Digital exclusion raises cost of living for rural masses

Every time a villager travels to a nearby town or village to access the Internet, he or she is spending at least two hours on just commuting back

Recently, I had a chance to address and mentor several Gandhi fellows. This fellowship is an initiative of Kaivalya Education Foundation and Piramal Foundation for Education Leadership and is an intensive two-year residential programme that helps talented young people develop the leadership skills essential to effect positive change in society.

It is one of the few fellowships in India that gives a chance to young graduates, in the age group of 20-25, to work in villages and explore life around them. Each fellow is given the task of engaging with social issues at the grassroots level and finding solutions to every day problems of rural communities. The fellow is also given the responsibility of bringing about positive change in the teaching and learning processes at five schools in and around the village he or she lives.

One of the Gandhi fellows I met is Ashwani Tiwari, a B.Tech graduate who completed his fellowship this year. He was excited and interested to know how technology and the Internet can change the lives of people in villages. He shared his experience of working in a village called Dhani Poonia (under Jhaadsar Chhota panchayat in Churu district of Rajasthan), where he lived and worked as a fellow.

Tiwari’s report has interesting statistics about the village, based on interviews of almost every household in it. The aim was to find out how much villagers will pay for various Internet-based services that are currently not available.

Dhani Poonia village has 168 households and with a total population of 1,022 people in the village. Out of these, 443 are female and 483 are male, including 410 students among others. As many as 145 families are Jaats (OBC) and the rest belong to the Schedule Caste (SC) community. None of the 168 families have access to the Internet at their homes or in their village. So every time an individual wants to access any online or offline digital service, they need to travel a minimum distance of 25km. Tiwari spoke to 165 households.

Dhani Poonia has just one upper primary school and no hospital or eMitra Kendra (there are 40,000 eMitra centres in Rajasthan that have been established for citizen services). While almost every mobile network is available in this village, connectivity is low and restricted to 2G services. The local panchayat is supposed to be connected, it isn’t most of the time, forcing villagers to travel to Rajgarh or Taranagar to access Internet services and spend a minimum of 50 on transport.

Those offering the digital services in these two villages charge 5 per printout and 20 per hour for Internet usage. For example, a student who needs help to fill a form or apply online for admission has to spend a minimum of 70 ( 50 for travel and 20 for the Internet).

According to Tiwari’s survey, each household in Dhani Poonia spends an average of 5.4 hours a year on the Internet, bringing the total number of hours spent by the 165 households, on Internet-related work, to at least 890 hours annually. At least 10 of the households used the Internet for nine hours annually.

To most of us living in urban areas and connected to the Web at all times through our laptops, smartphones, tablets and even smart watches, nine hours a year would seem like a number that’s not even worth talking about.

However, we must realize that it’s worth more than a day’s wage for these people. These are people who are living below the poverty line. Every time a villager travels to a nearby town or village to access the Internet, he or she is spending at least two hours on just commuting back and forth from the digital centre. So nine hours could easily mean nine days of wages for people who are earning as little as 200 a day.

Barring one household comprising two members that spent 100 on accessing Internet-related services, no household in Dhani Poonia spent less than 400 a year. The highest amount spent for such services touched 4,000 for a person called Ranveer who heads a family of 10 that used the Internet for four hours in the entire year. The same goes for Harsingh Mandiya of the same village who heads a family of 11. That’s almost 20% of their annual income.

A small village like Dhani Poonia is shelling out more than 176,598 annually to access the Internet when this access should be made available to it for free or at a nominal cost at the nearest panchayat under the National Optic Fibre Network.

The figures explain how the lack of Internet connectivity works like a tool of exclusion in villages. If a village or a community is digitally excluded, its cost of living increases with the expenses for commuting to access digital services. On the other hand, if this connectivity is provided to the communities, not only does the community save money, it also has a chance to access information easily.

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.