The Karbi Anglong district in Assam was created in 1976 to protect tribal communities. It is the largest district in Assam and perhaps in the entire north-east region. Inhabited by ethnic groups such as Karbis, Bodos, Kukis and Dimasas, Karbi Anglong faced an insurgency and is one of the country’s 250 most backward districts. In 1995, it was given a special status through the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council to promote inclusive development. A couple of days in Diphu, the district headquarters, seems to indicate that not much has happened in this regard. Can digital inclusion bridge the gap?
Ironically, spread across 10,434 sq. km, there are only 13 points of public Internet interface in the entire district. There is one Internet-connected public facilitation centre (PFC) and 12 common services centres (CSCs), locally named as Arunodoy Kendras. While the PFC, set up in 2005, is in Diphu and run by the local government, the privately run CSCs are spread across the district, certainly not according to the six village, one CSC formula suggested by the National e-Governance Plan guidelines of the communication and information technology ministry.
Since March 2005, the total number of services issued through the PFC and CSCs are 129,855 in Karbi Anglong. The CSCs’ percentage share of offered services have been a meagre 4%. While the PFC offers 24 services, including caste and birth certificates, the CSCs are permitted to offer only five certificate services. Besides, more than half of the 12 CSCs are almost non-functional, while another eight of the total target of 20 CSCs were never established. India has about 635 tribal groups and sub-groups, including 73 primitive tribes that together constitute about 8.2% of the population with seven tribal majority states in central and north-east India. The primary occupation of tribal areas is still largely agriculture. The literacy rate is below 50%. Other common traits of our tribal community areas are poverty, illiteracy, low income, food insecurity, lack of basic infrastructure and civic amenities, poor educational facilities, poor standard of living, and unemployment. For example, more than 93% of the tribals do not have income more than Rs.10,000 per month.
Digital means and medium have proven effective to mitigate exclusion within communities. This is missing from tribal development focus in both central and state levels. The tribal sub-plan under Article 275 (1) of our Constitution provides special central assistance to invest in development programmes exclusively for tribal. More than 14 tribal research institutes are providing development inputs to relevant departments for need-based policy programmes. The Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India Ltd is the nodal agency to provide sustainable income and livelihood channels in products and services.
There exist around 192 integrated tribal development projects and integrated tribal development agencies spread over 19 states and Union territories. In all these interventions, the emphasis on integrating information and communication technologies (ICT) is totally absent. Tribal citizens need the benefits of digital inclusion. The tribal clusters need dedicated focus on digital skills and literacy. There is an urgent need for digital means to reach out to the communities with connectivity and access. Digital solutions will facilitate market of tribal products and services. Do we need a separate policy or action plan such as e-tribal policy or ICT for tribal action plan? Taking Karbi Anglong as a case, it is certainly important to note that tribal inclusion must go along with digital inclusion, considering connectivity and access as essentials to generate demand and services. This exclusive focus can help to achieve development equity. The country’s effort towards a developed knowledge society and economy cannot exclude India’s millions of tribal citizens.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and information technology. Follow him on twitter @osamamanzar.