How the Digital Divide Affects Poverty in India Amid COVID-19

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TACOMA, Washington — The digital divide denies half the world’s citizens access to digital education, work and participation in modern life. Without internet access, people in often vulnerable situations are suffering throughout pandemic-driven school and work closures. Stable internet access also makes up-to-date information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic consistently attainable. This includes crucial information such as regional infection rates, locations of testing centers and hospital or urgent care hours.

In India, the digital divide is especially present and has further deepened because of conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The nation has the second-largest internet user base in the world with more than 630 million subscribers. It also has the lowest mobile data prices offered anywhere. Despite this, for every Indian citizen with an internet subscription, there is a citizen in a rural area who lacks one. Considering 66% of the population lives in rural areas, there is a sizeable percentage of the country’s people living in regions where internet access is minimal.

Marginalized and vulnerable communities, especially those living in poverty, could benefit the most from the connectivity and opportunities digital technology provides. By closing the gap in digital access between rural and urban communities in India, the nation will be able to develop and progress more efficiently as a whole.

Digital Access as an Equalizer

Digital inclusion is essential to a strong recovery from the pandemic. As nations worldwide attempt to recover from the novel coronavirus, the “new normal” becomes more digital than ever. Today, meetings, social events and other large gatherings are moving to online alternatives to practice social distancing and reduce the risk of spreading illness. However, for the many people in India who do not have access to stable internet connections, life is put on standby. As a result, these individuals fall behind as society resumes life online.

Prior to the pandemic, there was a preexisting digital divide in India. Only 23.8% of households across the country had access to the internet. Additionally, there is a wide divide in access between urban and rural households. Of the 66% of India’s population that resides in rural communities, only 14.9% have internet access compared to 42% of urban households.

Gender Inequality in India

This digital divide between rural and urban regions exacerbates many other social divides present in Indian society. In fact, India’s digital divide contributes to social gender inequality. For example, 36% of Indian males have mobile internet access compared to only 16% of females. This inequality of digital access across genders creates greater dependence on men for women who often rely financially on their spouses in the Indian family dynamic. These women would, therefore, not be able to afford a device on their own.

In addition, as the male head of the family is often the only member to possess a digital device, women rely on their spouses to have internet connectivity. This limits what and for how long they may use these devices. Some villages even limit women’s use of mobile phones, further hindering their connectivity to social media and educational resources and information. This diminishes women’s overall digital empowerment and independence. By limiting women’s freedom to use the internet, these villages also restrict the possibility of individual growth and evolution of perspective by blocking access to the digital global network.

Geographical Divide

Furthermore, geographical differences lead to disparities in internet access. Himachal Pradesh is a remote, mountainous region in the Himalayas. This region and the sparsely populated deserts of Rajasthan are two territories that face higher levels of digital exclusion. Residents of these areas are members of India’s tribal communities who already experience marginalization from the rest of Indian society. Therefore a lack of internet access bolsters already existing challenges for these communities. Evidently, the digital divide deepens several other partitions across facets of Indian society. In addressing the digital divide, many other related issues would be ameliorated or even resolved.

Deepening the Divide in Educational Attainment

India has the largest student body in the world with 315 million students. This leaves the country with a large amount of responsibility in maintaining education for all students during pandemic-driven school closures. Currently, the COVID-19 outbreak has exposed and expanded the divide between private and government educational institutions.

Private schools in India had less of a challenge transitioning to online learning since the more affluent student population is more likely to have consistent internet access and mobile devices available at home. In comparison, government institutions lack similar access to e-learning solutions. Additionally, the students who attend government-funded schools are more likely to experience inconsistent electricity, poor internet connection or inhospitable housing conditions that prohibit online learning.

The differences in operations between the two institutional groups will result in students receiving different educations during lockdown conditions. This is especially concerning for students enrolled in government schooling as there is increased reliability on parents to continue educating students independently despite potentially lacking the time, resources or intellect. Furthermore, these students will face greater difficulty than their peers at private institutions in finally resuming regular schooling after a long gap.

The digital divide in India is challenging the nation’s current educational methods across its entire student body. Digital connectivity is more necessary than ever before in guaranteeing that students can sustain their studies while schools remain physically closed.

Working to Close the Digital Divide in India

The digital divide in India must be addressed and rectified. For starters, an increased financial stimulus for education is necessary to allow greater access to online resources for children who may not have any. This way, schools can rely on and distribute their own digital resources for at-home learning instead of depending on students to have mobile devices at home. Furthermore, this will provide essential funding to education in India, which already receives low government expenditure.

Addressing rising healthcare prices could also help diminish the digital divide in India. Increasing costs push millions of Indians into poverty each year for basic healthcare; this reduces available funds for non-essential spending, including internet subscriptions or mobile devices.

Other actions considered to help reduce the digital divide in India include teaching computer science and mathematics in schools to increase digital literacy, expanding broadband connectivity to rural villages and increasing funding for already existing programs, such as the Digital India Project.

Attracting government attention to the indispensability of internet access is crucial. Ensuring uninterrupted internet service for more of the population would launch coronavirus recovery, education and national development forward while ensuring that India’s most vulnerable populations are not left behind.

– Natasha Cornelissen
Photo: Flickr

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