T.V. Ramachandran, President, Broadband India Forum
World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) is celebrated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the apex body for telecommunications globally, on May 17 every year, with a focused theme that is of critical relevance across the globe. The fact that the theme chosen for WTISD 2022 is “Digital Technologies For Older Persons And Healthy Ageing”, makes it obvious that digital inclusion, especially for the vulnerable and underprivileged sections of society, demands an urgent call for action.
As India grows in leaps and bounds as a technology-driven digital economy, we are left to wonder: While we are digitally progressive, are we also digitally inclusive? Is our progress in the use of the internet and other information and communication technologies adding value to all individuals, communities and society? These are questions that need serious and sincere introspection.
But what would digital inclusion truly mean?
In today’s modern age, digital connectivity and services have become fundamental for bringing socio-economic inclusion and empowerment to our citizens in the most effective manner. Data connectivity and high-speed broadband are essential enablers for successful and productive living for the common man. Therefore, digital inclusion would essentially encompass providing quality and affordable broadband connectivity to all, making people digitally literate, and facilitating the use of enabling technologies to enhance their abilities in education, work and business, thereby improving their quality of life.
Broadband, being a great leveller and a demolisher of imbalance in today’s knowledge society, brings together people from unequal sections by transcending all physical barriers, and provides equal access and opportunities to all. But when we say connecting ALL, we face another serious issue to tackle – of divides!
One would ask of course, is the digital divide only between urban and rural?
In actuality, the digital divides are many – between the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the abled and the disabled – essentially, a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. Access to digital connectivity and services has a major impact on the ability of these members to participate, influence and benefit from society and the community.
Consider the people with disabilities as well as the elderly population, who face a natural challenge in terms of access to equal opportunities and the ability to utilise them. They remain excluded from the benefits of technology as a tool for socio-economic inclusion. In these times, the lack of access to the use of technology will completely alienate them from participating in society and enjoying a basic standard of life.
And why undermine the state of the urban poor, who are also deprived of equal access and opportunities to reliable broadband services? Should they too not get the opportunity to make meaningful use of these benefits for the betterment of their lives and future?
What about rural India?
This holds even more true for the vast rural population of India, which is almost 65 per cent of the nation, where, sadly but truly, the differences are much larger. For example, a rural landlord is far more powerful and richer in the village, while a daily wage labourer barely affords the minimum standard of living. Similarly, a differently abled person faces much more hardships in a rural scenario due to the lack of opportunities or avenues to develop and establish oneself properly. Rural society epitomises this great divide of haves and have-nots in the most discernible manner.
Access to quality broadband and digital services would be a vital tool for the empowerment and progress of our rural citizens, as it can majorly recompense for lack of physical infrastructure while stimulating growth and productivity. It is no surprise, therefore, that recognising these grave inequalities, the Government of India has undertaken a bold resolution to digitally connect each and every village in the country – a massive figure of over 640,000. A powerful and highly progressive vision indeed, and critical for the nation’s true progress!
So how do we achieve such holistic digital inclusion?
It is not an easy task – connecting an entire nation like India, with its diverse terrain and cultures, as well as certain regions that have grave socio-political issues to deal with.
But it can be aided effectively through some potent tools in the government’s resources. Take the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF), for example, which holds almost Rs 590 billion for potential funding of such projects. This fund was created to be used towards connecting the unconnected across the entire nation. For reasons unknown though, this has not been utilised for the purpose yet.
In fact, the National Digital Communications Policy (NDCP) clearly states that the USOF is to be reviewed periodically on its progress. But while the corpus of the USOF continues to swell with the contributions of the telecom sector, sadly, it is not being put to use effectively to meet the connectivity needs of the huge number of have-nots in society.
The question is, how can the USOF facilitate digital inclusion?
While the USOF’s original mandate was to provide basic connectivity, in today’s era, driven by mobile and app-based services, access to digital information, e-governance, e-commerce and digital education services and programmes has become a minimum requirement for every person.
Moreover, look at the burgeoning demand for data services and the visible trends in its consumption. Video content comprises over 70 per cent of the data usage at present and is rising northwards steadily. The rural community, owing to its semi-literate background, is consuming even more video content, and this is slated to grow further. And given the diverse country that India is, with various cultures, about 22 official languages and more than 19,500 languages or dialects spoken as mother tongues, vernacular content creation is building up as the next biggest demand for our data-hungry masses. These rising requirements need to be catered to, for all these citizens, including the less privileged ones.
The need, therefore, is to review the scope of services covered under the USOF and update it to include all activities and measures that are necessary to empower citizens to acquire the use of technology, skills and access to digital resources, to enable them to be included in society. This would range from provision of appropriate technologies, resource centres and training to use these technologies, to making digital content accessible and usable for all.
The Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment is another key entity that can play a decisive role in ensuring the digital accessibility and inclusion of the disabled and the elderly. Collaborative efforts by the government under these two specialised entities can make a significant difference in improving the scenario of the digitally unconnected masses in India today.
Would this approach be productive though?
Access to information, services and opportunities via digitalisation would translate into knowledge, empowerment, proficiency, personal growth and productivity, and thereby, a better quality of life for all these people. Collectively, it will also add to the growth of the economy.
For example, persons with disabilities who were previously unable to access mainstream services due to physical and mobility inabilities can now carry out their day-to-day activities conveniently with the aid of digital services. In fact, data suggests that in corporate culture, disability inclusion in the workforce is resulting in tangible financial as well as other benefits. A recent media report states that studies done by Accenture Research in the US has shown that companies hiring differently abled people are growing sales 2.9 times faster and profits 4.1 times faster than their peers. The impact of digital inclusion is evident.
As it is famously said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member”.
No community, society or economy can truly grow and prosper satisfactorily without taking its weakest link along. Unless the growth is holistic and takes everyone ahead, true progress cannot be achieved. We need to ensure that no one is left behind in our great digital journey ahead.
The author is Honorary Fellow, IET (London), and President, Broadband India Forum. The views expressed in this article are his personal views. Research inputs by Kaustuv Sircar