The Centre on Wednesday launched the Digital India initiative amidst much brouhaha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi kick-started the day’s proceedings in the presence of India’s top businessmen including brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani, Azim Premji and Sunil Mittal. The stated aim of the initiative is to work towards a campaign promise of connecting 2,50,000 villages by 2019. Besides mere connectivity, however, the Centre hopes to ensure that government services are made available to citizens electronically by reducing paperwork and thereby improving transparency. The scheme will be monitored and controlled by the Digital India Advisory group which will be chaired by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.
The Public-private-partnership model shall be adopted selectively. The introduction of technology to improve India’s education, healthcare and banking system is an initiative worth investing in. Its fruits, if properly implemented, will be borne by future generations of rural India stuck in an information time warp. Prime Minister Modi also wants to extend this programme to India’s long-suffering urban sector, where big data will be used build more habitable cities. However, the biggest challenge in front of the current ruling dispensation is the problem of digital have-nots since the barrier to internet access is still very high. According to <g data-gr-id="38">study</g> conducted by Facebook and global consulting firm McKinsey last year, approximately one billion people in India do not have access to the internet. Most Indians who don’t have internet access live in rural areas. The study, however, found that largely women and elderly folk are among those in the rural sector without internet access.
Some of the major obstacles to internet access in India are some of its most pressing socio-economic concerns today: poverty, illiteracy and poor infrastructure, according to the report. According to a report by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), India has the highest population of illiterate adults at 287 million, amounting to 37 percent of the global total.
Academics across the board have long emphasised that high illiteracy is a major stumbling block to expanding internet access. Without the requisite knowledge of how to operate a computer and the internet, there is no way technology can alleviate the problems that people from lower economic sections face. The McKinsey report, in fact, alludes to such a malaise: “Illiterate farmers are unable to benefit from myriad existing services that provide weather forecasts and market prices through text messages or other digital means.”
Although mobile data plans in India are among the cheapest in the world, the internet remains out of reach for close to 950 million people. Smartphone or not, without the requisite infrastructure, there is no way any government can expand internet connectivity. Network coverage, especially in the rural areas, is notoriously poor since the government and key service providers have not constructed the necessary fibre lines. Forget internet connectivity, even basic person to person mobile connectivity suffers in urban centres due to call drops. Establishing internet connectivity in India’s villages will be a herculean task. Modi and his team have their hands full.