‘Internet for all’: Only way forward

With over 446 million internet users, India is the second largest online market but the rural-urban gap continues to be massive

Sukanya Bhaumik and Priyanka Agarwal | February 4, 2019


#Sustainable Development Goals   #safe internet day   #India   #gap   #online users   #rural   #urban   #Internet   #Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan   #PM Modi  


Safer Internet Day celebrated on February 5th is a global initiative to make the Internet a better and safer place for everyone. This year's slogan is "together for a better internet”- a call to action for people to join together and play their part in creating a better internet for everyone, and especially for younger users. With over 446 million internet users, India is the second largest online market, ranked only behind China. It is estimated that by 2021, there will be about 635.8 million internet users in India, yet despite the large base of internet users in India, only 26 percent of the Indian population accessed the internet in 2015. The potential of the internet is well acknowledged in driving development and is considered absolutely essential to expand the knowledge economy and to empower the socially and economically weaker sections of people. It is estimated that every 10 percent increase in access to broadband (and internet) in developing countries translates to a 1.38 per cent growth in GDP. Studies have shown that the rate of internet diffusion is correlated to the general level of socio-economic development by advancing economic growth and reducing poverty.

 
Thus, connecting the community and its members to the internet to build their digital capacities is becoming increasingly essential to ensure social progress. The use of internet accelerates and strengthens all three pillars of sustainable development – economic development, social inclusion and environmental protection. Its cross-cutting transformative potential in today’s interconnected world will help India improve its social indices, thus enabling the country to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
 
Although India’s internet penetration is about 40 per cent, the gap between rural (18 percent) and urban (65 percent) India continues to be massive. This massive digital divide in India is a serious issue. The World Bank in its recent reports called on the Indian government to make greater efforts to connect more people to the internet and create an environment that would unleash the benefits of the digital era for everyone. Only targeted intervention from the government can bridge this gap when factors like gender, class, geography and age affect one’s ability to harness new technologies. It is with this intention that the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) was introduced as one of the largest digital literacy programmes in the world by the Indian governments towards digital inclusion. It aims to make six crore Indians (at least one member in a rural household) digitally literate.  However, the defined learning outcomes of PMGDISHA (basic terminologies, email skills, mobile banking and online booking) are rather constricted and the training is unlikely to lead real transformation and enhanced usage.
 
Recent impact assessment studies of the digital literacy mission have reported poor results in meeting targets as well as problems in the programme’s implementation. These reports coupled with the on-ground experience of agencies involved in implementing the mission suggest there is much to be done before the government can truly claim to have made India digitally literate. Public Affairs Centre, a not for profit think tank, recently completed a CSR study for a leading corporate, on ‘Digital Literacy’ Census in Ramanagara district (census of 725 households). The study found that while 70 percent of the households owned smart phones, around 40 percent of them had started using the internet in the past year. Majority of the use was restricted to general browsing and use of social media, less than 5 percent had used the internet for availing government services or used mobile banking. The study showcased that households are thus stuck in the lowest end of the digital literacy value chain of ‘awareness’ and ‘basic usage’. While a majority of the households under the study showed interest in undertaking training on digital literacy, however, almost no one had even heard about PMGDISHA programme.  
 
It is quite unlikely that the outward focussed training and capacity building model of PMGDISHA will achieve meaningful outcomes in digital literacy. The programme might achieve its target in numbers but to propel a community to become truly digitally literate a ‘community led’ model needs be adopted. ‘Google Internet Saathi’ model is a good example of community mobilisation to make digital literacy universally accessible and useful for all.  The private sector through their CSR initiatives can also look at enhancing capabilities in rural communities’ digital usage. The canvas of digital literacy needs to be broadened beyond mere access to hardware and software and needs to be viewed from the lens of how it can transform lives. India’s commitment to ‘leaving no one behind’ in its development agenda for 2030 can truly work only if there is dedicated movement towards reducing the digital divide that presently exists.
 
Sukanya Bhaumik and Priyanka Agarwal are Senior Programme Officer and Programme Officer at Public Affairs Centre respectively.
 

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