As nationwide lockdowns have constrained and minimized the physical mobility and interactions of people, the virtual world has gained greater prominence in our everyday life. Stringent measures leading to reduced mobility haveincreased theutilization of the digital services already in use and have pushed for theadoption of new platforms to navigate around the challenges posed. An estimate by the Cellular Operators Association of India shows that the average data consumption has increased by 30 percent as a result of the lockdown, while the services of online conferencing apps such as Zoom have seen an unprecedented growth with a 2,900 percent increase in its daily users. The government is connecting with more people than ever through digital devices. An example of this is the launch of the AarogyaSetu app promoted by the Prime Minister, which has become one of the most downloaded apps in India. The functioning of banking and other public utilities services, including delivering of commodities, are being done increasingly through digital devices.This isthe case with education as well, with almost 90 percent of the students worldwide affected by the lockdown according to UNESCO. While lockdown is an inconvenience for most students in India, it has pushed the demand for online learning platforms. BYJU’S, a popular online learning site, reported that it has experienced a 60 percent surge in students using its products since the lockdown came into effect.
- Digital inequality in India
This sudden shift toward the digital as a result of the lockdown threatens to leave behind a sizable number of the population who are not yet part of this movement. Data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India in May 2020, the country has an internet density of 49.78 per 100 people.This means that for every person who has access to the internet in India, there exists one who lacks access to the internet. These figures are not conducivefor the adoption of the digital by the majority. The divide is shaped by factors such as location, income, gender, and age.
1.1 Rural divide in India
Internet use, though on the rise, is still primarily an urban phenomenon. Due to the absence or limited access to high speed internet, a significant chunk of the rural community is unable to make the transition to the digital world. The rural population, with 66 percent of the population of India, has internet density of a mere 25 percent, while the urban population with a population of 34 percent has a significantly higher internet density of 97.9 percent. Presence of high-speed internet is limited to towns and cities, while many villages struggle to get a stable signal on their mobile phones. In addition, the availability of broadband is almost negligible in rural areas. To improve the situation, the government has implemented flagship schemes like Bharat Net Project, but according to the latest government data, fewer than 8 percent of India’s 2.6 lakh gram panchayats have active broadband connections.
1.2 Income divide affecting the digital divide
Due to widespread poverty, many communities find the cost of digital technology unmanageable. For such communities to afford a computer or pay the monthly tariff for internet connection is more of a luxury than a necessity. Most households rely on mobile phones to access the internet, which can be a challenge when they have to engage in online learning or accessing websites to apply for government services. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) in 2019, 99 percent of all users in both urban and rural areas used mobile phones to access the internet.
An example of this divide was seen during this pandemic when Delhi government made food grains accessible to the migrants if they applied through from on the government website, that was in English language. This attempt by the Delhi government to address hunger in the national capital left many workers struggling to get access to the much-needed food, resulting in many deciding to walk back home. IAMAI report states that the national capital territory had 1.2 crore internet users while the population of the Delhi is more than 1.9 crore. Lower-income groups, particularly daily-wage laborers and migrant workers, are far more likely to fall into the state’s seventy lakh residents who do not use the internet and are unable to access the much-needed scheme.
1.3 Education divide affecting the digital divide
With most of the students affected by the lockdown, home learning is the only viable alternative. But for most students, especially from the weaker socioeconomic background, this is a challenge as only a small portion of India’s 300 million students can access the digital world. According to an ASER study conducted in 2018 in 596 government schools of 619 districts overall, only 21.3 percent of the students have access to computers in their schools.As per the UNESCO report, regular education of about nine out of ten students in the world has been disrupted. Having access to computers in government schools can give schoolchildren a chance to adapt better and utilize the digital world, but most government schools are not equipped with such facilities.
1.4 Gender in the digital divide
Gender is also an important factor that determines digital access in India. In the world increasingly connected more and more by computer, we see a high disparity in the use of the internet in males and females. According to the AIMAI report that came out in 2019, all India data shows that only 33 percent of the internet users are female. In rural India this figure further reduces to 28 percent. This divide comes from socioeconomic and cultural factors with many people looking at the use of mobiles especially the internet and social media as an immoral act. Besides low ownership, the lower rate of literacy and financial dependence contributes to this divide.
- Digital learning among youth
According to the IAMAI study, two-thirds of the internet users in India are of the age group twelve to twenty-nine years. While the percentage of the rural youth accessing the internet is higher than their adult counterparts, they still do not compare to the resources that urban youth from stable socioeconomic backgrounds have. Urban youth from stable socioeconomic backgrounds are introduced to modern technology from a young age and hence pick up adaptable digital skills naturally, while rural youth find it difficult to acquire those skills as a result of unequal distribution of resources, further propagating the digital divide.
This data and the hole-in-the-wall experiment illustrates that the digital skills are picked up by children on their own when they are given a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content. India has a long way to go to solve the problem of inequality of resources that result in poverty and vice versa. In the meantime, we need to find other avenues to introduce rural youth to the digital world. Early school education provides the best introduction for children to learn about digital devices and their use. This is especially important in rural India, as many of the girl students stop their education as a result of the unavailability of avenues of education beyond primary school. Education is a dynamic sector, and having knowledge of the latest trends is vital for the future of all students.
2.1 Learnings from Sehgal’s Foundation’s Initiative
The digital literacy initiative by Sehgal Foundation targets the dropout and students attending government schools in the rural areas who are deprived of quality education owing to dearth of financial resources. The dropout mainly comprises girls who forgo their education mainly due to two reasons- to take care of the household chores and non-availability of school uptil senior secondary level in their villages. The youth in rural areas do not have access to digital resources and knowledge platforms that limit their potential to compete with digitally equipped youth from urban areas.
The challenges and solutions inbridging the attainment of digital literacy were discerned during the study of youth participating in digital awareness classes in two villages, Rangala and Khori, in district Nuh, Haryana. The village is an hour drive from the cyber city of Gurugram, known as a financial and technological hub in North India. In terms of mobile connectivity, in the village of Rangala, the strength of the signal is weak even to use the mobile phones for telephonic-communication and the villagers often struggle to communicate to the world outside.
The data of the students intending to participate in the digital awareness course revealed that though 44 percent of students enrolled in the classes had access to computers in the school, but a mere 10 percent of the students were taught the use of computers. The reason for such a low percentage of digital literacy despite the presence of computers in school was a lack of availability of computer teachers. At least 78 percent of the students were found to have access to mobiles phones, while only 17 percent had access to laptops/desktops. Total participation in the course was higher for females than males.
A six-month course on digital awareness provided by Sehgal Foundation significantly increased the learning of the students in the village. Prior to the course introduction, the awareness level was very low; with only 12 percent of the students being aware of the use of basic functions of computers and advanced applications such as MS Word and Excel. The course was able to improve the knowledge about basic functions and advanced applications to 95 percent of the population. The capabilities of the youth to learn complex functions with small intervention is what the program harped on and showed amazing results in denting the rural digital divide. The program not only introduced youth to the technology but also broadened their horizon of aspiration. Youth from rural India who would have found it difficult to think about their career aside from farming and casual labor are now aspiring to join government jobs, law enforcement, teaching, etc.
The use of the internet is on the rise among the rural populace. The latest IAMAI report showed that for the first time India has more rural active internet users than its urban counterpart. As of November 2019, rural India has 227 million active internet users, 10 percent more than urban users, standing at 205 million. This is in trend with the overall technological revolution that human society is going through. Technology is increasingly becoming a part of our daily life. In every industry, digital technology provides the means to streamline and ease several essential functions while increasing overall efficiency. To deal with proliferation of digital use in more and more fields and its rapid evolution, adaptable digital skills are the need of the time especially for the youth. According to a report by the world economic forum, an estimated 75 million jobs may be displaced by 2022, while 133 million additional roles may emerge concurrently (Leopol, et al., 2018). The jobs in future will require more and more adaptable technological skills that cannot be provided by the current system of literacy.
The study of students who participated in the digital awareness course, and results hole-in-the-wall experiment show that youth can achieve the skills required to adapt to the digital world if they are provided with appropriate exposure from a young age. But widespread poverty and lack of resources among a significant part of our population means that a lot of parents can’t provide access to digital devices to their children. Early school education provides the best introduction for children to learn about digital devices and their use. This is especially important in rural India, as many girl students stop their education as a result of the unavailability of avenues of education beyond primary school. Education is a dynamic sector, and having knowledge of the latest trends is vital for the future of all students.
India has one of the fastest-growing user bases of internet and other digital services, but we have yet to see that even after the development of IT hubs in India, as in Bangalore and Hyderabad, we see negligible trickle-down effects of technological development across India.The situation as a result of the coronavirus has brought out the digital divide in our society. While many have the privilege to work from home, countless others are sitting at home or stuck far away without any means of survival or vital information, both of which technology can provide. The youth in India are a huge opportunity to spread digital technology across India. Concentrated efforts must be made by the government and other entities to not let this opportunity go away.
(Prateek Aggarwal, Research Associate, Research, Monitoring, and Evaluation, at S M Sehgal Foundation, a rural development organization, registered since 1999).
 See https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/13/popular-apps-download-and-revenue-take-a-hit-in-india-as-people-stay-home/.
 See ASER (2018) “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018, provisional,” ASER Centre, New Delhi.
See Leopol, T. A., V. Ratcheva, and Z. Saadia, (2018): The Future of Jobs. Edited by World Economic Forum. Genf.