Science & Technology

Overcoming digital divide key to achieving Digital India goal

Those with gender, caste and class privileges enjoy enhanced access to technology & internet, contributing to their progress

India currently has around 900 million to one billion smartphone users. Photo: iStock

The Government of India launched the Digital India programme in 2015 to transform the country into a digitally empowered society and a knowledge-based economy. This programme was based on three key pillars — the creation of robust digital infrastructure, making government services accessible and empowering citizens.

The major barrier to achieving Digital India is access and control of individuals over digital devices. Smartphones, in the last 10 years, have gradually emerged as the most convenient and user-friendly device to access the digital world. 

According to various estimates and reports, India currently has around 900 million to one billion smartphone users. Around 70 per cent of the country’s population, almost one billion people, is above the age of 16. So, the number of smartphone users is almost the same as the number of people above the age of 16 in India. 

Read more: Girls in rural India less likely to know how to use smartphones, computers: Survey

However, that does not mean that every Indian above the age of 16 is a smartphone user. There is a significant percentage of individuals in marginalised communities, especially women, who do not have access to and control over a smartphone. According to the 2021 consumer survey by lobby organisation GSMA, women in India are 41 per cent less likely than men to use mobile internet. 

This gap in access to information and communication technology (ICT) and the internet among people of different socio-economic backgrounds, known as the “digital divide”, follows the existing socio-economic divide of class, caste and gender. 

Major reasons for the digital divide are the lack of robust infrastructure for providing quality internet services, people’s ability to purchase devices for accessing ICT and financial constraints to cover the cost of data.

As far as infrastructure is concerned, 94 per cent of India’s villages are covered by at least one mobile tower, as per a Union ministry of communications’ response in the Rajya Sabha on March 31, 2023. 

However, coverage of a village does not always imply that all hamlets within that village are connected to a network. Even if there is access to towers, there may be issues related to the quality of service, especially the upload and download speeds. 

Non-profit Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN) publishes periodic reports on the status of Adivasi livelihoods (SAL) covering states in central India. The first and second reports cover Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Chhattisgarh. The survey for the first report was done in 2021 for Jharkhand and Odisha, while the data for the second report, covering the rest of the two states, was collected in 2022. 

The first two reports on the SAL covering Jharkhand, Odisha, MP and Chhattisgarh showed that there is still a gap in the central Indian Adivasi belt in terms of mobile network coverage. The study was based on a sample of around 11,000 households in 550 villages sampled from administrative blocks covered under Integrated Tribal Development Programme.

The report shows that mobile tower coverage is much lower in Adivasi villages as compared to non-Adivasi villages. Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) villages in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are the worst sufferers. 

Percentage of villages covered by at least one mobile network

The SAL report also showed that smartphone ownership is unevenly distributed with those at the intersection of gender caste and class facing the worst challenges. Smartphones are commonly considered a private asset rather than a shared household item. For the SAL report, during the household survey, the respondent was asked whether there are smartphones in the household and, if so, who in the household owns them. 

Read more: How important is basic infrastructure in securing livelihoods of Adivasis

Overall, in this region of the central Indian plateau, smartphone ownership is much lower as compared to the average national scenario. Adivasi and PVTG households reported even lower ownership within the region. 

The SAL data showed that, across social groups, women have much lower ownership compared to men. In general, it came out that if any household has a smartphone, it was reported to be owned by the male breadwinner of the family. 

In four states, 16 to 21 per cent of males from Adivasi households and 7-21 per cent of males from PVTG households own a smartphone.  In contrast, only 5-11 per cent of females from Adivasi and 2-4 per cent of females from PVTG households own a smartphone. 

Percentage of individuals owning a smartphone

There is no doubt that the digital divide is worsening overall inequalities in society. Those who are already better off because of their gender, caste and class have better access to ICT and internet. This access is helping them to progress more as compared to the people at the intersection of gender, caste and class.

Read more: An online-centric approach in a digitally divided India cuts off vulnerable from welfare schemes

Given the social and economic marginalisation, the most marginalised people, especially women, have to be given smartphones free of cost by the state or philanthropies. However, free distribution has to be followed by digital literacy programmes that cater to the needs of different social groups. 

For example, the digital literacy programme for a forest-dependent tribal community may be designed around accessing information and updates about minimum support prices for non-timber forest products, while sugarcane harvesters in Gujarat may be more interested in learning their labour rights and minimum wage announced by the government from time to time. 

Dibyendu Chaudhuri works with Research and Advocacy unit of PRADAN; Parijat Ghosh works with Research and Advocacy unit of PRADAN and Amit Kumar works in the Research and Advocacy unit of PRADAN.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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