Traditionally, literacy means the ability to read and write. By that measure, a fourth of India’s population is illiterate, according to the 2011 census. If, however, we look at functional literacy, one that extends beyond the ability of rudimentary reading and affixing a signature to paper, my personal experience says close to 40% of our people are functionally illiterate.
On the other hand, if we look at the revolution in communications media in the past two decades, the entire world is gradually moving to digital communication through mobile phones, computers, emails, internet, radio, television, tablets, touch screens, text messages, voice calls, and so on. The irony is that we may have a better percentage of digitally literate people than those traditionally literate, especially if we look at the use of cellphones as a benchmark. The challenge in such a scenario is: can the government redefine the definition of literacy and, perhaps, announce that we are going to work together towards not more literacy but only for digital literacy, thus indicating that India needs to prepare for the next centuries to adopt the medium of the future rather than that of the past. Let’s look at some of the prevailing scenario if we target 100% digital literacy before the next census takes place in 2021. According to some estimates, computer literacy in India is just 6.5%. We still have less than 10% Internet penetration. While radio and television reach is less than 150 million households, the mobile phone outreach is more than 53% of about 330 million households. Recently, in a meeting on digital literacy organized by Hindustan Times and Intel, junior communications and information technology minister Sachin Pilot suggested that we should aim at making one adult from each household digitally literate. I am going to share the suggestions that I proposed in the meeting. It may be a hugely challenging task to target 330 million without institutionalization of the movement with allocated budget, but we can achieve a huge digital literacy penetration if we target those sectors who live in the shadow areas of digital revolution. Panchayats (local governing bodies), for instance, have three million elected members and almost all of them are digitally illiterate. Involving the panchayati raj ministry, they can be targeted through 250,000 gramsabhas (village councils).
There are more than one million day-care centres employing 1.8 million health workers, mostly women. The ministry of health and family welfare can take up the issue and facilitate digital literacy for all these women. Bihar has already shown a way this could be done. The ministry overseeing small businesses can target more than 2,000 rural and artisan-based clusters that lack digital means of communication and are constantly exploited by middlemen.
The rural development ministry, through its Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology, can target the non-profit sector that involves some three million people. Needless to say, five million teachers in 1.4 million state-aided schools can be brought under the ambit by the human resources development ministry. Finally, 18.7 million government officials should be targeted to undergo rigorous training in information and communications technology.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation. He is chairman of the Manthan Award and a member of a panel on Internet governance at the ministry of communications and information technology. Tweet him @osamamanzar.