Let’s take measures to bridge the digital gap
By MD EJAZUL HAQUE
As we are advancing in the 21st century, the interaction between humans and computers has increased greatly. The ability to access computers and the Internet has become increasingly important to fully immerse oneself in the economic, political and social aspects of life. However, everyone has not access to this technology. The idea of “digital divide” refers to the growing gap between disadvantaged members of society, especially the poor, rural, elderly and disabled, who do not have access to computers or the Internet; and wealthy, middle class and young Indians living in urban and suburban areas who have access.
The digital divide can be explained as disparities between the digital (haves and have-nots) in terms of their access to the Internet and ICT.
Although the number of Indians having access to computers and the Internet is increasing, the digital divide is also growing at an alarming rate. On one hand, already connected sections of society – such as high income, educated, upper caste and urban – are increasingly adopting new technologies and engaging even more. While on the other, groups with traditionally low rates for Internet and computer use still lag far behind. Unfortunately, according to a study conducted by The National Family Health Survey 2019–21 (NFHS), internet usage shows a fairly large gender gap. The NFHS report states that only 57.1 per cent of the male population and 33.3 per cent of the female population had ever used the Internet. Defining the digital divide, this gap is already widening with strained economic and racial discrimination.
EDUCATION AND DIGITAL DIVIDE
Rising levels of education seem to exacerbate the digital divide. Families with higher levels of education are more likely to use computers and the Internet. People with college degrees or higher are 10 times more likely to have internet access at work than those with only high school education.
As the pandemic struck, Jharkhand, like other states, also started online classes through social media, Doordarshan, and radio. Government’s own data stated they shared content on more than 47,000 WhatsApp groups created at all levels, covering around 13 lakh students. Altogether there are 35,931 government schools, excluding aided and private schools, in the state which comprise more than 93% of the total schools. The government schools have more than 47 lakh students enrolled.
This data assumes significance as only 35 per cent of the students benefitted from online content given on social media such as WhatsApp, Doordarshan and radio, as per government’s own data.
DIGITAL DIVIDE AND PRESENT SOCIETY
With the onset of unprecedented technological and digital advancements in today’s times, India is witnessing a widening disparity between digital haves and have-nots. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines the digital divide as “the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic regions at different socio-economic levels regarding their opportunities to access information and communication technologies (ICTs)for their use of the Internet for a variety of activities.”
Simply put, the digital divide can be explained as the disparities between the digital haves and have-nots in terms of their access to the Internet and ICT. Due to the ever-increasing importance of the Internet and the rapid digital transformation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we find ourselves in a diverse situation. Based on the rural-urban divide data available, 72.5 per cent of urban men and 51.8 per cent of urban women have ever used the Internet, with only 48.7 per cent of rural men and 24.6 per cent of rural women eligible for this status. It is interesting to note that the percentage of urban males is the highest among all the states, while the percentage of rural females is the lowest.
In addition, considerable digital divide exists between the various disadvantaged caste groups. For example, some studies also show that “ST individuals have 27 per cent less access to the Internet than other individuals”. As schools remain closed, poor tribal villagers cannot afford smartphones and computers to aid their children’s online education, leaving this young population facing a precarious future.
“It is clear from the above data that a digital divide exists in India especially between rural and urban areas. The progress made in improving digital literacy and digital access has not reached the majority of the country’s population. The serious issues of bandwidth and connectivity availability pose further challenges to digital penetration.”
DIGITAL DIVIDE TREND
As seen, a severe digital divide exists in India with differences in internet access and access to digital infrastructure based on gender, area of residence, rural-urban, caste or age. Men have more access to the internet and more ownership of mobile phones. While there may be small differences, urban men are significantly better than others in terms of both internet access and phone ownership, compared to urban women, rural men and rural women. Similarly, rural women always get the short end of the stick, for example, although rural women have more phone ownership than urban women, they still have less internet access. However, there has been some improvement in women’s access to cell phones between 2015-16 and 2019–21, indicating that efforts to bridge the digital divide continue to succeed.
The digital divide has serious social implications. The inability to access technology has the potential to increase existing social exclusions and deprive individuals of essential services. With increasing reliance on digital technologies and the Internet, the digital divide has implications for education, health, mobility, security, financial inclusion and every other imaginable aspect of life.
BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
Bridging the digital divide is crucial if we want prosperity for all. Naturally an important step in bridging the digital divide is making broadband access more affordable for low-income households. The central and state governments of India have taken several initiatives for rural development through community information centres.
While several government initiatives like National Digital Literacy Mission and Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan have been launched to increase digital literacy, such efforts need to be accelerated. It is also important to improve the existing digital infrastructure to ensure physical access to ICT for different sections of the society. Also, there is a need to motivate disadvantaged groups to incorporate technology into their daily lives and digital skills need to be imparted to them.
Although India has made encouraging efforts to bridge the gap by initiating a number of projects and programmes for rural and remote locations, a lot more needs to be done to bring the people into the information society. All that is required is strong determination among people, good policy-making and political support to bridge the digital divide.
Libraries and information centres have a special role in providing information for all in order to reduce the gap between those who have the facilities to access digital information and those who do not. The country needs to improve the infrastructure of Anganwadi Kendras, Baalvatika, Primary Schools, Public Libraries as they are widely spread and deeply rooted and easily accessible for the society and must develop them as community information centres to allow such a digital change.
[The writer teaches at M.S. Diwankhana, Chatra, Jharkhand]