Science & Technology

COVID-19: Distress calls from migrants reveal India’s digital divide

Communication between migrant workers, their family members has come to a standstill

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 24 April 2020

April 14 usually marks the traditional new year for many communities in India. This year, amid muted celebrations, the Union government launched a system to connect thousands of schools online. This when thousands of migrant workers didn’t have enough money to talk on their phones.

Welcome to India’s digital divide — the new, improved post-COVID-19 lockdown version.

Amid talks on making essentials available, mobile telephony may not make much of a mark. But it is something that this country of (presumably) 1.3 billion people have made essential for itself. Particularly its large, ever-increasing community of migrant workers.

Families staying apart have come to depend on mobile telecommunication. Most of them use prepaid accounts to stay connected. In the absence of work, they are left with hardly any money to top their accounts up.

According to Jan Sahas, a non-profit working with the under-priviledged, 1,500 of 22,000 distress calls it received were requests to top up mobile phone accounts.

Jan Sahas — in a bid to help the workers — established a call centre where migrant labourers can place calls and not be charged.

Several political parties and civil society groups demanded that mobile tariffs be lifted during the crisis. The Centre is yet to decide.

There have been several initiatives from the private sector to the government for facilitating the use of internet and minimising physical activities, amid the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The Atal Innovation Mission, NITI Aayog and the National Informatics Centre (NIC) jointly launched CollabCad, a computer-enabled software system that targets school students to materialise their ideas and creativity into physical solutions.

The government, however, has not come up with data to show what percentage of students have access to the internet and how many students will be left out of initiatives such as this.

The government has not made any effort to deal with the digital divide either: It has deprived millions of basic information pertaining to government relief schemes designed for them.

A study carried out by Jan Sahas — on 3,196 migrant workers from north and central India — shows 62 per cent of them do not have any information about emergency welfare measures provided by the government, with 37 per cent of them not knowing how to access existing schemes.

“At one level, while we all recognise that the internet has become indispensable, on another level, we still don’t have adequate attention of the decision makers,” said Aruna Sundarajan, a former secretary in the telecom department, in a webinar organised by Agami, another non-profit.

The government has not yet realised how critical this infrastructure is, according to her.

Sundarajan said as a part of a COVID-19 task force in Kerala, the first thing that was done was to devote a whole chapter on ensuring internet services do not disrupt.

“We put in suggestions that people who normally don’t have access to the internet somehow need to be given access because they are the ones who needed it most,” she said.

There were 1,154.39 million wireless subscribers (2G, 3G and 4G) across the country, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), in November 2019.

There remains, however, a wide gap between urban and rural areas.

There were 647.33 million subscribers in urban areas, with just 507.26 million in rural areas at the end of November 2019, according to TRAI. This, despite the fact that a majority of Indians still live in rural areas.

It is clear that people in urban areas may have more than one connection, while many of those who are disadvantaged do not have a single one.

There were only 52 internet connections for every 100 people, as of September 2019, said another TRAI report.

The internet has moved to become a basic utility from being a luxury in the past, said Sundarajan. There still remains a digital divide, with barely 50 per cent of Indians getting access to quality internet.

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