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Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

The cost of digital exclusion

The state of being not connected is leading to mass exclusion of at least a billion people in India

Ram Avatar Singh lives in a remote village in Jharkhand. He is one of the 400 million people who live in extreme poverty in India.

India’s population of the poor is equivalent to one-third of all of the world’s poor. Ram Avatar’s village is in an area where no road exists. As a matter of fact, one in every three people who live in rural India lack access to all-weather roads. Ram Avatar is also one of those 300 million people who have no access to electricity and he is incidentally also one in the 40% (or approximately 500 million) Indians who do not have access to a mobile phone or the Internet. Interestingly, Ram Avatar’s wife is among the 72% Indian women who do not have access to any kind of digital devices, including a mobile phone.

Amid the much talked-about Digital India age, it may be interesting to look at what it means to be a Ram Avatar, a daily-wage worker who would not be able to get his or his family’s next meal if he misses even a single day of work. If he is not cheated and paid for his work, Ram Avatar earns no more than Rs200 a day, provided he is lucky enough to get work.

For all kinds of critical and necessary online and offline digital services, someone like Ram Avatar has to travel more than 10-15km to reach the nearest market or small town. For example, if Ram Avatar needs photocopies of some papers that he has to mandatorily attach while applying for a government entitlement, he may need to fork out Rs250 for one set of photocopies. Why Rs250? Because, Ram Avatar has to forgo a day’s wage worth Rs200 and pay another Rs30-40 for travelling from his village to the facility to access the service and get back home, besides paying Rs10-20 for the photocopying service.

For the same photocopies, if I want to get them done in Delhi, I would not have to pay more than Rs2-5 because the facility would be available at a walking distance and I wouldn’t need to take leave from work to get that done.

On another occasion, when Ram Avatar was required to get his Aadhaar card made—for which he, again, needs to travel a distance of 15-20km to reach the nearest Aadhaar Kendra—the most talked about digital tool called the biometric machine could not take his thumb or finger impressions because intensive labour has changed the lines on the inside of his fingers over a period of time. Several of Ram Avatar’s community members are facing a similar problem. Although they have received their Aadhaar cards, their identity proofs are often rejected when they apply for an entitlement because their thumb impressions “do not match" those on the biometric device.

The state of being not connected, and being deprived of necessary infrastructure like roads, railways, electricity, telecom and the Internet, is leading to mass exclusion of at least a billion people in India.

Take, for example, the institution of panchayat, which is the lowest level of constitutional democracy where people choose their members to run village councils. There are about 250,000 panchayats in India encompassing some 650,000 villages and almost all of them are living offline lives.

Similarly, educational bodies represent a size of 1.4 million schools, about 7-10 million teachers and several millions of children—most of them are offline and not accountable.

The same would be the case with hundreds of thousands of health and sub-health centres across villages where hardly any specialized doctors go. However, providing a broadband connection in village health centres can bring expert health advisory to Ram Avatar and save him several days of wage work which he would otherwise lose out on, on account of travelling to a distant hospital in the hope of improving his health.

This is where the onus on the Digital India programme is critical and urgent. Every day of delay in the implementation of the programme and every day of being disconnected costs the poor.

I had mentioned in a few columns earlier that the National Optic Fibre Network is supposed to provide 100Mbps broadband Internet line to all the panchayats for its use and for further distribution in villages. However, the project has been delayed at several stages and is further being delayed without any sense of accountability to the poor. It is because of this delay that millions of Ram Avatars, who live in our villages, are paying 250% extra for every digitally-enabled service.

Lack of accountability of government officials is leading to the exploitation of people’s inability to access a medium for information. The people who are holding the information are not facilitating the transfer of information from top to bottom in a free and barrier-free manner. Rather than being more accountable, these information-holding personnel use the power they wield to exploit those who are not informed, educated or literate.

If the Digital India programme is made available to the poorest of people in a seamless manner—not just in terms of technology but also in terms of access to the medium and knowledge of the tools—accountability can be brought in. When people have access to rights-based information/entitlement, they are able to ensure accountability from their government representatives.

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. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar

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