Rural poverty in India has been manifest in various studies, specially Oxfam, and the widening income disparity, not just between the rich and poor but also between the urban and rural sections, between those working in the formal and informal sectors, between those working in the industrial sector and in agriculture has become sharper. If inequality is found to widen, how can we expect that digital divide can be breached in the near future?
While India can boast of having the second-largest pool of internet users, about 600 million, comprising over 12% of all users globally, yet half its population lacks internet access, and even if they can get online, only 20% of Indians know how to use digital services. Spatial divide is vast with the internet density in rural areas, with around 65 per cent of population living, being still below 25 per cent in comparison to the internet density in urban areas (of around 90 per cent).
In this backdrop digital technology, particularly during the pandemic is expected to play a key role in improving access to the education system and create affordable and effective training programmes at a larger scale. Online education has skyrocketed globally, as also in India. But majority of the children actually end up not having access to the internet. And it’s obvious to trigger a hue and cry.
Oxfam in its status report last September on government and private schools during the pandemic noted that ‘digital education requires a stable internet connection along with adequate data. However, these two preconditions constitute the biggest hindrances in accessing digital education. For over half the parents, internet speed and signal is an issue while for a third, data is too expensive. This is followed by more fundamental challenges of not having the right device, internet connection or being unable to navigate the software.’
Its survey found that despite the sample consisting of parents belonging predominantly to urban areas and being digitally literate, 82% still faced challenges in supporting their children to access digital education.’ Worse, there have been multiple media reports of children from economically weaker sections enrolled under Section 12 (i) c of the RTE Act struggling to access digital education during this time. This, said Oxfam, highlights the shortfalls of depending sorely on digital mediums for education delivery and the need to look at alternative mediums that are more inclusive and provide universal access.
Indeed, the canvas must be wider. However, academics, experts among others unfortunately seem to get preoccupied with the issue of lack of academic freedom. Instead, there is need to focus on the grim reality that large number of students from poor families, backward castes, adivasis, etc in rural areas are not getting the benefit of digital India.
Jadavpur University Vice Chancellor and historian Prof. Suranjan Das’s soliciting contribution from members of the extended university to donate generously for a greater cause is a pointer to prevailing situation. The VC said in his appeal that the university was able to provide 250 smart phones to needy students and data recharging to 750 students. However, there are some solutions to help bridge connectivity gaps and address high data costs by offering non-streaming option for school education content and also promoting on-demand learning platform.
India’s problems cannot be understood if seen through the lens in metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata. The political class needs to be reminded that the country lives in villages and, as such, rural infrastructure development is critical particularly in these times.
The appalling reality needs to be highlighted constantly and not what many an expert would claim is the picture. In a recent article in a national daily, the writer contended that the digital revolution is already as advanced in emerging economies than developed ones. Further, it was stated that among the top 30 nations by revenue from digital services as a share of GDP, more than half are in the emerging world.
While digital technologies have, no doubt, been adopted, considering the dimension of the country and the huge population, this does not stand any comparison. Moreover, if per capita use of digitisation is mapped, it would be found that India is no match even for countries such as Brazil, Argentina, South Africa not to speak of China.
This is not to say that innovative technologies are not being inducted in the private sector, specially in the IT and related areas. But even in these areas, additional emphasis or for that matter funds for R&D have unfortunately been missing in the Indian context. Therefore, experts who suggest that digitisation has been increasing must map micro and small industries as also cottage industries and decipher what percentage of such industries are actually digitised.
At the same time, it cannot be denied that digitisation is far better compared to a decade back. But while it may have entered the lives of say even low middle income sections, it hasn’t truly percolated down further below. If the benefits have to be reaped by the lowest levels and the backward districts of the country, a different strategy and plan of action needs to be adopted by the government.
If only policy makers delve deeper into the problems affecting the rural economy, a better understanding of the overall socio-economic situation would have been in place. Investments are very much necessary in gearing up digital technology infrastructure in rural and semi-urban areas with data storage, data centres and content housing infrastructure being scaled up to connect people. Not just the government but the private sector too needs to chip in to try to bridge the digital divide. The question of course would be whether India has the money to spread the benefits of digital revolution to the villages.
Meanwhile, concerns of ‘digital colonialism’ have been raised that a few corporations both globally and also India, are beginning to dominate the field. It is pertinent to mention that before the pandemic, government researchers estimated that India’s digital shift could unlock as much as $1 trillion of economic value over the coming five years. But the crisis is spreading those benefits and widening socio-economic inequalities. The government needs to ensure that all Indians are in a position to benefit from digitisation, specially the rural folk and start planning ahead for the next generation. Digital inequality should not be an addition to its list of failures.