The Supreme Court asked the Centre and the Jammu and Kashmir administration on Thursday to respond to a plea seeking directions to restore 4G internet in the Union Territory in view of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic. A bench of Justices NV Ramana, R Subhash Reddy and BR Gavai issued notices to them and sought their reply within a week on the plea filed by ‘Foundation for Media Professionals’ which has assailed an order of the J-K administration on March 26 that restricted to the internet speed to 2G only in the Union Territory.

Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi, appearing for the petitioner, contended that in view of the ongoing lockdown it is very necessary to enhance the technology and connectivity in the Union Territory. He said that the virtual classes of students, whose schools are shut due to the lockdown, can only be done through enhancement of technology and better connectivity.

The 4G internet services were made unavailable in the state after the Central government abrogated article 370 on August 5, 2019 and placed an unprecedented communication lockdown in the erstwhile state.

The bench said it is issuing notice which may be served through e-mail on standing counsel of the Jammu and Kashmir administration and the Centre.

The plea filed through advocate Shadan Farasat, while seeking restoration of 4G internet services, alleged that the action of the government was violative of Articles 14 (right to equality), 19 (freedom of speech) and 21 (right to life) of the Constitution.

Terming 2G telephone services as “outdated”, the plea said 4G internet speed would be useful in ensuring information flow to the citizens in view of the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic.

“The advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic has fundamentally altered the existing situation. At present, the following facts exist: first, COVID-19 exists in India, and is a highly infectious and communicable disease. Research into its origins and the best ways of tackling this disease is ongoing, and there is a continuing flow of new information about how best to contain the fall out of the virus, and limit its spread and impact,” it said.

The plea added that it wanted to ensure flow of information to citizens during these “extraordinary times” when the number of cases of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in Jammu and Kashmir has already reached 200, with 6 reported deaths.

“In these conditions, a pandemic and a lock-down – the restriction of mobile internet speeds to 2G only is completely unreasonable, illegal, and unconstitutional for the following reasons.

“First the guarantee of life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India includes the right to health; and it is the constitutional obligation of the State to provide – or at least, not to inhibit the provision of – the essential infrastructure that makes this right effective, and not reduce it to a nullity..,” it said.

The right to health is a composite right which requires the state to take active measures to ensure the presence of necessary physical, and, by extension, digital, infrastructure and a well-functioning internet, especially in times of an epidemic such as COVID19, is an essential part of this digital infrastructure that is required to make this right an effective reality, it said.

The slow internet speed also renders telemedicine or online video consultation impossible, it said.

“The right to internet connectivity has repeatedly been recognised by the Government of India as a basic necessity or an essential service to ensure the right to health,” the plea said and referred to the National Telecom Policy in support of its contention.

“Fourth, the impugned order has directly impacted the enjoyment of various other fundamental rights in the specific context of the ongoing lockdown. Restricted internet speeds are directly impacting the ability of children of Jammu & Kashmir to exercise their fundamental right to education, guaranteed under Article 21A of the Constitution since schools there are unable to shift their mode of instruction,” it said.

Meanwhile, authorities have intensified ground surveillance to track travellers in Kashmir, who hid their recent travel history, to contain the spread of coronavirus, PTI reported. The tracking of those persons who have travel history but are absconding is being taken up on a war-footing basis, officials said. These measures have been taken after a group of five persons, who had travelled to an African country recently, tested positive for COVID-19. They were placed in administrative quarantine upon their arrival in Kashmir last month. The Union Territory has reported 200 cases of COVID-19 and six deaths.