New Delhi: The internet may have transformed the Indian economy in many ways over the past couple of decades, but India continues to lag behind peer countries when it comes to internet penetration, shows the recently published findings of a global survey of over 40,000 adults conducted in 2017 by Pew Research Centre.

Only one in four Indian adults either owns a smartphone or uses the internet occasionally, something that the report considers to be a measure of internet penetration.

Ranked on this metric, India scrapes the bottom of a list of 39 large economies considered in the survey, which include both developed and emerging markets.

Data for China is for 2016, while for the US the data is from a survey conducted in early 2018.

India also ranked among the very lowest, just above Tanzania, in terms of the percentage of adults owning a smartphone. Smartphones refer to mobile phones, which can access the internet and apps.

India’s progress in smartphone penetration has also been slow.

Although mobile penetration has gone up significantly in the country, access to the internet and smartphones has been lacklustre. This is partly owing to India’s poverty, with the per capita incomes of most countries surveyed higher than that of India.

Yet, poverty does not fully explain the low internet penetration. Among countries with higher internet penetration are nations such as Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Vietnam, which are poorer than India in per-capita purchasing power parity terms.

While the penetration of internet and smartphones in India is relatively higher among the youth—those aged 18 to 36—it is still lower compared to the internet penetration among the youth in other countries.

The low penetration of smartphones has meant that only one in five adults in India uses social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter—the lowest among all the countries surveyed.

Considering that the survey is based on a largely urban sample of 2,464 adults in India, there could be an urban bias in the results of the survey.

However, the researchers have used population-adjusted weights to correct the under-representation of rural India.

The survey shows that the proportion of non-smartphone users in India is among the highest among major economies of the world.

India’s slow adoption of smartphones has impeded the spread of internet in the country since most Indians tend to access the internet on their mobiles.

Of the 22% of households where at least one member accessed internet in India in 2016, more than 80% did it through mobile phones only, according to the ICE 360° survey, a nationally representative sample of 61,000 households conducted by the independent not-for-profit organisation, People Research on India’s Consumer Economy.

As the Pew report points out, in relatively poorer countries such as India, “mobile phones can be extremely important tools—whether (in) helping people gain access to financial services or providing the much-needed assistance with health and agricultural needs".

Yet, with low penetration of smartphones and internet, only a privileged minority is able to access digital services in the country. Despite some progress, the share of those using digital payments remains among the lowest in India, a World Bank survey published earlier this year had showed.

These surveys show why “Digital India" remains a distant dream, with a majority of Indians still living on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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