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The real digital divide confronting India

  • We would be fooling ourselves to think that the technology divide in rural and urban India is the only challenge that stares at us.
  • The truth is that changes taking place in how we work could transform the way businesses, clients and workers engage and potentially render many unsuitable to be employed.

Last week, I saw a heartrending animated film by Debjyoti Saha doing the rounds on Twitter (Saha’s Twitter handle is @Debjyotisaha217). Saha’s comparison of indigent migrant workers returning to their homes with the rest of us, the educated and employed, who have been “working from home" (WFH) during this lockdown, is disturbing and stark.

In fact, Saha’s film is only one in a series of blogs, tweets and WhatsApp forwards from privileged folks like us, who are wrestling with our conscience as we see the hungry and destitute, who were not so long ago working in our homes and now empty offices as cooks, cleaners, drivers and security guards, to whom we scarcely gave a second thought.

The prevailing thinking seems to indicate that the “digital divide" India speaks of lies in the polarized difference in access to the internet for poor people in rural India versus the middle and upper classes in its teeming cities. The previous gap in wireless feature telephony in our villages versus our cities was largely filled by state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). Just a few years ago before the advent of 4G technology and the smart phone, many of us who ventured into rural areas on a regular basis would make it a point to obtain a BSNL mobile connection just to make sure we could stay connected while in rural areas. City-based private operators had little to no coverage there.

Many stories were then written about India’s foray into mobile telephony. They spoke of the “missed call" culture and how it was used as a rural drumbeat to signal specific events—such as small-time fishermen who used it as a means to communicate the size of their catch while still at sea, thereby allowing their land-based relatives the ability to set a price even before the boats were ashore.

BSNL did not extend its rural networks into the 4G spectrum. This meant that the rural areas remained underserved for a long time by the smart phone “app" economy that required 4G network technology to work. However, telecom companies have lately been falling over themselves to bridge this digital divide, especially since the entry of Reliance Jio into the market hastened this process.

And predictably, a number of businesses geared to serve this newly online community of “Bharath" have sprung up, some set up by large corporations, and the rest as startups on the lookout for venture capital to market their wares to the millions of Indians now crossing over our current definition of the digital dividing line.

But the truth is that we are fooling ourselves if we think that this is the only digital divide. All of us on the city side of 4G coverage would do very well to look at our new WFH lifestyles. I have written earlier in this column about how a firm is a nexus of contracts, which now runs the risk of being outmoded soon in IT and business process outsourcing services. This is an easy enough argument to make. A lot of the work is being done remotely anyhow—as in being done offshore rather than on-site in the US or the UK. This means that shifting work out of the companies and the India-based offices it is agglomerated in and moving the work directly to the same workers who will now instead contract directly with the consuming company is not difficult to accomplish.

Until now, we have seen the rise of a ‘marketplace’-oriented business culture only among the bottom-end of service workers such as cab drivers, food delivery and couriers. They provide an interesting sociological test bed for the future, as these marketplace forms of organization begin to replace the current dynamic of employer to employee relationships.

This is true not just of IT services, but also of a large number of other traditional jobs that have moved to WFH. Email-shuffling middle managers, who do little but route work to underlings and please the layer above, will soon be without a job. The super-efficient mechanisms of queuing-theory and performance feedback algorithms of web-based marketplaces such as Uber, Lyft, Ola, and restaurant delivery/courier websites will soon take over the function of efficiently allocating work to the worker in many other service-based organizations. We will be contractors, and not employees. And this means a sudden shift to becoming a ‘gig-economy’ worker. This is the real digital divide.

We should not allow the interminable Zoom and webinar meetings we now endure to lull us into a false sense that interacting with other human beings is an integral part of our jobs. The jokes doing the rounds on social media, of workers pouring alcoholic drinks for themselves in receptacles that masquerade as teacups, are not just inane parodies. There is truth in jest. It’s probably clear to many of us deep down that expert and continuous human-to-human interchange is not needed for our work. So, if we are not primary care doctors, nurses, psychologists or others for whom intense human-to-human contact is the primary point of the job, many of us will find ourselves on the wrong side of the new digital divide.

The sociological impact of working for such marketplaces will follow the history originally established for the management of efficient production at factories. People who now find themselves to be contractors with little rights will organize, and politicians will interfere. Meanwhile, those of us in the muddled middle who will find our work mechanized should go off to either be retrained or retire.

The author is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on deep science and tech in India.

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