Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Education, Headlines

INDIA: Massive Digital Divide in the Land of IT

Sujoy Dhar

NEW DELHI, Nov 4 2011 (IPS) - In a remote Indian village in the Western state of Maharashtra, a fourth-grader named Suraj Balu Zore proudly told IPS that he can now effortlessly operate a laptop computer.

A girl at school with a laptop provided by a new scheme. Credit:  Sujoy Dahr/IPS

A girl at school with a laptop provided by a new scheme. Credit: Sujoy Dahr/IPS

Fallen by the wayside of urban India’s information technology (IT) superhighway, Khairat village – located just 80 kilometres from booming Mumbai – still has no access to the Internet.

But thanks to the recent efforts of ‘one laptop per child’ – a project of the Miami-based non-profit One Laptop per Child Association Inc., which aims to digitally empower youth in the global south – Zore and 25 other students in his nondescript village school can now vie with their technology-savvy peers in urban India.

“Attendance to the school has gone up since the launch of the laptop scheme. Students are so self- confident now,” Sandip Surve, a teacher in Khairat told IPS.

Sadly, the story of Zore’s school bridging the digital divide remains an exception in India’s rural hinterland.

A recent survey of digital access in the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – found that India ranked the lowest in digital inclusion.

A study released earlier this year by the risk analysis firm Maplecroft supported this claim, revealing that Asia’s third largest economy, home to 1.2 billion people, is stifled by a lack of access to even the most basic information communication technologies (ICTs) such as computers, internet or even mobile phones.

Maplecroft’s digital inclusion index showed that, among the BRIC nations, India is the only country to be classified as an ‘extreme risk’, meaning that the country’s population currently suffers from a severe lack of digital inclusion.

China, Brazil and Russia were rated as ‘medium risk’ countries.

Despite huge economic growth, the BRIC nations are still significantly outperformed by developed nations in the digital inclusion index.

Sumanjeet Singh, professor at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, who recently authored a paper on India’s digital divide, found that only 1.2 percent of people in rural areas had Internet access, compared to 12 percent access in India’s urban centres.

“Urban users continue to dominate Internet use, comprising 40.34 million of the roughly 49.40 million users,” Singh told IPS.

Inadequate Internet and telephone connectivity in India’s rural areas, where more than 70 percent of the population lives, is a key challenge for all those working to narrow the digital divide, he added.

Attempting to address the issue, India’s human resources minister Kapil Sibal last month unveiled a low- cost computer tablet, which will be deployed to village schools and universities in an effort to lift large segments of India’s rural population out of poverty.

Priced at roughly 35 dollars per unit, the new ‘Aakash’ tablet, developed by the UK-based DataWind in partnership the Indian Institute of Technology in Rajasthan, is being touted as the cheapest new gadget to close the digital gap, and was distributed to 500 children during the month of October.

“Aakash will help in eliminating digital illiteracy,” Sibal told IPS, adding that there is still an urgent need for support and partnership from a broad range of stakeholders in order to further reduce the cost of the device.

To ensure a level playing field, India’s national mission on education through information and communication technology tasked one of the Indian Institutes of Technology – the country’s ivy league engineering and technology training institutions – with the job of procuring and testing these devices.

Sibal said that the government will provide price subsidies to students and distribute the tablet through various academic institutions around the country.

The project is still in its pilot stage, during which 100,000 tablets are being procured, distributed and tested in a range of climatic and usage conditions.

“The feedback obtained from the testing will inform decisions about the design of the device’s updated version,” Sibal said.

The government is not acting alone in its efforts to bridge the digital divide.

Chandrasekhar Panda and Saswat Swain, two young student-innovators from the eastern state of Orissa, recently came up with a scheme to provide laptops for less than 5,000 Indian rupees, which works out to about 100 dollars.

Their ‘iWEBLEAF’ laptop is equipped with a basic 320-gigabyte hard drive and one gigabyte of memory.

The two young innovators have approached various ministries to initiate the process of research and development in Orissa, but are yet to receive a positive response from the authorities.

Blasting the government for its apathy and criticising Aakash as “shockingly inadequate for the student community”, the duo said they are working on “an extraordinary device, now at ultra low cost.”

Other experts, while applauding individuals’ and the government’s efforts to achieve affordability, believe that accessibility still remains a challenge.

“The development of Aakash is a good step forward, it is cheap and affordable, but infrastructure challenges like lack of power and Internet access in villages offsets such efforts,” Singh told IPS.

“Simply providing cheap devices is not enough. The government also has to provide rural students with ‘e- skills’ and work to remove language barriers for users.

“Affordability and accessibility should go hand in hand,” he said, adding that, though India lacks a sound ICT strategy, the digital gap is definitely getting narrower.

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