The mobile internet user-base in rural India has gone up by 93% from December 2014 to reach 87 million in December 2015, according to the Mobile Internet in India 2015 report, released by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI). This holds great promise. However, there are concerns. Will the mobile revolution bring development for all or will it just widen and ossify the entrenched inequalities in our country?
The latest World Bank report on the subject of digital inclusion has pointed out “the aggregate impact of highly advanced digital technologies in the country was still unevenly distributed.” This means that majority of nation’s population remains locked out of the benefits of the digital economy. More worryingly, this includes a large majority of the 230 million students of the K12 segment, for whom lack of access to digital technologies will mean a lack of opportunities in the near future. Undoubtedly, there are some students who are digital natives, having grown up immersed in technology. However, a lot of others lack the skills required to thrive in a digital environment even if the ubiquitous mobile phone has brought them access. By continuing to neglect technology in classrooms, especially in tier-2 and tier-3 towns, we risk depriving the next generation of many opportunities in a digital future.
That said, it is not a hopeless situation. We can and must do something to protect the ideals of equality of opportunity on which our country (and all democratic societies) is built. A multi-pronged response, consisting of the government, the civil society, the private sector and every citizen is required. There are situations where a government intervention can help correct a market failure. Data connectivity continues to be a challenge in the remote areas of the country, where installing mobile towers may not be profitable for the corporation. One such example is Kamalapur, barely 5-km from the Indo-Bangla border, where a silent digital revolution is taking place. With the efforts of the government and persistence of the local people, it has become Bengal’s first Wi-Fi enabled village. At Geraponta bazaar, Wi-Fi gadgets have been installed inside shops, the century-old Geraponta high school and the panchayat office. There is hope that the Digital India initiative will help bring many more netizens online.
There are, of course, stories of individual heroism. I share one from personal experience. Santosh Kumar is a school principal in a school in Chapra, who wanted to enable the children in his school to access quality knowledge outside of the curriculum and empower them digitally. So, he used the Open School platform (on Eckovation, a mobile app) to connect the children in his school with teachers and students elsewhere, who had access to better facilities and more exposure. However, most of the students came back saying, “Devices are too expensive, service plans are too expensive or mobile networks are few and far between.”
He did not give up at that. He bought a few basic mobile handsets and installed the Eckovation app along with a browser. The school now has an Eckovation app period for students who don’t have access to smartphones and internet at their home every day after school. They can request to download more apps on the handset as and when they need. By thinking out of the box, he has played his part in bringing the digital revolution to the students.
None of these successes have come easily. They require a lot of effort (some on the part of local authorities and activism on the part of local citizens), but it leads to a lot of progress.
With more handset manufacturers focusing on affordable handsets, the cost of internet-enabled devices/ smartphones has dropped significantly. The smartphone revolution is at our doorsteps. People are forgoing access to running water, clean toilets and many electric conveniences in order to buy smartphones. It will all come to naught without the required digital literacy skill. It is time that we own our responsibilities and start working towards a better future for our entire society.
The author is CEO of Eckovation, the free mobile-based social learning platform connecting students, teachers, peers and parents