In the last two decades there has been a significant growth in Digital Services in our country. Banking and digital payments have been the biggest beneficiaries of this growth. With the Government encouraging online payments, this sector has seen a massive growth. According to one estimate, over 40 per cent transactions are now taking place through the digital medium.
A network of common service centres or Nagrik Suvidha Kendras has been established up to the Panchayat level, to provide a variety of services up to the grassroots. You can order your books, clothes and any other household items sitting at home. Now fruits, vegetables and monthly groceries can also be ordered directly from the nearby store. Information technology has made significant impact on education, transport, medicine, research and development.
This is a good indicator of progress. India is now considered an exporter of Digital Services and a soft power of the world. It may appear that information revolution is progressing well in our country. But the Covid-19 lockdown has revealed a new face of the digital divide in our country. After the initial shocks of the lockdown, the middle and upper middle classes of our cities locked themselves in their houses and apartments.
They had better digital facilities and could enjoy the luxury of working from home. They probably had a computer and a laptop in their house with broadband connectivity and had working knowledge of computers. This helped them work from home. They also had the means of entertainment through digital medium.
They could go streaming, could see films on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, could listen to music and make themselves a part of worldwide activities through participation in online communities. They immediately went on to make such online communities, started conducting webinars and made themselves a part of the global discourse.
Compare this situation with that of lakhs of workers who lost their jobs and were forced to move on the roads migrating back to their villages. They probably had a single mobile phone, which was being used for establishing contact with their families and relatives back home; that too only when there was sufficient charge available on their phone. One may say that the Government is sending or trying to send Rs 2,000 to them through the digital medium and many state governments have already undertaken this exercise.
This is a good thing but in order to receive this money, they have to be registered in some database. Then they should have a bank account and it should be within their reach. The comfort of a house is certainly beyond their reach at present and so are the means of entertainment, which are generally available to middle and upper middle classes. Assuming that they will get the promised Rs 2,000, they would rather use it to arrange food for their families than for any entertainment.
They have been using the mobile phone because it does not require any complicated interface other than their own voices. We can take another example from the field of school education. Schools are closed at present and children are locked in their houses. In this situation every school wants to remain in touch with its students and is trying to provide some content to them online.
The top film stars are endorsing educational products of big companies on TV channels, which suggest that by downloading an app, all problems of children will be solved. I will not go into the applicability of technology in pedagogy of learning at school level. Nor will I mention the problem of content, which is generally available only in English, and which the students of vernacular languages definitely will have problem accessing.
I would like to mention here the results of an experiment conducted to deliver available content to the school students of rural and tribal areas online. Initially they enjoyed it because it was a new thing. But soon it became clear that most rural students do not have an Android phone. If their parents do have one, they do not allow it to be used by their children. Even if they allow it to be used for one hour, data speed may be so slow that the content cannot be downloaded smoothly.
Thus the learning is continuously hampered. Then the available data gets finished in about a week, recharge costs money and is not done. Students in the urban areas may have better availability of Android phones and some of them may also have computers, laptops and tablets as well as better access to online content. But the student belonging to poorer communities in the urban areas are no better than their rural friends.
The children from tribal and hilly areas and those from the rural and poorer communities are missing out on the digital revolution which may be taking place in school education. Doctor A P J Abdul Kalam once said that the digital divide in our country takes several forms. It may appear as a technology divide between the rich and the poor, between the urban and rural and gender divide between the men and women. The present crisis has brought up some new forms.
But it is clear that despite all claims of thawing the digital divide, it remains essentially in the form of a technology divide between the rich and the poor. Technology appears to stand by the rich. We will have to remember that technology can only be a medium. It can’t be an objective in itself. If we want to distribute grains we will have to first produce them; if we want to distribute products online, we will have to first manufacture them.
It is good to have facilities for Digital payment but it will require money itself for transactions. This will be possible only by creating employment and increasing activities around the country. The digital revolution creates an illusion of development but real development can take place only through primary activities like promoting agriculture and industries.
(The writer is Founder and Chairman, AISECT group)