Digital Divide: Rural India’s Struggle for Access

digital divide in India

This is not a new story. This is in fact a very old story. India’s internet penetration is abysmally low in comparison with its peers and the digital divide is only getting more alarming. Here’s a status report.

India is the second-largest online market in the world, second only to China, with over 560 million internet users and an internet penetration of 50 per cent. Internet came to India on August 15, 1995. The sector was opened up for private players in just about three years — in November 1998.

India’s internet usage has been growing ever since. Internet usage in rural areas has surpassed the urban areas with low-cost data explosion, availability of e-governance services and the boost given by Digital India vision. This year, in May, a joint study by the Internet and mobile association of India (IAMAI) and Nielson found that rural India has 227 million internet users.

This is 10 per cent more than the urban internet users of India as of November 2019. The highest internet penetration has been recorded in Kerala, followed by Jammu & Kashmir, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. 

Think this is good news? Well, the devil is in the detail. 

Rural education amidst the pandemic

No authentic data is available on the Internet penetration in India’s villages. Some moderately reliable reports say rural households, which comprise 66 per cent of the population, see an internet penetration of 15 per cent. But the top eight big cities see 65 per cent internet penetration. Here’s a rider, though. Only 9 per cent of the web connections in urban India are on WiFi, which means faster, stronger connectivity. The number is 2 per cent in villages. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic-induced lockdown, India saw a sudden spike in internet activity. According to the Department of Telecommunication, between 22 and 23 March, Indians consumed an average of 307 petabytes (PB) of data. This was about 10 per cent higher than the same period in 2019. 

The higher numbers of internet users and consumption do not necessarily translate into greater common good. Take education. According to figures from the World Economic Forum, about 320 million students in India have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and lack of proper internet facilities makes the transition to e-learning impossible for many of them. The 2017-2018 National Sample Survey Report on education states that internet facility is limited to only 24 per cent.  

Adding to the fact that rural India lacks proper internet are factors such as the absence of electricity and computers, which end up widening the already alarming digital divide in the country. 

A nation-wide survey conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-2018 stated that 16 per cent of India’s households receive only one to eight hours of electricity a day. The study also found that more than 36 per cent of schools operating in India run without any electricity.

When it comes to devices to access the internet, only 11 per cent of households in India have access to desktop computers, laptops or tablets. Together, all these hold back the online rural education in India. 

In rural India, 69 per cent of the internet users are men. That means, women are pushed to the digital fringes in a shocking way. In villages, on an average, only 16 per cent of the internet users send emails, in comparison with 41-47 per cent users in urban areas. 

Government action for increasing connectivity

One of the flagship programmes to bridge the digital gap in rural India, BharatNet promises a digital facelift for Indian villages. The programme is a rebranded version of the UPA government-led project called National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) programme in 2011. 

The implementation was planned in three phases. 

  • Phase 1- 50,000 gram panchayats by 31 March 2015
  • Phase 2- 1 lakh gram panchayats by March 2016
  • Phase 3- Remaining 1 lakh gram panchayats by December 2016 

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her budget speech on 1 February 2020, announced the government vision to provide Fibre to the Home (FTTH) connections through BharatNet which is expected to link 100,000 gram panchayats this year. 

The government has proposed to allocate Rs 6000 crores for this programme in 2020-21, aiming to fix the digital divide. The plan was to provide data broadband services with a minimum speed of 100 Mbps in each panchayath so that online services such as e-governance, e-learning and e-banking would become widely accessible.

The progress card

The first phase of the BharatNet plan was completed only by December 2017. The second phase currently under implementation is expected to be completed by August 2021. Over one lakh gram panchayats have been connected using 4.27 lakh optical fibre cables as of March 2020. The government feels the project can serve as a platform that can bridge the digital divide and provide further transparency and accessibility which can improve the technology. 

Rural areas are, however, getting more telephone connections. Tele-density in villages now stands more than 60 per cent now. This can be a crucial component in the deployment of FTTH. 

A news report by the National Herald notes that it would take a minimum wage worker in rural India at least 941 years to earn what a top paid executive earns in a year. Digital illiteracy will only increase the already existing socioeconomic gap.

Also read: India’s on a digital sprint that is leaving millions behind

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