Internet users in India are now a million strong, but the digital divide is as wide as ever
The Internet, the most ubiquitous manifestation of the revolution in IT, now has more than a million users in India, according to a recent report commissioned by the Internet and Mobile Association of India.
While that may be cause for celebration, the old fears that were asserted at the beginning of the revolution — that the real world of social divides would be mirrored as a digital divide — appear just as true today. The divide manifests itself at two levels: as a rural-urban divide and as a divide across socio-economic classes.
The Report on the Internet in India (i-Cube), 2011 reveals that three-fourths of the 112 million Internet users in India reside in urban areas. There were 90 million “active” Internet users, defined as any person who has accessed the Internet in the last month before the survey.
The first level of the digital divide is obviously at the level of access to a computer, a prerequisite for accessing the Net, especially because “smart” mobile phones are still a largely urban phenomenon.
Based on projections from the National Readership Survey (NRS) 2006, the report finds that 38 per cent of urban citizens are “computer literate”.
The underlying basis for the rural-urban divide seems to be the extremely poor penetration of computers in rural areas; only 8 per cent of the rural population is computer literate, according to the report.
But even more striking is the urban-urban divide.
One in five of all Indian Internet users live in the four top metros: Mumbai, New Delhi and the National Capital Region, Kolkata and Chennai.
Reaching a saturation
More than one-third of all users reside in the top eight metros, which also include Hyderabad (2.2 million), Bangalore (2.2 million users), Ahmedabad (2 million) and Pune (1.9 million users).
The study notes that the growth of “active” Internet users in the large cities “is gradually approaching saturation”.
While email is the primary “use” for Internet surfing in urban areas, music is the main purpose for accessing the Net in rural areas.
The survey's findings are yet another confirmation of the fear that the socio-economic disparities in India are still the primary drivers of the digital divide in India. The report reveals a heavy concentration of “active” users in the top two socio-economic classes (SECs, in market research parlance). SEC A and SEC B, the top two groups, accounted for nearly two-thirds of “active” urban Internet users in the country. While figures for rural areas for such socio-economic classes are not provided, it is evident that the divide would run far deeper in rural society.
Worse for youth
Although the report is smug about “youngsters driving Internet growth in India”, the failure to provide stratified data makes one suspect that the divide probably runs even deeper among the youth than among other users.
After all, there is no reason to believe that the very same social and economic divides that separate people generally would deliver happier outcomes for the young in the country.
One only wishes that the report had delivered a more nuanced presentation of the data, instead of celebrating the find that we are now a country of more than a million netizens.