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Digital India Will Fail Our Villages Unless There's A Course Correction

31/03/2016 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Happy Indian little girls sitting on a sand dune and using tablet in desert village, Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India.

The 21st century came with the greatest technological advancements. In one go the constantly evolving world of technology made life easier, whether for socializing or booking a cab. However, technological advancement is highly driven by consumerism, and is leading to a digital divide, especially between rural and urban areas. While technology is ubiquitous in cities, about 42,300 villages in India do not have mobile networks. This is something we are all aware of.

Presently, Digital India is one of the most talked about schemes under Prime Minister Modi's government. It focuses on universal access to the internet, particularly in villages. In the process of focusing greatly on reaching out to rural areas, however, the scheme has lost sight of the digital divide that exists within the villages.

The digital divide in rural Rajasthan

The issue is not just about the digital divide between a city like Jaipur and a small village like Mota ka Kheda (in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan). We need to pay attention to the digital divide that exists within many villages like Mota ka Kheda. Thus the larger objective should not only be to take 'digital kranti' to rural areas, but to encourage the poor's access to it in unequal societies.

The larger objective should not only be to take 'digital kranti' to rural areas, but to encourage the poor's access to it in unequal societies.

On a recent trip to Mota ka Kheda, I decided to use a shortcut to reach it. Traversing this 8km stretch via forests and fields was no easy feat. The main road is at a distance of 10-12km with no transport facility. Despite being such an interior village, I saw many people in Mota ka Kheda using the internet, including Facebook and WhatsApp, over their smartphones. These users mostly belonged to the families of the sarpanch, government employees and big land holders. This stimulated me to think that digital India is not just about the access to internet in rural areas but actually about its reach to the poorer masses in these parts.

Issues of digital illiteracy

In another remote village Asind, only one government school teacher had access to the internet. In the same village, I met one labourer and a guard who did not know what the internet was. The labourer was on his way to get his physically handicapped pension via a bank and he had never even heard about the internet. Digital illiteracy is a serious concern for Digital India as the launching of a cash transfer facility to digital illiterates is highly risky and the possibilities of being misled or scammed are greater.

The murky territory of e-governance

The e-Mitra centre is an initiative of the Rajasthan government to make governance systems collusion free and easily accessible. But again, it has been a flawed system.

The present mode of functioning of the e-Mitra centres is indicative of the rampant corruption and the procedural glitches existing in already established digital initiatives.

Most of the e-Mitra centres at the Atal Seva Kendras do not work regularly. They do not have computers at the centres and many a times the e-Mitra person in Atal Seva Kendras has licenses to more than one centre. Also, each e-Mitra centre defines its own service charges--for example, the e-Mitras in Bazar charge five or six times more than the normal fee for filling up the forms. Thus, those running these centres clearly have vested interests in not running their operations efficiently. Also, to get the e-Mitra license, a person has to generally pay a bribe.

The present mode of functioning of the e-Mitra centres is indicative of the rampant corruption and the procedural glitches existing in already established digital initiatives.

Need for a holistic approach

It is highly imperative that along with the focus on bringing digital infrastructure to villages, the intra-village digital divide is addressed. Also, it is important to lay emphasis on eliminating corrupt practices and improving the efficiency of established e-governance initiatives. Building greater awareness about the proper usage of digital services is also a must.

Digital India has to be holistic in its approach towards taking digitization to rural areas and must give equal emphasis to all of the areas outlined above. Else, its real objective of providing digital services to the masses and making India a digital hub will remain a pipe dream.

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