Digital India Connecting with rural population

The Digital India programme can help in bridging the rural-urban digital divide through rural focused initiatives. However, its success will depend upon the speedy implementation and unequivocal attention to the coverage of rural population, writes Dr Surinder Batra
Digital India Connecting with rural population

The launch of Digital India programme, salient features of which were announced on 1st July at the commencement of Digital India Week, is a laudable initiative of the Government of India. Its mission is to “transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy” and one of its main aims is “to bridge the connectivity gap between rural and urban areas” of the country. How effective the programme will be in achieving these objectives? Whether and to what extent will the predominant rural population of the country get benefitted from this programme? Will India be able to overcome the limitations of digital infrastructure, access and digital literacy, and move ahead in comparison with other countries? These are some of the questions which arise while looking at some of the key schemes under the programme.

Areas require major attention

The Global IT Report 2015, recently published by the World Economic Forum, provides some valuable international comparisons. The report computes a Network Readiness Index (NRI) for all countries which participate in and provide comparable data on various indices every year. According to the report, India with an NRI of 3.7 has a rank of 89th among 143 countries, indicating a slippage from previous year’s rank of 83rd among 148 countries. Singapore with an NRI of 6.0 tops the list of nations covered in the 2015 report.

The NRI is further divided into four sub-indices, namely, environment sub-index, readiness sub-index, usage sub-index and impact sub-index, each one is related to different aspects of a country’s digital strategy. Interestingly, India fared the best (as compared to itself on other sub-indices) on the impact sub-index in the Global IT Report of both 2015 and 2014. The sub-index had a value of 3.6 and a rank of 73 in the 2015 report. Interestingly, in the 2014 report, the sub-index for India had the same value (3.6), though the country’s rank was 60, implying that other countries have fared better than India in terms of economic and social impact of ICT.

A redeeming feature of India’s ICT infrastructure was country’s mobile network coverage of 93.5 percent population, an improvement over 83 percent mobile network coverage in the previous year report. However despite this, India’s rank among nations on this indicator is 110, again demonstrating that many other countries have performed better than India in this respect. With regard to international Internet bandwidth, India with a value of 6.5 kilobytes per user had a rank of 113 on this indicator. Thus, ICT infrastructure is clearly an area requiring major strengthening.

Strengthening digital infrastructure in rural

Among the various schemes launched under Digital India, the Bharat Net Program aimed at establishing a high-speed digital highway to connect all 2,50,000 gram panchayats will clearly be a major step forward in strengthening the digital infrastructure of the country, especially in the rural areas. Additionally, the Next Generation Network project of BSNL can be expected to contribute to the modernisation of the telecom infrastructure in rural areas. The plan to set up WiFi hotspots all over the country would be extremely helpful to accelerate provision of broadband connectivity in India. It can be hoped, however, that the locations of such WiFi hotspots would be decided keeping in mind the need of the rural population of the country.

With regard to usage and access, the Global IT Report 2015 highlights major weaknesses in the Indian situation. With mobile phone subscriptions of 70.8 over 100 population, India had a rank of 123 on this indicator. Also, with only 15.1 percent individuals using the Internet, India had a rank of 115 on this indicator. Only 11.9 percent of Indian households had a PC and only 13 percent had Internet access, dragging India to 109th and 102nd position respectively on these indicators. A good sign is that mobile Internet access is growing faster than Internet access through PCs. India’s mobile broadband Internet subscription of 3.2 per 100 persons, compared to fixed broadband 1.2 per 100 in the report also point towards this. However, India’s rank of 113 and 104 respectively on these two indicators shows many other countries in a much better light than India. Unfortunately, the highly unfavourable values and ranks on these indicators of access are greatly contributed by the rural areas. This is the combined effect of lower incomes, low digital literacy and inadequate ICT infrastructure in the rural areas.

It has been noted earlier that India fares better on impact indicators as compared to other indicators. On the indicator of ICT’s impact on new services and products, India’s rank is 87. The Digital India programme with special initiatives on e-education, e-health and Swachh Bharat Mission can help India significantly improve its ranking on the impact indicators, provided these schemes are speedily and effectively implemented. Even on the e-participation indicator with a rank of 40, India is expected to improve its ranking further with projects such as MyGov app, which has been planned as the mobile version of the current MyGov application. Clearly, the thrust on mobile and cloud-based solutions in the Digital India programme indicates a sound strategy to be in the forefront of latest technologies.

There are several other schemes under Digital India which probably don’t have an unequivocal rural focus, but which can benefit all sections of the society including the rural population. However, the rural population may have the limitation of inadequate computer and Internet literacy in reaping benefits out of these schemes. For example, the DIG Locker scheme to provide digital storage facility to all citizens for preserving their important documentation would be indeed valuable but whether the rural population will be sufficiently Internet savvy to take advantage of this is a moot question. Similarly, eSign providing the service of digital signature through Aaadhar authentication would be an excellent provision for digital security and prevention of digital fraud. But will the rural population be able to make use of this scheme without an external help? Similar questions can be raised against the scheme of National Scholarship Portal, which may not have a strong rural connect.

Bridging rural-urban digital divide

One can conclude that the Digital India programme is a forward looking initiative of the Government. It can help in bridging the rural-urban digital divide through rural focused initiatives, and in the process help bring India make a quantum jump forward from its present low rank on the Network Readiness Index. However, its success on both fronts will depend upon the speedy implementation and unequivocal attention to the coverage of rural population.

By Dr Surinder Batra, Professor, IMT – Ghaziabad

The Changing Face of Rural India