Life across the digital divide

An open letter from a digitally-excluded, poor man to those who make policies and are part of those 1% of Indians who own almost 50% of the country’s assets

There are only 10-20% of Indians who are digitally inclusive and who live a digital life and 80% of the population is still excluded from the digital world.
There are only 10-20% of Indians who are digitally inclusive and who live a digital life and 80% of the population is still excluded from the digital world.

Dear fellow Indians, I am Ramu and my wife’s name is Sita. I have two children—Prakash and Savitri. We live in Doudi, a small village located in a corner of Kesla, in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. We are actually one of those 100 families who were displaced because of the Tawa dam that was constructed nearby. Actually, I would like to address this letter to those who are parliamentarians, members of legislative assembly, members of panchayat and all those who are part of those 1% of Indians who own almost 50% of the country’s assets. I would also like to address those who make policies and always make sure that there are announcements of crores of rupees for the poorest of the poor, like me and my family.

I am not literate, none of my family members are, and almost no one is in Doudi village, which has about 500 people. We and all our fellow villagers have good knowledge of our area, our land, our weather, our soil, our agriculture. But we cannot read and write. We have mobile phones, but we don’t have toilets; we have schools, but there are no teachers; we have panchayats, but there is no gram sabha; we have a sub-health centre, but there are no doctors or nurses or medicines; there’s no electricity for months at a stretch; we have land, but no means of irrigation; we have roads, but no vehicles; we have mobile towers, but we do not get network on our mobiles; we have lives, but no food to eat. I recently met the author of this column and talked to him at length and I am glad that he has agreed to convey my message to all of you.

I came to know that recently the government has shared a pathetic story about us, the poor of rural India. They call this set of information the Socio Economic & Caste Census 2011—it is apparently a set of data and analysis about the people who live in rural India and who are poor. This is a dataset of those who are excluded from mainstream society and community—ironically, in this case, the excluded population is larger in number than those who are part of the inclusive society or communities or government.

I believe there are a total 243.9 million households in India; of this, 179.1 million households are in rural areas and the rest in urban areas. Like us, more than 74% of the rural population’s income is paltry—less than Rs.5,000 per month; like us, about 32% of rural population do not even have a mobile; like us, about 30% of the households have unirrigated land; we are altogether about 38% of the households who are landless, eking out our lives purely with manual casual labour, which means we sleep hungry if we do not work on a given day; and like us, 82% of our rural population are either illiterate or have below middle-level school qualifications, which is as good as functionally illiterate—in my state and Rajasthan, that number is even higher.

In a nutshell, my dear fellows of inclusive India, the excluded population of your fellow brothers and sisters who live in rural India is not only very high in numbers, but they are also excluded from all sectors of development—like education, infrastructure, land, housing, agriculture, earnings, jobs, water, roads, phones, public schemes and, more so, digital infrastructure.

Actually, millions and millions of people of India like us have become used to living in exclusion. Since we do not read and write and are unable to express ourselves in writing, we are excluded from the literate and educated society; since we live in remote areas, far away from the centre of decision-makers and asset-holders, we are excluded geographically and nobody reaches us; since we have no certificates or degrees or education or skills, we are excluded from the meagre percentage of job-holders and taxpayers; since we do not have any paying capacity, we are also excluded from the consumerist society; there are also thousands of entitlements and schemes that are announced by the government for poor people like us, but since we do not have any medium to know about them, we are excluded from the entire message and media lifecycle.

And finally, we are finding ourselves in another set of exclusion—the digital exclusion, and the size of this population is even bigger.

Let me explain. Recently, I got the chance to hear the prime minister on a radio programme called Mann Ki Baat. I was delighted that our prime minister has chosen the most frugal medium to reach out to the people of India. However, while I was listening to him, he was using a lot of phrase such as “hashtag”, “Twitter”, “Facebook”, “Incredible India”, “post”, “social media” and many such words. I don’t understand them. My friends tell me that these are the lingua franca of people who live a digital life, who are digitally inclusive, who are connected, and who send messages to the prime minister any time from anywhere.

My friend tells me that there are only 10-20% of Indians who are digitally inclusive and who live a digital life and 80% of the population is still excluded from the digital world or, like me, four-fifths of India is digitally excluded.

I was just wondering: are digital media and technology, or for that matter the Digital India programme, going to create yet another society of exclusion or should I be hopeful?

Osama Manzar is founder & director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and Chair of Manthan & mBillionth awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for Masses at Ministry of Communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar

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