The country has been burning for the past three days. With rioting in major urban centres and Pakistan’s political system in tatters, an environment of fear has gripped the nation. Amidst all this was also the senseless decision to shut down mobile broadband data and social media sites like Twitter and Youtube.
Ostensibly, the government’s explanation has been that the shut-down of these essential services were a necessary step to stop protestors from organising. In reality regular cell services were still available and people were able to bypass social media bans through VPNs. As a result, the broadband shutdown in particular only really affected a small group of people whose bread and butter are tied to mobile data.
One of the immediate groups that were affected were gig workers. These are daily workers that earn their money on platforms such as Careem, Foodpanda, and Indrive. These people require stable internet access through mobile phone data to do their jobs. Over these days, Foodpanda and services such as Careem were out of service because their captains and riders had no way of accepting rides/orders or of following maps. To put things in context, there are over 13000 foodpanda and Bykea riders, 30,000 Uber and Careem captains, and around 12,000 Foodpanda home chefs whose daily wages are dependent on broadband data.
Similarly, the shut down also had a serious impact on freelancers. A large number of Pakistanis work for foreign clients remotely on platforms such as Fivver and Upwork providing services ranging from coding to content writing and search engine optimization.
The gig-economy is an emerging sector in Pakistan. Freelancers in the country earned around $400 million in both 2021 and in 2022 which accounts for about 15% of Pakistan’s total $2.6 billion ICT (information-communication-technology) exports.
Almost immediately after the shutdown, both platforms put up signs next to the profiles of Pakistani users saying that the service providers belonged to a country that was experiencing internet outages which could delay their projects. The warning sign was not an exaggeration. A lot of these freelancers depend on broadband data to get their work done. On top of this, the freelancing world is brutal. Clients are very picky and small interruptions can very quickly sour client relationships that take years to build sometimes.
If this were not enough, the dream of a Digital Pakistan took another blow in the form of the Point-of-Sale machines also being out of service. A lot of the terminals you see at stores that are used to accept card payments come with in-built sims that connect them to the internet. As a result, Pakistan’s retail and grocery sector was operating entirely on cash. Even the country’s Federal Board of Revenue uses the data from these machines for tax calculation purposes.
Point of Sale (POS) machines, often known as debit/credit card machines, use sims to establish a network connection and make digital payments. The severance of mobile internet signals has rendered these machines temporarily obsolete, limiting everyone to cash payments only.
Reuters reported that Pakistan’s main digital payment systems fell by around 50% the day after former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest. Data shared with Reuters by 1LINK on POS through its platform showed international payment card transactions were down on Wednesday by 45% in volume, from a daily average of 127,000 during the week of May 1 to 7 to approximately 68,000 on May 10. Ali Habib, spokesperson at HBL, Pakistan’s largest bank, said that it had seen a decline of 60% in the throughput of the POS machines.
Articulating the gravity of the situation, Jazz CEO Aamir Ibrahim, told the media that he denounces the act of severing the internet as a poor solution to the current crisis. Ibrahim told propakistani that, “For an agonising span of nearly 24 hours, 125 million Pakistanis have been severed from the tether of mobile internet—a lifeline crucial in emergencies and productivity.” According to Ibrahim, the devastation inflicted upon the economy can be quantified, however, the plight of the people during this time is beyond numerical measurement.
At the same time, telecom operators estimated the extent of the damages to be Rs. 820 million. On the other hand, the government has incurred a loss of approximately Rs. 287 million in tax revenue.
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