Computer literacy in India needs a reboot

With a clear plan to run various public services with technology, a significant portion of the country’s population needs to be able to cross the digital divide

Updated - July 05, 2024 01:39 pm IST

Published - July 05, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘While India has made some progress in computer literacy, the outreach and outcomes of this mission remain limited’

‘While India has made some progress in computer literacy, the outreach and outcomes of this mission remain limited’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Computer literacy is essential in today’s world as critical services such as banking, health care and various government services have become digital. Computer literacy implies the knowledge and the ability to use computers and technology efficiently. It ensures that individuals can access and use these services effectively, enhancing their quality of life. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of computer and Internet access, from ordering groceries and online education to managing banking and health-care services. Recognising this, the Indian government launched the Digital India campaign in 2015 to transform the country into a digitally empowered society. Moreover, computer education is increasingly being integrated into the formal education system — in schools from an early age. Additionally, numerous skill development and vocational training programmes are focusing on enhancing computer literacy among youth and adults, mainly targeting underprivileged and marginalised communities to bridge the digital divide.

The recently released NSS 78th round of the Multiple Indicator Survey (conducted in 2020-21) is a household survey that provides individual-level information on computer literacy. Computer literacy, defined as the ability to use a computer, stands at 24.7% among individuals aged 15 years and above.

This marks an increase from 18.4% in 2017-18 to 24.7% in 2020-21 overall. In rural areas, it is an increase from 11.1% to 18.1%, while in urban areas, it was from 34.7% to 39.6%. These figures are cause for concern and cast a shadow over the nation’s digital aspirations. Unless there are serious measures to universalise digital literacy, rural India’s population, which is nearly 70%, will face significant disadvantages. More importantly, given the government’s aim to provide various public services through digital technology, a significant portion of the population will remain excluded.

Unequal literacy across age groups

Expectedly, the proportion of computer-literate individuals varies across various age groups in India. The survey reveals that computer literacy diminishes with age, with higher rates observed among younger demographics. This trend, common in societal contexts, reflects the disparity in computer education accessibility between recent and older age cohorts, often referred to as a “cohort effect” or “generation effect” in social sciences. Hence, the overall computer literacy rate of 24.7% exhibits significant inequality across age cohorts. It peaks among individuals aged 20-24 years, reaching 45.9%, and declines to its lowest point among the oldest age group of 65-69 years, at 4.4%. Even among the youngest age cohorts, computer literacy has not reached 50%. Looking at the increasing spread of computer technology in every aspect of life, a larger chunk of the population will be excluded in the modern development journey.

Given that individuals aged 20-39 years are typically in the midst of their careers or job searching, representing a middle-aged population, it is noteworthy that their computer literacy rate stands at just 34.8%. Further, there is significant variation in computer literacy for this particular age group across the various States of India. Our analysis of computer literacy rates among individuals aged 20-39 years across States shows a striking 55.1 percentage point gap between Kerala (72.7%), and Assam, where only 17.6% possess computer skills in this age group. Economically disadvantaged States such as Assam (17.6%), Bihar (20.4%), Madhya Pradesh (21%), Jharkhand (21.2%), Uttar Pradesh (22.9%), Odisha (25.1%), Chhattisgarh (26%), and Rajasthan (27.6%) lag behind, with less than 30% proficiency in computer operation. Given that computer literacy is pivotal to the social and economic development of States, the lower rates in economically backward States exacerbate their disadvantage in benefiting from modern development. A failure to address this divide will widen the development gap across Indian States. Bridging the digital divide and fostering inclusive growth necessitates sustained efforts by government, private sector, and civil society stakeholders.

Understanding India’s modest progress

One reason could be that many schools and colleges across India lack the necessary infrastructure and qualified teachers to impart adequate computer training. This shortfall contributes to significant deficiencies in computer literacy among young students and new graduates, which could constrain their employment opportunities. Although computer education is a part of the school curriculum, there are significant gaps in access and instructional standards, highlighting the need to prioritise computer literacy within the education system. Among older age groups, computer illiteracy could be attributed to a lack of motivation to learn or due to limited access to learning resources. It is a common observation that older demographics tend to exhibit less enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

Computer illiteracy in today’s digital society can severely restrict an individual’s opportunities and experiences. It leads to limited job prospects, social isolation, financial exclusion from online transactions and services, and restricted access to vast information resources. As Artificial Intelligence advances, employers seek individuals not only familiar with computers but also equipped with the capability to execute complex tasks. Thus, learning how to use a computer and the Internet can help employees develop skills that employers are looking for. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s The Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) survey (2014-15) found that adults without computer experience are more often unemployed, with a 52.5% employment rate, compared to 72.7% for those with basic computer skills. In a 2017 study, “Do Computer Skills Affect Worker Employment? An Empirical Study from CPS Surveys”, economist Gang Peng finds that computer skills enhance employability and worker productivity. In a separate investigation, Preston-Lee Govindasamy in South Africa validated a positive correlation between computer literacy, employment probability, and earnings.

Further, computer literacy exacerbates socio-economic inequalities by creating a digital divide and a skill gap, leading to unequal job market opportunities. Those with better computer skills can leverage technology for personal and professional development, while those lacking these skills face barriers in accessing essential services, participating in the digital economy, and advancing their careers, thus perpetuating economic disparities.

Schools, older population as focus areas

While India has made some progress in computer literacy, the outreach and outcomes of this mission remain limited. Further, the data show that there is significant disparity in both the level and distribution of computer literacy across States. The existence of a wide digital divide between economically prosperous and disadvantaged States will hinder inclusive growth and development opportunities for large segments of the population.

Thus, schools should equip students with computer skills that will allow them to fully participate in our rapidly changing economies. School education should ensure that all graduating students possess computer literacy skills, as this is crucial to bridge the digital divide. The government should allocate resources towards the training of computer personnel and ensure sufficient staffing levels. Additionally, for the older population outside the formal education system, targeted programmes are essential. These should involve various institutions, including local governing bodies such as panchayats and non-governmental organisations, to effectively reach and empower older individuals with computer literacy skills. Finally, the government should also conduct a thorough review of such computer literacy and develop strategies to achieve higher literacy and reduce disparities in the coming years.

Vachaspati Shukla is Assistant Professor at the Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research (SPEISR). Santosh Kumar Dash is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA)

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