Home / Opinion / A 15-year journey to bridge the digital divide

How was India in 2002? Internet was just about seven years old in the country. Mobile phone was still struggling to achieve a big penetration; there were just 13 million mobile phone subscriptions in India. Service providers were facing the challenges of trying to minimize the call rate to try and increase the volume of customers. None of the major Acts like the Right to Information Act (2005), the Right to Education Act (2009), the National Food Security Act (2013) and Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005) were in place yet. There were just 82,409 fixed broadband subscriptions in India; access to digital tools was limited; and access to the internet and the information it held was low.

I was frustrated and wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to, in some way, however small, contribute to connecting billions of unconnected people in India.

The genesis of my frustration had actually started in 2000 when I was compiling my first book, Internet Economy of India. We had researched and found that over $22 billion had been invested in internet-related businesses in India in 2000 alone. It was the dot-com business era.

As I was writing this book I came across the then recently introduced phrase “digital divide". It remained stuck in my thoughts for days and months to come. Unfortunately, that phrase is still popular and largely valid in a world where half the population is still unconnected to the internet, but I will come to that later.

It was when I was researching that I read extensively about issues of economic deprivation, low literacy and low health services, and low availability of entitlements or services at the grassroots level in India. The fact that more than 70% of our population was then living in rural parts only made the problems bigger. Our large population had no means to access information that could empower them to avail rights, entitlements and opportunities. It occurred to me that India and its people are not poor because we have less money or poor resources. We are poor because we have a huge population that does not have access to timely and relevant information. Almost all our socio-economic problems had links to the “digital divide", which had come to stay during the era of digital revolution and then again during the era of internet revolution in India, and continues to stay with us even today.

Rural India suffered from information poverty. Information is controlled by a few at the top of the pyramid who restrict its percolation down to those at the bottom.

Yet, I could see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I visualized a scenario where every household in India was connected to the internet; where every household had access to a digital tool; where at least one person in every household was digitally literate; where all government institutions were online; where every piece of government information was available online; where every household in India had access to this information irrespective of geography, caste or gender.

I was convinced that we needed to institutionally empower our masses with digital tools and connectivity. Thus was born Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) on 16 December 2002.

The bedroom became the office, our living room became a space for meetings and the kitchen had turned into a community kitchen. All through, my urge to do something meaningful was supported by friends, family and colleagues.

After a few brainstorming sessions DEF made its goals and objectives clear—make Indians digitally literate. We wanted information to be available to all, every government institution to be online, all services to be accessible online. The internet had to be democratic and democratically available to all. We wanted to see one billion Indians as information producers.

It is 2017 now. Fixed broadband subscriptions have gone up from 82,409 users in 2002 to more than 18,733,454 users today, according to World Bank data. Mobile subscriptions, too, have gone up from 13 million in 2002 to more than one billion today. Internet users have gone up from 1.54% to 29.56% of India’s population. Yet, almost 70% of our population is still unconnected. The digital divide is still a plaguing challenge.

It has been 15 years since we took an oath to work with the poorest of the poor in rural India to fight information poverty. A lot of our beliefs and efforts have turned into national movements. We are glad that what we envisioned a decade-and-a-half ago is replicated in the government’s vision. “Digital empowerment" is a phrase that is extensively used in the national agenda, starting from the Digital India manifesto to almost every other decision taken. This is because the Internet is an empowering tool. It has the power to bring in equality, equity, transparency and accountability. It can create a world where the powerless and the powerful enjoy equal opportunities to be online and equal chances to access information.

We have come a long way but there is still a long way to go because we are yet to achieve what we had set out to.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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