The entire world is battling the minuscule coronavirus, a highly infectious disease, first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO 2020) declared COVID-19 as a global health pandemic on 11 March 2020, concerned by the alarming level of spread and severity across continents. With more than 31.21 million infections and close to a million deaths globally in the first six months of the pandemic, increasing numbers and the evolving situation every day, the road ahead is highly uncertain.
The situation in India is equally alarming even after the first six months of severe lockdown to contain the virus, with many states showing an intense viral spread, though relatively a lower death rate remains a matter of surprise for experts. There is no prescribed line of medical treatment for the disease. Medical scientists are attempting to invent new medicines while researchers are trying to test a variety of existing drugs to treat Covid-19 (WHO 2020). As a solace, even the emergency use of plasma therapy to treat Covid-19 was authorised. Simultaneously, a vaccine quest by pharmaceutical companies is on an anticipated path, while accelerated approval to yield political dividends is promised with unfortunate vaccine nationalism becoming a major concern (Sinha 2020). Amidst all these dramatic ongoing phenomena, COVID-19 emerged as a critical driver of digital transformation in India and the world. Concurrently, the societal divide has deepened alarmingly, as physical distance, the new lifestyle of work from home, and digitalisation have become the new normal.
As national and state authorities have asked the population to stay at home, and maintain social distance, more people have veered to their computers and smartphones as lifelines and tools to substitute their in-person activities. We have started learning to live differently, to learn, express, socialise, shop, worship and collaborate differently; we are doing all of this online.
The sudden shift to everyone living their lives online has led to unprecedented congestion and strain on critical information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. Some of the habits may continue in the “new normal” or at least until a long-term solution to the current challenges, such as a vaccine, is found. Beyond the immediate COVID-19 response, there is a deeper and more lasting lesson. At the same time, while it is true that many are just realising how much they depend on digital connectivity, it is only true for those who are connected to the internet. Thanks to work from home and disruption of regular schedules, many are spending more time online, turning to digital addiction, often at the cost of personal and professional commitments.
Inequalities and Unfairness
India is home to the world’s second largest internet user base, consisting of more than 630 million subscribers, that is, more than the total population of the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and South Africa put together (Parsheera 2019). This stands at approximately 49.80% of India’s population. According to Frankfurt-based internet exchange, DE-CIX, data consumption on over-the-top and video-on-demand (VoD) platforms rose by 249% during March and April as against February 2020. During March to July 2020, this demand rose multifold to 947% (Kala 2020).
How about more than half of the population that does not have internet connection? How are they navigating the new normal in life? Never before was the gap between those who are connected and those who are not, so dramatically—and tragically—felt. This tragedy may prove to play out the hardest amongst the 51.20% of India’s population that are not connected and do not have access to basic information and opportunities (Kawoosa 2020). The internet eased lockdown life for millions. But millions more still cannot get online, and that is fundamentally unfair. The pandemic is contributing to an acceleration in technological change, helping certain businesses stay open digitally and enabling many people to work from home who were previously unable to (Sen 2020). Those groups who have access to the internet and are well-educated will gain from the shift to online technologies, such as Zoom, WebEx, and Google Meet, for virtual meetings, classes, conferences, communication and interactions, and various other tools to conduct businesses, make/receive payments, etc. So, for the technologically enabled social groups, shift to online technologies will be a boon. But underprivileged communities of our society living on the margins like the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), backward classes, senior citizens and women who are still lagging in the digital race, have fallen further behind.
Even before novel coronavirus, inequality and divide were already increasing in all spheres of socio-economic life in India. Many essential services offered by state authorities1 and regulatory compliances with periodicity have gone online with increased adoption of digital technologies in governance and economy. But the pandemic has greatly heightened existing fault lines and inequalities. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (2020) has observed that the pandemic, like an X-ray, has revealed the “fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.” The response to the pandemic “must be based on a new social contract and a new global deal that create equal opportunities for all and respect the rights and freedoms of all” (Al Jazeera 2020). Here are the few processes through which digital inequality sharpened across India.
The pandemic has increased inequality between workers. Lockdown policies implemented by the union government and state governments to suppress the spread of the virus have affected the migrant labourers in the country. The nation witnessed during shutdown the painful reverse exodus of labour from their stations of work to native villages within the states and other states that has caused immense suffering. For these workers, who depended on casual work with daily wages, the inability to travel to their places of work has led to a loss of daily earnings, with no protection and high levels of insecurity about the future of their livelihoods. Consider a street vendor selling vegetables/fruits/food and daily use items on the streets of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. As the pandemic hit India and the government issued stay-at-home orders, the street vendor suddenly found themself out of a living. The strict implementation of lockdown for months made daily wage earning informal sector groups dip into their little savings to sustain themselves. By the nature of the job that requires in-person presence, those who could not go online, were rendered jobless. But in contrast, for the white-collar professionals who are able to work from home, the pandemic has had a more limited effect on their jobs and earnings. Though they have experienced cuts in salaries and to little extent foreshortened the jobs, earnings continued, whereas the informal sector lost all earnings. The rich and the entrepreneurial classes sustained themselves despite the lockdown, as some of the businesses shifted online, some adjusted to the Covid-19 requirements, though some have temporarily shut business during the lockdown. Thus, during Covid-19 time, if you are not online, then you are missing out on everything—both normal livelihood and work. The government’s responsive policies are also assuming that online economy works for everyone, whereas more than half of the population still cannot access an internet connection.
As an immediate measure to stem the spread of Covid-19, most educational institutions have been shut since the end of March. It is still difficult to predict when schools, colleges and universities will reopen. There are few options other than shifting to digital platforms from the traditional face-to-face mode of classroom learning.
Teachers and school administrators have been advised to continue communication with students through virtual lectures or portals like massive open online courses. However, in the absence of physical classrooms and proper digital infrastructure, both teachers and students are facing unprecedented challenges (Kundu 2020). The earning member of the family has to carry the phone while going out to work in a family with only one phone (Pandey 2020). In a family that has, say, three children, how does one decide who gets to attend classes, assuming the phone is accessible (Pandey 2020). The major challenge of homeschooling is the disparity in access —from electricity and internet connections to devices like computers or smartphones. The impact is likely to be long term with the loss of six months’ education having a knock-on effect on future schooling, although the effects would be regional, with some rural areas, in particular, or poor parts of cities, suffering more than others. This will accentuate and create new digital divides, adversely affecting further education and career paths of final-year school students.
Rural–Urban and Gender Divide
Even though 66% of the country’s population lives in its villages, rural internet density is just 25.3%. In comparison, urban areas have a significantly higher density of 97.9 (Parsheera 2019). Backward regions, hilly terrains and large tracts of rural India still struggle to get quality, uninterrupted access to internet, leave alone their affordability, capability to adopt and use latest instruments and apps in daily life. People living in rural areas, low-income households and those residing in less developed states also get less reliable internet (Parsheera 2019). Services such as online classrooms, financial transactions and e-governance invariably require access to internet as well as the ability to operate internet-enabled devices like phones, tablets and computers. Here, the urban–rural distinction is quite stark (Civilsdaily 2020).
India has among the world’s highest gender gap in access to technology. Only 21% of women in India are mobile internet users, according to Global System for Mobile Communications Association’s 2020 mobile gender gap report, while 42% of men have internet access (Civilsdaily 2020). The report says that while 79% of men own a mobile phone in the country, the number for women is 63% (Civilsdaily 2020). While there do exist economic barriers to girls owning a mobile phone or laptop, cultural and social norms also play a major part. The male–female gap in mobile use often exacerbates other inequalities for women, including access to information, economic opportunities, and networking (Civilsdaily 2020).
Digital Divide as a Challenge
Recently, in an interview to a television channel, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), Shaktikanta Das, while recognising the “clear disconnect” between stock markets and the real economy, described it as a global phenomenon and attributed it wholly to the monetary response to the Covid-19 crisis of developed country central banks (Chandrashekhar and Ghosh 2020). That response involved the injection of trillions of dollars of cheap liquidity, some of which found its way into stock markets, including in emerging economies like India. In the governor’s view, that is what resulted in a stock market revival, even when the real economy was steeped in a crisis (Chandrashekhar and Ghosh 2020). However, it is typically the rich with knowledge of equity and bond markets, having access to internet and knowledge about information technology who own stocks, bonds and other financial assets. Thus, they benefit from the boom of financial economy. Easy liquidity policies to revive the sliding economy ends up benefiting the rich class, further widening wealth inequality. Notably, more than 1.2 million new investors opened demat accounts with the Central Depository Services Limited (CDSL) in March and April 2020, and the month of April saw the National Stock Exchange internet trading volume rise by 53% despite the ongoing nationwide lockdown and economy slowdown (Mascarenhas 2020). This is an indication of more and more retail investors in the country taking to equities as against the traditional forms of investments like bank deposits, gold, etc. Participation in digital economy powered by access to the internet as means, disproportionately rewards some and excludes others. This digital divide is as much a symptom and a cause of these broader techno-economic phenomena and regarding it as a simple issue of connectivity is simplistic and reductive.
The use of internet and digital devices has increased exponentially in all spaces during the past decade. Governance got digitised with the increased use of computers. Aadhaar, the unique identity card, evolved as mandatory proof of identity and address document, for availing different subsidies, benefits, services and easy regulatory compliances. With India’s vast population and geographic dispersion, one of the major challenges of the government is to reach and provide access to all to the different government services. National Optical Fibre network through BharatNet, National e-Governance Plan and Digital India campaign are focused towards such an empowering change in our country (Shegal 2020).
The recently launched National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) envisions seamless personal health data portability across hospitals, diagnostic, pharmacists, laboratories, radiology clinics, insurers and others (Ghosh 2020). Soon, instead of ferrying medical records in polythene carry bags from doctor to doctor, we should be able to access lab reports, x-rays and prescriptions irrespective of where they are generated and share with consent in real-time with doctors and family members. The digital market may develop a range of applications to facilitate data exchange with all stakeholders. However, the moot question is, can rural India, the marginal classes, and digitally disadvantaged sections ride on the road laid through the mission.
Likewise, primary, secondary and higher education learning/teaching turned to virtual classes on YouTube channels and national broadcaster Doordarshan, YouTube links to chapters. In his speech on Independence Day, our Prime Minister remarked that “online classes have become a culture during times of Covid.” The shift to remote schooling/learning had arrived, under a compelling pandemic lockdown situation. Lack of smartphones and absence of resources for “instant phone recharges and data packs” are key barriers to remote learning. Beyond the impact on education and learning, the digital divide will exacerbate the disadvantage of the unserved, the underserved and the digitally disadvantaged, limiting their access to payments and commerce, healthcare and essentially information. The main cause of this new digital divide is a lack of affordable quality bandwidth, particularly outside major cities in India.
Necessity, Not Luxury
“Civil rights traditionally have been about race and ethnicity, gender and faith, and orientation. It needs to also include this technical phenomenon called the internet as a legal right’’ (Goodyear 2016). Internet access has become necessary for employment, education, weather updates, agricultural commodity prices, civic engagement, telemedicine, etc. People need to go online to find work, do homework, obtain many government services and stay connected, especially as more programmes move towards cloud-based subscription models (Goodyear 2016). In an era when some Indians are cutting back on groceries and skimping on the rent just to stay online, there is a growing argument that high-speed home internet access is no longer a luxury, but a necessity (Goodyear 2016). Thus, access to broadband connectivity evolved as a human right, essential in times like now, but just as essential even in the post-pandemic future as new socio-economic lifestyle, including governance, is entwined with internet. Several countries like Brazil (Law 12965, 2014), Spain (2011), Greece (2008), and Finland (2011) have imposed universal and affordable broadband internet access as a legal obligation to the incumbent service providers. Estonia, in 2000, approved internet access as a basic human right. The Supreme Court rulings in Costa Rica and France declared internet access as a fundamental right (Canazza 2018).
Like clean water, electricity and healthcare, broadband access has become a modern-day necessity. The advent of information technology in the first decade of the 21st century itself necessitated the provision of universal internet access. The spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing closure of economy and restrictions on in-person interactions make this seem like a new imperative. The new paradigm demanded that even critical medical consultancy go online with video chat. Welfare measures like providing safe drinking water, foodgrains through the public distribution system for the needy, and advocating strongly for the right to education as a fundamental right are required to attain better living standards. It is time for the federal and state governments in India to discuss, debate and decide on broadband connectivity as a legal right to ensure universal access and in turn ensure seamless flow of services. At present, this asset is restricted to a small portion of the population with affordability and availability.
Enabling Universal Access
Public good refers to a good or service made freely available to the public, which is non-rivalrous and non-exclusionary. Kaul (2003) affirmed that “the defining characteristics of many public goods are not inherent and are often socially endogenous.” Regardless of economic attributes, a good/service can be provided as a public good if it has certain social attributes, such as high social value and/ or societal demand for its provision as a public good. The internet presents both (Canazza 2018). Over the last decade, internet connectivity developed as a critical infrastructure like roads, water and electricity for socio-economic development of the nation. With its intrinsic social and economic value, internet access has evolved into a basic human right and an empowering tool. It is time that the government should enable universal access to quality digital infrastructure networks for all and support the development of a digital economy, thus ushering in digital democracy. Governments should promote the efficient provision of the internet as a public good at the national level, to foster economic growth and social inclusion, and at the international level, to establish common standards and a minimum level of internet access for all, and to reduce the digital divide (Canazza 2018). Instead of terming internet connections as a superfluous luxury, the government and public should view it as a crucial necessity to engage in day-to-day activities with public and private institutions and vice versa.
As a follow-up measure, governments should subsidise internet access for low-income households. At the same time, the private sector must commit to providing equal service and networks to rural and underserved communities so that all individuals can participate in equal ways in digital India (Study Mode Research 2013). Like the common community assets in villages and wards in the urban space for community usage, for example, a community hall for cultural activities, public finance may be invested to develop “common access centres.” When provided with such centres in every habitat, it can develop as a basic asset for effective engagement in socio-economic activities and functions of government, by providing equal access and opportunity. These can emerge as centres of digital literacy, besides supporting digital human capital formation in the underprivileged communities and disadvantaged areas. Public and civil society institutions should earnestly strive to impart skills to live, learn and work in a society where communication and access to information is increasing through digital technologies like internet platforms, social media and mobile/laptop/desktop and television devised systems (Coursehero nd). NITI Aayog should evaluate the urgent need to set up the Digital Equity Fund at the national level to finance core digital inclusion activities at the local level to be carried out with active involvement of state and local self-government. This fund can be collected to start with by imposing a notional digital cess on internet service providers and other digital market players.
The centrality of digital connectivity in daily life is essential to be recognised by the state. Regardless of declaring it as a legal right, the state should provide for universal quality broadband connectivity in India. Otherwise, the digital divide, not the traditional parochial divisions of Indian society, would jeopardise the dreams of a digitally inclusive, comprehensively connected India from emerging as a critical spoke in the digital world.
1 State authorities include national, state and local administration in India and services like public distribution system for foodgrains,
gas connection, scholarships, various licences, renewals, etc.
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