Monday, April 11, 2011

Digital inclusion is the need of the hour

Hot on the heels of a Budget that aims to bridge India's "digital divide", a story comes to mind. About seven years ago, a friend of mine who had been working on Wi-Fi hotspots in Montreal, Canada came to India as part of an Indo-Canadian trade delegation. At a meeting with the then Minister of Telecom, he proposed doing the same in India. To his great disappointment, he was told, "Wi-Fi would never work in India."

Today, everything has changed. Wi-Fi is growing and my friend is back from Canada, but this time he isn't "pioneering", he is just standing in line with the other entrepreneurs, imagining an India connected to the last mile and profiting from e-commerce.

Unfortunately, this country has been driving in second gear for the past decade. The "need" for the Internet was understood, but the urgency, clearly, wasn't. In 2010, 84% of rural India was unaware of the Internet (as revealed a study by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, IAMAI), a gap that the government is desperate to close now. The Union Minister of Communications and Information Technology has set a target of providing broadband coverage to five lakh villages in India, but this target only serves to remind us of time lost. Eight years ago, the Department of Telecom (DoT) set up the Universal Service Obligation Fund, which was meant to get private telecom players to enter rural markets. In 2004, two years later, it amended the rules to enable disbursal from the USO Fund to reimburse telecom operators for rural telephony. In 2006, another amendment supported mobile services and broadband in rural and remote parts of the country. Which brings us back to today.

What has resulted due to the slow moving government machinery is innovation by the private sector in the area of Information and Communication Technologies for Development or ICT4D. For example — and this might be a gross generalisation — governments choose to focus on e-government, businesses look to the online economy, while civil society groups try to make the Internet more inclusive, and therefore, concentrate on creating both content and software that allow minority speakers to participate online. The 2011 budget has further allocated Rs 4,500 cr on e-Panchayat systems, which is a welcome move under National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). NeGP, under which over 87, 000 Common Service Centres have cropped up in villages across the country. These CSCs are front end kiosks for government services such as payment of utility bills (water, electricity, telephones), certificates (birth, death, income) and other services like train tickets, mobile phone top ups and so on. But what is still lacking is an assured supply of power to keep the CSC running and above that, an understanding of how best of utilize an Internet connection. This ties in with the need for fostering entrepreneurship and educating people about the Internet itself.

An example: at a village outside Hyderabad, the village level "entrepreneur" who opened a CSC with government support was unable to turn a profit as not enough people were paying bills or buying tickets. But at another village in Thane, Maharashtra, the entrepreneur, a schoolteacher, understood the need to utilize the CSC in different ways to turn a profit. He put the office hours at a limit and introduced computer classes and is making money from teaching little children how to use a computer. This is the difference between technology and its use. There are countless other projects that use ICT to create opportunities where none existed. Online portals like Aporv, Chanderiyaan and Eyaas help artisans expand their markets by selling their ware online. Eko has set up mobile banking through an SMS system which allows its customers to save and transfer money using the neighbourhood grocery shop, as you would to top up a SIM card. Others emphasise local language content. Community media — both radio and video — are popular ways of getting minorities to engage with technology platforms. There is also the more sophisticated Project Bhasha which translates Microsoft products into 12 languages including Assamese, Gurmukhi, and Telegu.

Of course, the challenges of navigating an increasingly digital world — information societies — are not India's alone. Globally, the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) has been set up to explore common threads; data security, cyber hacking, and of course, the digital divide and inclusion. Civil society organizations have also pushed WSIS to accept the importance of ensuring human rights through an equal distribution of technology. Open source products and online activism are a reflection of society fearing that government and business interests may one day become too big to control. For example, today a lot of geeks fear Google as the company has collected so much private data through people's online activities. WikiLeaks is an expression of mistrust against hegemony, made possible and served up through technology.

The truth is that activities on an international platform can help boost efforts back home. That France, Finland, Estonia and Norway have declared the Internet a fundamental right will help bodies like the Digital Empowerment Foundation and IAMAI who encourage closing the digital divide back in India. More so, it will help smaller bodies apply for funding because international treaties and declarations help guide funders and philanthropists to those who deserve it the most.

Think about our global village in this way. Prepaid connections for phones and the Internet are popular in the developing world as companies are not confident that customers have enough financial stability to pay their bills. After the global financial crisis, the West is emulating these ideas. In Canada alone, four new mobile phone operators have come up, following this model! And above all, as we have seen with countless natural tragedies, most recently in Japan, disaster management has been revolutionalised because of the information society. As has political activism. This is why it is important who gets to use ICTs, and how they use them — "digital inclusion". And this is why my friend from Canada is moving to India.