Millions of people using 3G or 4G mobile internet in the Indian state of Rajasthan suddenly found themselves stuck offline for almost 12 hours on September 26. The reason? Authorities felt it necessary to shut down the internet so aspiring teachers taking a government qualifying exam couldn’t cheat.
Yes, aspiring teachers.
An estimated 1.6 million applicants were taking the Rajasthan Eligibility Exam for Teachers (REET), a test to determine their ability to work at government-run schools in the state.
The exam paves the way for stellar employment opportunities with competitive salaries. It has gained notoriety for cheating in recent years, with an alleged “cheating mafia” running an organised racket.
To help thwart attempts at cheating, the authorities decided to shut down the internet in various districts of the state from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., the duration of the exam.
Naturally, residents were not happy. Some complained about being unable to work from home, attend online school, make digital payments, and get around without Google maps.
Many Twitter users also complained about inconveniences caused by the internet shutdown. One user ended up having to pay a highway toll fee twice, while an actor missed an online audition, costing him a potential gig.
It wasn’t the first time authorities resorted to cutting web access to safeguard the exams, and activists are becoming concerned about the costs of the band-aid solution to the cheating problem.
“Such internet shutdowns, which we have been seeing in various states, should only be done in exceptional circumstances of public emergency and safety, not for an exam like this,” Prasanth Sungthan, the legal director of India’s Software Freedom Law Centre, told VICE World News.
The shutdown in Rajasthan “led to the [disruption] of online classes for students, online health services and financial payments, since no proper prior notice was given,” Sungthan added.
With over 749 million internet users, India has the world’s second largest population of internet users. Some 744 million of them access the internet through mobile devices.
Authorities insisted the internet shutdown was necessary to prevent the test questions getting leaked. In a document shared on Twitter, Rajasthan’s chief minister Ashok Gehlot announced other preventive measures, including CCTV cameras at exam locations, surveillance of the printing of the test papers, and the mandatory use of face masks provided by the testing centre instead of the ones brought in by participants.
But despite the web shutdown and all other efforts, the authorities still caught ten students who tried to cheat in the REET exam by hiding bluetooth devices in their footwear.