Over the last three months, many of us have felt the increased penetration of technology in our daily lives. In-person meetings have been replaced with video conference calls. Children’s lessons are now carried out through some combination of online learning, Whatsapp groups and phone calls. Social media networks have become more vital than ever to stay in touch with loved ones both near and far. Though the role of technology in our daily lives has been increasing steadily over the past decade, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this transformation to an unprecedented pace. According to Microsoft, the number of users utilizing its online software for collaboration climbed nearly 40% in a week at the start of the pandemic.
This digital acceleration has played out over a backdrop of economic devastation at the hands of India’s nationwide lockdown and social distancing measures. The International Monetary Fund projects India’s growth rate at 1.9 percent for the current year, down from 5.8% in January, while the global economy heads for the worst recession in nearly a century. This devastation will be felt most acutely by India’s most vulnerable, millions of whom are already facing the long-term loss of employment and many who were already living in poverty or will be pushed back into poverty as result of the pandemic.
This moment, more than any in recent memory has highlighted the inequalities embedded in our modern society. While millions of displaced migrant workers flowed out of major Indian cities to walk back to their native villages at the start of April, the elite of those same cities sat comfortably at home, their jobs protected by their ability to work remotely. Though innovative new technologies bring with them the promise of progress in many sectors including education, healthcare, that progress will not be equally felt by all. Just as the nationwide lockdown revealed the massive economic and structural divides embedded in modern Indian society, so too will this next wave of digital transformation. If attention isn’t paid to ensuring equity and inclusion in new technological developments, these divides will only grow.
State of the digital divide in India
Even before COVID-19, the digital divide in India kept nearly half of the country in the dark. Estimates from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that India’s total internet density stood at about 627 million users at the end of 2019, or around 49 percent of the population. These numbers reflect a rural-urban divide, with only about 25% of rural areas accessing internet services while internet density is around 98% in urban centres. The nationwide lockdown demonstrated both the appetite for and necessity of internet services in rural areas. Rural data consumption jumped nearly 100% during this period alongside increased demand for Fiber to Home connections and wifi-hotspots. This jump reflected rural users clamoring to use these networks to help access government schemes and pandemic-related information, as well as keep in touch with their families and neighbors.
Internet access also breaks down along gender lines. A 2017 report from UNICEF found that only 1 in 3 Indian internet users was female. In households where internet access and resources are scarce, many families prioritize the use of those resources for the male head of household and male children. As access to the internet quickly becomes a bridge for individuals to access the economy at large, the digital divide quickly begins to look like a digital chasm. And COVID-19 has only pushed more people closer to the edge.
Towards a more equitable and inclusive future
New technologies may exacerbate inequalities present in this current pandemic, but these technologies do have the potential to drive social progress in the future. For this change to take place, government and private sector actors alike will need to build out a technological infrastructure that is centered around equity and inclusion.
One huge step towards an inclusive technological future is the expansion of data and internet access and infrastructure to people in all parts of India. For all India people to participate in the digital economy, and digital society at large, they must first have consistent, reliable, affordable access to broadband internet. For the majority of Indian villages, this will mean expanding on the government’s BharatNet program. For those in urban areas, this will mean working with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to improve internet performance and subsidize costs. And recognizing the centrality of internet connectivity to modern life also means that the government must cease weaponizing this access in order to achieve political goals.
Additionally, while high-speed broadband and high-tech platforms may be the long-term future, this current moment also requires the development of lower-tech solutions that are accessible to a broader portion of the population. Creating edtech platforms that can run on lower bandwidth internet connections and SMS-centric public health programs are just two ways that tech entrepreneurs and policy-makers can bring more users into the innovation ecosystem. And not only must these solutions be in development, they must receive investment on a similar scale to their high-tech counterparts. While investors might see food-delivery services and fintech solutions as the next big money-makers, choosing to channel money into social-purpose organizations is a proven way to make both a financial and social impact.
There remain many inequalities embedded into Indian society: those between rural and urban areas; informal and formal sectors of the economy; men and women; members of different castes and socio-economic classes. Addressing the increasing expanse in access to technology will not, in itself, address these other inequalities. However, as it occupies an ever-growing role in our daily lives, technology has the power to exacerbate these other inequalities if not consciously developed and regulated. As India looks towards rebuilding from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is faced with an opportunity to assist those for whom the last few months have proved most difficult. Inequality isn’t a new concept, but as we look towards the future, we will determine whether new technologies tighten or broaden these societal gaps.
If you would like to read more about how inequalities are present in three industries, please read more here