Putting the E in empower

To be a truly digital Mumbai, the benefits of the online world must be made more accessible for the underprivileged

Updated - January 22, 2017 02:27 am IST

Published - January 22, 2017 12:49 am IST

In 2014, a study on Internet penetration in resource-poor neighbourhoods — covering Dharavi, Girgaum and Gazdhar Bandh — by Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research (PUKAR) yielded some interesting findings. In the poorest neighbourhood, Gazdhar Bandh in Santacruz, 95% of 1,377 people surveyed said it was the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai’s responsibility to provide affordable Internet. Though at least 43% did not own smartphones, 584 people in the 14–30 year age group, 42% of the total, knew how to use the Internet.

A year later, the Centre launched Digital India; it’s aim: digital empowerment by creating digital infrastructure, delivering services digitally, and increasing digital literacy. More recently, in Maharashtra, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced one of the biggest public WiFi projects in the world: 500 hotspots in Mumbai went live on January 9.

But for the residents of Gazdhar Bandh — and many others across one of India’s best-connected cities — not much has changed on the ground. “The free WiFi zones announcement is humbug,” says Dr. Anita Patil-Deshmukh, Executive Director, PUKAR. The reason, she says, is because there is a huge gap between the number of users and available facilities.

Setting up of WiFi spots is a good starting point, says Abhay Karandikar, professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering at IIT Bombay, but what has to be built into the plan is a sustainable service and connectivity model. The State government must consider that Mumbai is densely packed, more so than many other global cities. “We will probably need several hundreds, even thousands, of hotspots.”

Infrastructure issues

“How can you think of Digital India,” Dr. Patil-Deshmukh asks, “when your basic infrastructure is simply not made available to people in resource-poor neighbourhoods?” She cites Kaula Bunder in Fort, where PUKAR has been working for nearly a decade. Because the colony, which came up during the British Raj, is on Bombay Port Trust land, it has no electricity; those who do have power survive on stolen connections. “There are no mobile towers here, so forget about network. We have the same issue in a Mankhurd slum where we are working. In our office in Kherwadi, Bandra East, email is very slow. We are 10 minutes away from Bandra-Kurla Complex and this is the country’s financial capital. How do we deal with these huge gaps?” Many places in the city are so dense that GPS doesn’t work there. If Google and INSAT cannot map these areas, she asks, how can you think of including them in a plan for the city? “When there’s no water, where is the space for fibre optics?”

• “Right to Internet is soon going to be seen as a basic right, given the number of services and opportunities moving online,” Prof. Karandikar says, but it is not sustainable for the government to set up hundreds of WiFi spots. The government needs to look at sustainable connectivity, perhaps through a public-private partnership model, both in terms of funding and maintenance.

• To some extent, the problem can be addressed by installing multiple small mobile towers and paying people whose homes are used as bases. “People in slums will love that arrangement.” Dr. Patil-Deshmukh says, “because they need the money.”

The basics

A digital communications network depends on the availability, accessibility and affordability of broadband — high-speed Internet access — via fibre-optic lines that carries large volumes of digital information faster than cable, DSL or 3G/4G.

By some estimates, 58% of India’s Internet users are in urban areas; most use it via mobile phones, with only 13% of households using broadband. “High costs of access, irrelevant online content/services, low digital literacy and low internet speeds, all continue to plague usage and impact the potential to scale up,” says Pankaj Joshi, Executive Director, Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI). “There is a large population of potential users from low-income neighbourhoods and marginalised communities who remain unconnected and excluded by service providers, resulting in a digital divide. Understanding land-use requirements for physical installation of these networks is a key step to provide opportunities for them. Scaling up will require sufficient investments in digital communication infrastructure especially in informal neighbourhoods, where costs need to be subsidised.”

• The Urban Design Research Institute, PUKAR and Majlis have advocated broadband planning through the Development Plan. The ‘ Sab ke liye broadband’ campaign calls for the Municipal Corporation to be the planning and monitoring agency responsible for deploying broadband infrastructure, and for the private sector to be engaged in laying down last-mile connectivity. “For the MCGM, the investment has the potential to become a source of revenue,” Mr. Joshi says. “A private vendor will need to pay to use their fibre-to-the-kerb in order to provide last-mile connectivity.”

• For areas where infrastructure cannot be laid due to high densities or right-of-way issues, Mr. Joshi says, the MCGM can invest in creating public WiFi spots in some of the 11,000 MCGM-owned properties like schools, hospitals, and ward offices.

Global best practices

“A clear strategy must also be in place to enable online services that have meaning for citizens,” Mr. Joshi says. “The existing land use of the Mumbai Development Plan 2034 shows severe shortages in amenities such as educational and health facilities. Bringing some of these services online can reach more people faster without requiring changes in land use or huge investments, besides creating government transparency and accountability towards citizens.” UDRI’s Login Mumbai — a site with a map overlaid with data related to population, health, education, transportation, governance and other planning parameters — gives citizens important but complex public information through easy-to-comprehend visuals to help them understand implications on their communities. “It will also serve a purpose in clarifying data and the veracity of its source, enabling a first step in citizen participation.”

Across the world, cities are now recognising that greater investments need to be made to connect those who cannot afford it, and investing in municipal broadband.

Chattanooga, in Tennessee, USA, was one of the first; in 2010, its electric power board utility launched a 1 gigabit per second municipal network. Since then, the city has attracted not just startups and entrepreneurs, but also other businesses relocating in or expanding to the area. In 2016, New York proposed the New NY Broadband Program, a public-private partnership focussing on underserved areas. It will look for vendors to set up the infrastructure and will provide matching funds for installation.

• Cities must also simplify permissions and remove potential barriers for infrastructure providers. Seattle, for instance, has reduced regulatory barriers to attract broadband fibre investments and encouraged public-private partnerships.

True inclusion

As much as increasing Internet access, digital inclusion is about policies that enable and benefit citizens.

“Mumbai in one sense has a big outreach,” says Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centers, Mumbai. “But is it affordable, reliable, efficient and open?” The discourse tends to be about technology, and not whether the State cares about the economically disadvantaged, she says. “It also depends on affordability and how competitive they are. How can the internet be easily accessed in different places? Somebody who can afford high speed at home has a different ability to be included in the digital world than somebody who’s on a slow, municipal speed.”

“Our National Broadband Policy, our telecom policy, they have universal service provisions as a goal,” Ms. Aggarwal says. For service providers, these are preconditions to get spectrum. The challenge is that providers are often afflicted with the ‘winner’s curse’: they have paid so much for licences they don’t have money for the infrastructure, so sit on their spectrum, “blocking it but not actually providing infrastructure to people they can’t recover it from.”

For government services much depends, Prof. Karandikar says, on the quality of the experience: ease of access, usable interfaces, quick response times. This needs both WiFi connectivity as well as a robust back-end to ensure that services run smoothly.

The other challenge with Mumbai, he says, is that though many are familiar with the use of technology, a large section of the population has to be educated in the use of digital services. “Simple transactions, like those that are being proposed through Aadhaar, don’t require a high level of digital literacy. But their success will depend on whether connectivity can be established on a large scale.” For more complex transactions, online banking for instance, some level of digital education is still necessary.

An essential component, Dr. Patil-Deshmukh says, is financial and related aspects of inclusion: one should get easy access to government schemes, admissions and so on, on the internet, “without having to make 60 trips to the university or BMC office.” The second aspect is service delivery: the availability of water, healthcare and sanitation facilities. “These are fundamental; we’re not even getting into fancy stuff.”

• To enable last-mile delivery, Dr. Patil-Deshmukh says, the government can look at subsidies to poorer sections of society.

Participation follows trust

“If knowledge is power,” Mr. Joshi says, “then providing universal access is essential to a working democracy.” This includes, he says, essential services like mobile banking, school and college admissions, tele-medicine, as well as e-governance and co-ordination during disasters.

It is also necessary to create a better space for education, Ms. Aggarwal says, not just in the formal system, but also in building understanding of ways one can be creative in the digital space. “Rather than getting messages top-down, how do you creatively use it? How can I be a discerning consumer and a producer?” This means citizens must be made comfortable with technology, unafraid of it.

Dr. Patil-Deshmukh says it’s about empowering people with knowledge and how they can leverage it as voters, especially with corporators and ward officers. “The younger generation can understand this better. They are more into development, and we’ve seen this in our younger members of Parliament.” She says this will also break the back of the ‘mafia’ that corporators have become by bringing in transparency.

India has one of the world’s more censored digital environments. “If you are participating, how free are you to participate?” Ms. Aggarwal asks. “How do we create a more accepting environment for diverse views, and how do you trust this medium where you are putting out all your information? That’s a concern.” The digital space we create will determine if we progress as an open society, tolerating diverse views. “Otherwise we will continue to perpetuate proprietary kinds of knowledge.”

It’s also critical, Ms. Aggarwal says, to acknowledge that technology can be pervasive and intrusive, that it can force you to interact with it ways you don’t like. “That becomes a culture and you can’t step away from it. Can we incentivise and create other public modes of exchange?” Particularly for the poor, “identity, whether it’s through Aadhar or the cashless economy, is already written into the digital world. It’s not a choice, it’s a responsibility to help people understand and navigate this space.”

Broadband in policies

• Broadband was recognised as key to development in May 2010, when the International Telecommunication Union and UNESCO set up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development as part of efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Expanding broadband access in every country is vital to accelerating progress towards these goals by 2015, it said, seeking commitments from all member countries to effect such plans.

• In India, the need for Universal Access to broadband infrastructure was first recognised in the National Broadband policy of 2004 that set the targets for broadband penetration in rural and urban areas.

• In 2011, the National Optical Fibre Plan set the plan for expanding the physical network to provide broadband connection to 250,000 gram panchayats across India.

• Mumbai’s newly-released Draft Development Control Regulations, Part XI, Miscellaneous Provisions, says, “In every building the provision for ducting for telecommunication lines and optical fibre cable for digital data communication/transmission shall be made.”

• Mumbai’s revised Development Plan includes for the first time an acknowledgment of digital inclusion as a vision for the city’s growth.

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