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Education is a fundamental right under the constitution of Pakistan and now the internet has become a ‘key means’ through which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as stated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a signatory at the United Nations.

However, for years, the state of Pakistan has denied easy access to the internet in several parts of the country, justifying the move with security concerns. Most parts of the newly merged districts of former FATA have never had data services or cellular services, except some parts of Bajaur.

In 2014 after the government launched the Zarb-e-Azb operation to wipe out the militants, they also banned internet connection to Waziristan and most parts of the troubled tribal region. The army declared victory in late 2017, claiming to end militancy but life never normalized for people of the area and they were kept disconnected from the rest of the world without any internet.

Interestingly internet was available in cantonments and military areas of the former tribal areas. At the same time since decades young men and women from these war-ridden areas have been flocking to universities in big cities of Punjab and Sindh for education and in search of a better future.

But university closures during the lockdown have pushed them back to their war-torn areas, dependent on a feeble internet connection or in some cases no internet connection at all. Several students from across these areas have sent Voicepk.net videos explaining their plight and the challenges they face in getting an online education.

While most have no access to the internet at home, others struggle to follow online classes on their cell phones, where 3G or 4G are not available to them. When most of their fellow students from major cities are swiftly learning from online classes, they are unable to even connect.

“Provincial governments and the Higher Education Commission along with the Federal education minister will have to ensure good easy access to the internet before they launch an ambitious online education system. It is also time to prioritize citizen’s welfare over commercial interests camouflaged as a vague sense of national security”

In Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit Baltistan, the military-owned Special Communication Organization (SCO) monopolizes communication lines and manages and operates telecom services, barring other telecom companies to operate out of there. Since the SCO is by and large the only internet and telecommunications service provider, people have no choice but to use their unreliable services. In Gilgit most of the students have to travel miles for internet connectivity to attend online classes, often violating the lockdown imposed by the authorities.

In AJK the state of Pakistan since its inception had banned major private telecommunication companies, citing security concerns. In 2005 when the earthquake wreaked havoc with the local infrastructure and local telecommunication lines in Kashmir, the entire area, including Indian held Kashmir was suddenly disconnected from the rest of the world.

People stuck underneath the rubble could not even call out for help, Kashmiris from either side of the divide were unable to connect to each other to find out if their loved ones were alive or dead. To minimize the human tragedy, for the very first time, telecom companies were allowed to function out of AJK, but the densely populated areas around the Line Of Control were denied this facility such as the tourist destination of Neelum valley.

Moreover, the SCO continued to monopolize communication networks in the entire of AJK, with the result that 4G services are still not available in AJK.

“Voicepk.net brings you voices of students from across Pakistan, including repressed areas and conflict zones to highlight the challenges they are facing when attending online classes”

In Gilgit Baltistan (GB), PTA granted private telecom companies permission to operate out of the area, but the SCO challenged this in court and the GB Chief Court (GBCC) ordered a stay of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) order in 2018 which allowed other telecom operators to offer services in the region.

Even in villages and small towns of Punjab, students have also complained of poor internet connectivity as a result of which they are unable to attend online classes. In Balochistan, Qila Saifullah, and many smaller towns and villages there is no internet connection available, forcing students to either abandon online education or travel to Quetta to access the internet.

Since hotels and hostels are shut down due to the lockdown, accommodation in bigger cities to attend online education has become impossible for students of Balochistan and Gilgit Baltistan. Meanwhile paying university and school fees at a time when family members are losing their jobs has become difficult for students.

Provincial governments and the Higher Education Commission along with the Federal education minister will have to ensure good easy access to the internet before they launch an ambitious online education system. It is also time to prioritize citizen’s welfare over commercial interests camouflaged as a vague sense of national security.

Voicepk.net brings you the voices of these students from across Pakistan, including from repressed areas and conflict zones to highlight the challenges they are facing especially with regard to attending online classes.