India boasts of nearly a billion mobile subscribers—globally the second largest after China, taking the telecom penetration from 2% to close to 80% in just a decade. Mobile internet users base is expected to touch an impressive 500 million mark in the next few years. In this context, the National Digital Literacy Mission programme announced by the Prime Minister assumes significance with its goal of making atleast one person from each family digitally literate which totals to 240 million.
Simultaneously, there is a feverish pace of work underway in building smart cities and developing new applications for e-governance to provide easier access to services enhancing the scope and quantum of access to the services of the government. Under the Jandhan Yojana, the government intends to facilitate opening of bank accounts for all unbanked citizens meeting certain criteria and also provide access to online banking operations to all. Online retailers and other sellers are charged with enthusiasm on account of the larger base of customers that they could reach out to. Yet, the digital opportunities have had limited impact on one large section of the society—women and senior citizens; they could be significant beneficiaries from the digitisation movement.
A report released by the United Nations Population Fund and HelpAge India suggests that the number of senior citizens is expected to grow to173 million by 2026. The number of Indians over the age of 60 has hit an all-time high, accounting for nearly 9% of the country’s population. However, according to a report from Telenor, amongst the mobile phone users in India, only 6% are over 50 years of age. When we take a look at the statistics of those accessing mobile data, just 1% users are 50 years or older. As is the case globally, non-data users have a lower income profile and higher age than the average mobile user. Women who form 48.5% of our population accounting for nearly 590 million is another vast segment with its unique characteristics and needs. But nearly 70% of the women are not yet covered for basic telephony services let alone data. These two segments present a compelling opportunity for digital access.
Despite the large size of this segment, the breakthrough in this segment is not easy as it is with the younger and male population on account of several reasons. Older population is not comfortable with the technology and they often cite the complexity of the devices and the features as the reasons for this. They also feel many of the services offered are not relevant for them and hence they do not take interest in getting familiar with digital services. Women on the other hand and particularly the older lot are placed lowest in the order of priority for digital devices in most families. Even the digital literacy programme designed for the National Digital Literacy Movement does not have a specific focus for addressing their unique needs such that they could be drawn into the large national canvas to enjoy the access to a whole host of services from healthcare to financial services to livelihood and citizen services.
In order to build momentum for digital literacy, it is important to showcase case studies and share them with the segments we wish to inspire to be part of the digital world. In Sudumbre village in Maharashtra, when the digital literacy centre was set up by the member of parliament Vandana Chavan, women in the village came forward to join the digital education programme. Soon after that, when a marriage proposal came up for one of the girls in the village from a nearby village, armed with the knowhow of accessing land records online, the women decided to check online the veracity of land ownership by the boy and his inheritance status before consenting for the marriage proposal. They have now learnt to place orders online through e-commerce portals for the products they wish to procure from cities and are able to compare prices, make informed decisions and buy at lower prices than previously when they had little information of prices and options available and hence had to settle for whatever was available locally.
Women in a village near Trichy after having undergone the digital literacy training are happy that they are no longer dependent on their children or grandchildren for their basic requirements such as ticket booking or religious ceremonies and have earned admiration of the younger generation in their families with their confidence and independence to work with devices.
Most often it is found that senior citizens are slow in adopting technology or are averse to use technology because they are ‘too complicated’ or fear the lack of human touch. Senior citizens shy away from using the ATMs or online banking and are concerned for the safety of their savings with the bank in a machine led environment. In order to make them familiar with the system and build confidence, banks must offer training to their elderly customers and handhold them for a while even if it means investing in the services of reliable agencies or NGOs who could guide them. With life expectancy of the Indian population increasing, senior citizens community will require specialised attention by all providers of goods and services and this hitherto less tapped market would present new opportunities to expand the customer base.
It is important to recognise that digital education alone is not sufficient to bring these segments into the fold of digital access, we need innovation in the process and devices that are designed for digital access for this segment. Currently most devices and applications are designed for those who are familiar and comfortable with the digital interactions and want more from the digital environment. Hence largely the user experience and interface designs are aimed at this segment. We need to consider custom designs for senior citizens to make the experience appealing to them by way of bigger fonts, soothing colours, ease of navigation etc.
With the increasing digital footprints, providers of women centric services and offerings would be benefitted by the increased women customer base if they too recognise that user experience of women segment is very different from the experience offered by current designs and incorporate these elements in the apps and devices to make it attractive for women to engage with them much more than they are doing presently. Digital literacy movement could be refocused to recognise the significance of these two segments and could consider adding a sub target of atleast 50% of trainees to be women and a minimum of 10% being senior citizens.
Digital space is aimed to be a great leveller, so can women and senior citizens be left behind?
The writer is CEO, Global Talent Track, a corporate training solutions company