lahaul-Spiti’s residents is real and significant. Also significant is the loss that their absence brings to the internet as a whole. Value of the world’s largest network goes up with the addition of every new member. The periodic absence of an entire community from this network is, therefore, a missed opportunity, for family and friends settled outside the region, but also for everyone else. Take, for instance, the historian seeking local accounts about the Moravian missionaries who once settled here or the trader interested in procuring Lahaul’s prized seed potatoes. Bringing reliable Internet access to the region will generate positive externalities that go much beyond the community’s direct beneficiaries.
Currently, Airtel is the only private provider in the district, but its services are limited to Keylong and Udaipur, the two largest villages of Lahaul. There are also murmurs about the launch of Reliance Jio’s services, but, like Airtel, it is also likely to serve only a few pockets.
So why is it that the success of India’s competitive telecom industry has not trickled down to Lahaul-Spiti? The reason perhaps lies in the exorbitant costs that would be incurred in providing access services across a rugged mountainous terrain of 13,841 square kilometres, with a population density of just 2 persons per square kilometre. That translates to about 0.46 per cent of Himachal’s population living across 25 per cent of its land area. Needless to say, the costs of acquiring spectrum, laying fibre and maintaining telecom towers, among other things, are unlikely to be offset by the commercial benefits that could be gained from servicing this rural and remote region.
The importance of providing connectivity to regions where markets do not go is well recognised. It is precisely for this reason that the government created the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) into which all telecom operators are required to contribute 5 per cent of their adjusted gross revenues. The fund has been operational since 2004, and currently has an unutilised corpus of about Rs 50554.24 crore.
One of its main applications has been the ambitious, but slow-moving BharatNet project that seeks to provide broadband connectivity to the country’s 2.5 lakh gram panchayats.
As of May 2019, about 230 of Himachal’s 3,226 gram panchayats had been declared “service ready” under this project. Interestingly, all of these villages were situated in the relatively better-off districts of Hamirpur, Mandi and Solan, while large sections of Himachal’s tribal belt – Lahaul-Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba – still await basic connectivity. Given the USOF’s statutory mandate of providing affordable access in rural and remote regions, perhaps we need to re-prioritise the utilisation to areas with the greatest need.
The goal of Digital India cannot be achieved without ending the “internet ka vanvaas” of its most marginalised communities. Yet, it is also clear that run-of-the-mill solutions will not work for enabling connectivity in regions like Lahaul-Spiti. What we need, therefore, is for the government to use the resources at its disposal to devise technically feasible solutions that are suited to the local context. At the same time, we need to revisit the licensing and spectrum policies and other regulatory barriers that might be hampering the development of local community networks.
The author is a tech-policy expert and a Fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi. She is a native of Lahaul-Spiti. Views are personal.