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Bringing the Internet to everyone

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the influence of technology in our lives. We live in times where we can buy or sell anything online. We get quality access to healthcare, government services and education online. Payment gateways enable us to make cashless transactions. Verifications and signatures are digitised. Communication devices and platforms enable us to stay in touch with one another. The meals we desire are delivered home. We can teach students, mobilise crowds, conduct conferences or meetings, hold digital political rallies, all within the comfort of our homes. Even amidst this pandemic, technology enables some of us to stay within the safety of our homes, survive and even thrive. Technological giants like Google, Facebook, and TCS have allowed their employees to work from home for the foreseeable future. While the world struggles with an economic downturn, the video-conferencing platform Zoom managed a jaw-dropping 300 million downloads within a quarter of a financial year. These are just a few indicators of trends fast emerging during these times.

Marginalised and isolated

Meanwhile, a substantial section of our population, including the urban poor, the elderly and those in remote areas, find themselves marginalised and isolated because of their inability to navigate the digital space. They find themselves unable to get access to health and welfare alerts, critical services, engage in upskilling or learning, or take part in economic activities without potentially exposing themselves to the virus.

Also read | Dependence on online learning exposes deepening ‘digital divide’

Kerala, my home State, with India’s second highest Internet penetration rate, is attempting to conduct all its classes for this academic year online. It is a case in point of the digital divide. With the COVID-19 outbreak, thousands of underprivileged students suddenly found themselves left out of all avenues of learning in the most literate State. One teenage girl without a smartphone even died by suicide allegedly because she couldn’t attend online classes. This must deeply prick our conscience.

Last mile connectivity

In 2016, the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution that declared Internet access as a human right. However this hasn’t translated to affirmative governmental action. In 2011, the Indian government launched the National Optical Fibre Network project for providing broadband connectivity to 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats. In 2015, the programme was renamed Bharat Net and integrated into the Modi government’s Digital India initiative. It included plans for tying up with and subsidising 4G telecom operators for setting up 700,000 Wi-Fi hotspots spread across each of our villages for last mile connectivity. But the rate of Internet penetration still stands at 50%.

Internet connectivity has to be ensured in our remotest areas by accelerating the deployment of additional optical fibres, wireless technology, drones and satellites. Community access points have to be installed in every nook and corner to ensure that even those who lack their own devices can access the digital space. The Punjab government has just started distributing 1.75 lakh free smartphones to its students. There have to many more initiatives of distribution of subsidised smart devices along with low cost data plans to lower income groups for us to have a fair chance in bridging our digital divide.

Also read | Blurring the digital divide

The National Education Policy 2020 advocates greater integration of technology. However, India still lacks a concrete roadmap for ICT training in various proficiency levels for our diverse population segments. Staying connected online has become a necessity for us to survive this pandemic. The post-COVID world will be more digitised than before. Those with the ability to navigate the digital landscape would get more economic opportunities and receive more avenues of social mobility than others. Therefore it should be our priority to ensure basic digital literacy and Internet connectivity for every Indian.

Anil Antony is the National Co-coordinator of the AICC Social Media and Digital Communications Department


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 6:07:00 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/bringing-the-internet-to-everyone/article32449761.ece

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