Our realization of connecting with everyone and networking across borders is a result of modern age instrumentation. When conventional medium lagged in this process, digitization emerged as our new hope.
The world began this transition from actual to virtual in phases and moments of need. India realized its need and took its first step towards digital and telecom revolution under the guidance of a noted technocrat- Sam Pitroda in 1980s. With a series of innovative changes in both technology and policy domains, a country of 715.4 million shined through its darkest hours. Three decades later a dream of new Digital India was launched in 2015 which has amounted to more than 5 years now. This almost 4 decades of journey will influence where India will stand on world’s stage for next 10 decades or even more. But the leap which 1.36 billion Indians have taken has left us all in a grim reality in terms of inclusion and balance. With every step forward we have left so many behind. The picture of reality that we chose to ignore was slapped back at our faces when COVID struck. Also, rights related to digitization and its influence on daily lives is a hot topic of discussion since development goals we aim to meet has so much to do with new age of digitization.
Let us understand how the process of digitization proceeded and what role it plays in development process of India.
Progress and Status-Quo
Foundation of Digitization was laid in 1980s by strategically merging telecom company with foreign telecommunications company. With this move self-reliance was also sought in the sector by establishing Centre for Development of Telematics for R&D purposes and Department of Telecommunications for legal control. So far 3 National Telecom Policies have been released in India aiming teleservice delivery improvement. A well setup state-controlled companies for Indian service delivery and foreign service delivery namely, BSNL and VSNL were also setup in 1990’s. Two independent authorities Telecom Regulatory Authority of India and Telecommunications Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal were also established to reform digital sector. Following this trend, a new set of ambitious initiatives, National Digital Literacy Mission and Digital India Initiative, have gained traction.
Today, as per current government aspirations most of citizen centric services are handled digitally in India. Many social security services like pension and provident fund are all at your doorsteps. Identity documents like passport, PAN, AADHAR-national identity, Driver’s licences etc are also distributed through portal system through customer service centre with e-service use. UMANG a multichannel, multipurpose and multilingual, multiservice portal is at the heart of most of these Digi-services administered by the union government. All other plans and multiuse applications for networking are also gaining momentum.
As per recent claims more than 8.2 million people were already trained under National Digital literacy Mission by 2018. An increased outlay of INR 3958 crore was allocated to Digital India Mission in 2020-2021. As per a report by International Telecommunication Union, over 3 billion people are now online, 820 million of whom are youth. 320 million i.e. 39% of all are from China and India. In an Annual Report by TRAI in 2018, density of internet users was claimed to have increased from 4 among 100 persons in 2007 to 32.9 per 100 persons in 2017, which is 8 times rise in a decade. But these numbers are of equal importance in understanding access to digital technologies as well. A survey by PRICE in 2016 revealed that 47% of rich households have at least one member with access to internet as opposed to 4% of poor households among 60,360 surveyed households.
Global survey by Pew Research Centre reflected 1 in 4 adults reported using the internet or owning a smartphone which is comparable to Tanzania among growing economies despite of India being on top of the economic ladder. In order to bridge this gap, union government announced disbursal of INR 34,000 crore for 150,000 villages by 2019 for laying high speed internet but so far progress in only half of it is seen. But the condition is still unfolding especially post pandemic efforts in digitization will be different and speedy possibly.
Social Impact Journalism award winning story of 2019, ‘Death by Digital Exclusion?’, extrapolated ground reality of a faulty public distribution system in Jharkhand due to digitization of records with no regional consideration and larger consequences of failure of key government services. Even when regional diversity plays such an important role, a national policy is under consideration to address data dependency in agriculture sector. Consultation paper on India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA) by MoA&FW and consultative paper by Bain and Company predicts larger investment ecosystem and sectoral growth for agriculture and allied sectors in India. Concerns for its impact traces larger propositions of farmer exploitation and a top-down mechanism yet again.
Recent budging controversy with The Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 has struck a chord between the government and digital media agencies alleging over regulation and unnecessary control by the union government. So far, 75 set of acts and rules controls the space most of which are self-regulatory in nature which did not censor internet per se. Now with new set of rules to control such issues by the government, digital rights of many organizations have been tampered, which mirrors general apprehension of the government to curb dissent.
Issues and Concerns with digitization
There are many concerns associated with paralyzed digital growth that India is witnessing. Some, more endangering than others but they can be clubbed under following three categories-
• Inadequate Digital Rights- Although, digital rights do not find a wordy mention in Indian Constitution yet as a subset of fundamental rights of speech and expression, Indian citizens can expand their horizon of digital rights. This also extends to protection of rights to privacy, association, education and development in digital space. Very recently has the Supreme Court of India announced access to internet to be equivalent of fundamental right in line with UN recommendation. However, in 2017, State of Kerala declared rights to internet access as a basic human right, yet a country wide recognition was still pending. But this has a scope of improvement in other aspects of life to like healthcare especially after how pandemic dealings in digital space turned out in India.
• Increased Digital Inequalities- This is most exposed issue we are aware about but it is only one aspect we usually talk about. Considering a pre-pandemic phase, impact of digital inequality was usually realized in awareness terms or citizen engagement terms. Now it is so much more than that. Global health pandemic and its repercussions have massively exposed Indian system. With increasing digitalization for labour force to work with especially in government-controlled enterprises and service mechanisms has caused difficulties for people to have a chance survival in their jobs. Frequently promoted digital payments and billing systems by Union government, e-governance and digital service delivery mechanisms has threatened the very livelihood it was introduced to protect. Vaccination drive through digital interface and impact on health service accessibility are some of the breath-taking examples where digital inequalities are quite evident. Inequality model in digital space is itself a replica model of rural-urban inequality that persists in real life as well. Altogether for every age group including pre-school children and students from varied backgrounds have suffered from the digital pony India was trying to ride without much to fall back on.
• Imbalances in Naturalized-Humanized-Digitized Interactions- Released just days before, the 2021 Global Crypto Adoption Index by Chainalysis ranks India 2nd among 20 countries in their rate of crypto acceptance and transaction. Much more buzz about India welcoming all sorts of digital currencies exchange and digital mining is making headlines. This seems a progressive step, but it will come at a huge environmental cost which also directly erupts fragile ecological balance impacting our daily lives. This issue is rather new but can be perceived as our pursuit of own destruction.
What to do?
The paradox with digitization is that only people who are privileged enough to have a connection with digital reality can do something to take it to the masses. So, it now becomes responsibility of the readers of this article to engage audience who are digitally illiterate and build an inclusive society, and this is not just a request, there is an incentive attached with it which is a better future for coming generation which we all can help built from scratch. You can obviously plan how you want to engage individually or through civil society organizations. But for the ease of the process follow these three steps to engage actively.
• Identify- It becomes important for ‘Haves’ to first delineate a pattern and identify what went wrong and where. It is only after this step they can act. A simpler way to do this is to be proactive with news around this space and checking the facts put forth by authorities. Simply stop being ‘In Denial’.
• Criticize- Mere identification does not guarantee anything. Criticize, most possibly give constructive or corrective criticism to authorities. Feedback is a vital aspect of participation. When you criticize a move, you make them aware that you understand, have control of the circumstances and they are being watched, thus making them answerable and responsive.
• Improve- Contribute for public accessibility of virtual domain and help bring community at the centre of development in digital space starting from your homes by facilitating digital learning for your elders. Volunteer your time by translating and enhancing participation in digital schemes and teach younger generation about digital rights and digital rights.
What not to do?
Don’t just enjoy the comfort of your home while sliding your finger on the screen reading this article. Act, instead. Share this article to let people know about other lesser-known aspects of digitization in India.
To sum up, let’s realize the philosophy of ‘Digital Drama’ in India’s Development for what it is- “For a few to know, many must not know” and change it.