The Digital Divide in India - Post Pandemic


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The coronavirus pandemic has allowed us to rethink how our institutions and economies can function with the creative use of online platforms in these testing times. However, in impoverished nations such as India, does this ever-growing digital framework do more harm than good?


The pandemic changed much of what we knew. Being confined to the four walls of our homes meant that the economy could no longer function how it used to and that adapting to changing circumstances was the need of the hour. Covid norms made corporations shift their work online, education institutions started using online platforms for lessons, restaurants and food joints shifted focus to deliveries, and online transactions started booming. While everyone adapted to survive in these uncertain times, many of the services being online meant that they were inaccessible to a large section of the population.


According to a report by a market research firm TechARC, India has about 500 million people who have smartphones, leaving more than half of the population without one. While the penetration of smartphones has certainly increased by 15% since 2018, India still very clearly lacks the infrastructure to make the digital jump. This inaccessibility to digital devices exacerbates the usability divide between the rich and the poor, making it very difficult for them to explore work that requires digital understanding.


Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this pandemic was the inability of the government and education sector to make online education and learning accessible to large sections of rural areas, where families could not afford smart devices and where internet connectivity remains patchy. One survey in September 2021 inferred that only 8% in rural areas and 25% of children in urban areas in India had access to regular online learning.


When it comes to providing access to diverse information on the internet, academic spaces are still out of reach for the poor. The pandemic led to libraries being essentially shut to the public, so naturally, a bulk of academic material and discussion of the same went about online. While the internet does boast accessibility, it’s extremely challenging for the lower classes to take part in these academic and intellectual spaces. Online repositories like Jstor keep the academic material behind a paywall, making it very hard for underprivileged students in higher education to collect valuable data for their research and use. With the pandemic restricting the offline modes of education, it has virtually cut off the poor from accessing educational resources online.


Image Credits: Brookings


The structural problem is big enough already, but some policies of the government also hinder the dissemination of education. For instance, the decision of the government to ban high-speed internet in The UT of Jammu and Kashmir practically shut down its education sector. 2G internet connection made it nearly impossible for children to have remote learning and restricted their access to online resources altogether. Internet shutdowns are very frequent in the UT, and other northeastern states, which hamper the already slow process of educating the masses in these areas.


An issue that is glossed over ever so often is arguably the question of digital literacy. Digital literacy is defined by the ministry of electronics and technology as, “The ability of individuals and communities to understand and use digital technologies for meaningful actions within life situations.” According to this definition, NSSO (75th round, 2017-18 data) puts the percentage of the digitally literate as only 38% at the household level. Urban areas have a digital literacy rate of 61%, significantly higher than their rural counterparts at a mere 25%. Elderly people, for instance, have a hard time ordering at restaurants through the use of QR codes. Many essential government services have also shifted online, which continue to remain inaccessible and confusing to elderly people. Vendors and transport providers like Uber can be paid in cash, but restaurants shifting the ordering and paying process entirely online might cause problems for their demographic. A HelpAge India project showed that “about 90% of senior citizens wanted to learn how to use WhatsApp, Paytm, net banking, booking cabs and pay utility bills”. Clearly, owning a smartphone isn’t entirely indicative of whether an individual understands how to navigate through the digital space.


According to World Bank’s Global Findex report 2017, about 80% of Indians have a bank account, meaning about 190 million Indians do not. Out of the ones that do have a bank account, the report found that 48% of the bank accounts are inactive, which is the highest share of inactive accounts in the world. If the first criteria for digital transactions, which is having a bank account, is not met, then going cashless remains a pipe dream.


As per a report titled, “State of Working India 2021 - One year of Covid 19” prepared by the Center for Sustainable employment by APU, the pandemic has led to about an additional 230 million more people falling into poverty in India. The pandemic has, in every sense, aggravated the divide between the privileged and the rest of the population. While shifting the bulk of the work online has had its benefits, it has created a very exclusive system that ignores the underprivileged. The digital world, post-pandemic, has catered to only those who can avail of its services, and those are the upper class. For instance, The more privileged the person is, the more easily they can replace the traditional methods of transaction and be part of this cashless flow of money, therefore, making the whole process less time consuming for them.


Mere figures of how the number of transactions has increased and how we’ve digitized this and that mean little with a population of over 1.2 billion people. There are hundreds of millions in India who stay detached from the digital framework, and before we leap forward, we have to make sure that it doesn’t completely leave them behind.


 

By Ahmad Hadi Nahvi

Ahmad Hadi Nahvi is an undergraduate student pursuing bachelor's of arts at University of Delhi. He's an aspiring writer whose areas of interest include sexuality and gender, economics of discrimination, international relations and law. An avid reader of fantasy fiction and sci-fi, he aspires to dabble in writing books of the same genre someday.



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