Smartphones, a necessity in today's world, for education, entertainment, shopping and safety.
Smartphones, a necessity in today's world, for education, entertainment, shopping and safety.
Swapan Mahapatra

The global pandemic has brought to the fore the digital divide between those who have access to the internet and those who do not. As education has gone online and remote work has been normalised, those cut off from the 'digi-verse' are being left behind. In India, that's more than half the population.

The digital divide is governed by geography, class, gender and age. Cities have a much higher internet penetration than rural areas and some states are far ahead of others. Delhi-NCR leads, with 69 percent of the population having access to the internet. This means that there is a sizeable chunk of 31 percent which does not.

Private schools have transitioned smoothly to online classes, as most students can pound away on their high-speed broadband-enabled laptops. For government and municipal schools, tackling the syllabus is much harder. They have been told to use WhatsApp for teaching and assigning work and free textbooks have been made available on various apps, on the assumption that every family has at least one smartphone. But lakhs of students do not.

So, while one section of parents tries to wean kids off their iPhones, another struggles to provide theirs with a basic smartphone. As a result, there's a double gap: between private and government schools, as well as within the classroom, where some have smartphones or can borrow one from a family member, but many more do not. Their education has been well and truly disrupted.

Today, ICT (Information and Communications technology) is regarded as integral to school education, because digital literacy is an imperative for participation in an information society. But most government and less-privileged private schools just don't have the necessary infrastructure. The end result is that ICT in education widens, rather than narrows, the digital divide.

Even outside of school, the mobile phone riding on the 4G network is not only the primary means of communication but a symbol of empowerment. It offers access to communication, information and a variety of services from receiving funds to booking tickets to getting e-travel passes during the lockdown. Nor does the user need to be functionally literate, thanks to the proliferation of apps. Plummeting prices have boosted data consumption, e-commerce and video streaming.

For women, a mobile phone can be a game changer, a means of liberation. It makes them feel safer, better informed and more independent. However, of the total internet users in India, only one-third are women and in rural areas, the figure is closer to a quarter. There have been cases when women are actively discouraged from owning mobile phones, with village panchayats banning or even penalising women for using them.

Governments, on the other hand, appear to be keen on promoting the use of mobile phones among women and students. But many recent free-phone schemes have come acropper. The Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan governments had announced distribution of free phones for women in 2018. The former launched the SKY (Sanchar Kranti Yojana) which was to give 'Raman-mobiles' to 45 lakh women and 5 lakh students. The Uttar Pradesh government also floated a Samajwadi Smartphone Yojana for Class 10 graduates. However, none of the schemes helped the chief ministers in question to get re-elected and they came to a halt.

The Madhya Pradesh government's free-phone scheme of 2016, for college students, faltered due to poor quality handsets. Punjab, too, decided on free phones in 2019, in keeping with Chief Minister Amarinder Singh's 2017 campaign promise, but he postponed the distribution in 2020 on account of coronavirus. It remains to be seen how the Andhra Pradesh government's plan to give free smartphones to 1.4 crore women in Self Help Groups pans out. Earlier, in 2016, the then CM N Chandrababu Naidu had promised free phones for BPL families and students.

As for wired and WiFi connections, the BharatNet dashboard proudly displays 4.3 lakh kilometres of optic fibre laid and over 138,000 Gram Panchayats equipped with internet access across India. However, barely 10 percent were reported to be functional in 2019, a circumstance which is said to have deeply upset the Prime Minister. Currently, BharatNet claims WiFi is operational in 20,000. Nor have targets for mobile connectivity been met; some 28,000 villages are still a communications blackhole.

Digital exclusion derails e-governance and limits the ability of the excluded to participate in the economy. The mobile phone has fuelled micro-enterprises and e-commerce, not just for big retailers, but for the smallest vendors. A 2010 UN study maintains that mobile phones can lift the poorest out of poverty. To prevent deepening of inequalities and fraying of democracy, India urgently needs to bridge its yawning digital divide. Policy-makers appear to have the right idea: improving internet penetration and access to handsets. The devil is in the implementation and only a zero-tolerance policy will work.

The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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