While India is garnering global attention as a powerhouse of technology and innovation, the issue of the digital divide is still prominent in rural communities. The multifaceted impacts of the digital divide on rural Indian communities not only affect their access to information and services but also hinder economic opportunities, education, healthcare, and even social inclusion.
In order to empower rural populations with digital access and literacy, various government and private sector led initiatives are undertaken. Let’s explore how these digital inclusion efforts are fostering digitization and narrowing the digital divide in rural India.
I. Government-led Initiatives
The Indian government recognizes the critical need to bridge the digital divide in rural areas and has initiated various programs to ensure that rural populations have access to digital resources.
BharatNet: Bridging the Connectivity Gap
One of the flagship initiatives of the Indian government, BharatNet, aims to connect the remotest parts of the country with high-speed broadband internet. As one of the biggest rural telecom projects in the world, it envisions establishing a robust optical fiber network, extending broadband connectivity to over 250,000 Gram Panchayats (local administrative units) in rural India. By providing last-mile connectivity, BharatNet seeks to enable mobile operators, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Cable TV operators, and content providers to offer various services such as e-health, e-education and e-governance in rural and remote India.
As of August, 2023, 196,544 Gram Panchayats are connected through the BharatNet project and 650,080 Km of optical fiber cable has been laid. Additionally, 601,026 Fibre-To-The-Home (FTTH) connections are commissioned and 104,674 Wi-Fi hotspots are installed to ensure last-mile connectivity.
Common Service Centers (CSCs): Digital Services at the Doorstep
Common Service Centre (CSC) is a strategic cornerstone of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), approved by the government in September 2006. These are physical facilities that serve as access points for digital services in rural and remote areas.
These centers offer a wide range of services, including internet browsing, online form submission, utility bill payments, and government document printing. As of May 2023, there are 4,13,999 functional CSCs across rural India.
Digital India Campaign: Enabling Digital Literacy and Access
Launched in July 2015, the Digital India Campaign seeks to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. This campaign focuses on three key areas: digital infrastructure, digital literacy, and digital services.
The government has taken up several initiatives under the Digital India campaign. Some of these include DigiLockers (this provides access to the citizens’ authentic digital documents), E-Hospitals (the platform seeks to connect patients, hospitals, and doctors), E-Pathshala (it contains textbooks, audio, video, periodicals, and a variety of educational materials), and BHIM (a UPI payment app).
Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA): Skill Development for Digital Usage
The PMGDISHA initiative, launched under the Digital India Campaign, focuses on imparting digital literacy skills to rural citizens. It seeks to make six crore people in rural areas, across States/UTs, digitally literate, reaching around 40% of rural households by covering one member from every eligible household.
According to the government press release (July, 2022), more than 6.15 crore candidates have been enrolled and 5.24 crore have been trained, out of which 3.89 crore candidates have been duly certified under the PMGDISHA Scheme. Also, more than 4.13 lakh common service centers are approved under the scheme.
II. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Private Sector Involvement
While government initiatives play a pivotal role in advancing digital inclusion in rural India, the concerted efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector entities have proven equally impactful. These stakeholders bring innovation, localized approaches, and corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the forefront, effectively complementing governmental efforts.
1. Role of NGOs in Grassroot Level Digital Inclusion
NGOs often operate at the grassroots level, intimately understanding the unique challenges faced by rural communities. They facilitate workshops, training sessions, and awareness campaigns that empower rural populations to confidently operate in the digital landscape.
2. Private Sector’s CSR Initiatives for Digital Empowerment
Recognising their role in social development, several private companies have undertaken corporate social responsibility initiatives aimed at promoting digital education and infrastructure in rural areas.
Last year, smartphone manufacturing company OPPO India contributed digital literacy tools to support the academics of first-generation learners through Project Dhruv, an initiative by Mensa India. As part of the association, 45 OPPO pads, styli, and internet dongles were distributed to the students at a school in Gurgaon. As a part of the Digital Learning Enabling Programme (DLEP), Atkins India installed computer labs in two rural schools in Karnataka. Contributions from global firms only strengthen digital empowerment efforts manifold. Like we had Wartsila, a Finland-headquartered manufacturing company, partner with a local NGO, the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), to set up a digital classroom in a town in Haryana.
3. Collaborative Efforts for Lasting Impact
Collaborations and partnerships between NGOs, private companies, and government bodies enable the pooling of resources, expertise, and networks, leading to more effective and sustainable initiatives and result in holistic digital inclusion. Their involvement ensures that digital access and literacy are not only top-down approaches but also community-driven endeavors.
For instance, in August 2023, OctaFX, an international broker, collaborated with Community Action for Rural Development (CARD) to set up a computer lab at a rural school in Tamil Nadu, aiming to address the digital divide. Often, such small but relevant steps encourage mass interest and participation.
III. Innovations in Digital Infrastructure
Overcoming the challenges of digital infrastructure in rural India requires innovative solutions that adapt to the unique needs and constraints of these areas. Fortunately, several creative approaches have emerged to address these challenges and expand digital connectivity:
Mobile Internet Penetration
While traditional broadband infrastructure might be challenging to deploy in remote areas, mobile networks have managed to extend their coverage significantly. The increasing penetration of affordable smartphones has enabled sections of rural residents to access the internet, communicate over social media, and engage with digital services on the go.
Solar-Powered Digital Centres
Solar-powered digital centers have emerged as a game-changer in regions with unreliable electricity infrastructure. These centers use solar panels to generate electricity, run computers, and streamline internet connectivity. By eliminating the dependence on conventional power sources, solar-powered centers can be established even in off-grid locations.
One notable instance is that of Rajasthan’s government school at Karenda, which has digital classrooms facilitated by solar power. The electricity is generated from the solar panel installed on the roof of the school, and the internet is taken from a nearby telecom tower, which also runs on solar energy. By embracing technologies that adapt to local conditions and needs, these innovations offer a promising avenue for rural India’s digital transformation.
IV. Future Prospects
While remarkable progress has been made in advancing digital inclusion in rural India, several challenges persist on the path towards comprehensive and equitable connectivity. At the same time, the future holds promise through the application of emerging technologies and creative solutions.
Addressing Language Barriers and Producing Localized Content
Language diversity is a hallmark of India, and addressing language barriers is critical for comprehensive digital inclusion. Creating localized digital content in regional languages ensures that information, services, and educational resources are accessible and understandable to rural populations. Efforts in this direction, including translating online content and developing applications in local languages, can go a long way in enhancing digital access and engagement.
Potential of Emerging Technologies in Digital Inclusion
Emerging technologies offer exciting possibilities for furthering digital inclusion. For instance, by harnessing the power of AI, educational service providers can facilitate personalized learning catering to the learning needs of individual students. Innovative approaches like using low-orbit satellites to provide internet connectivity to remote areas are also being explored as a measure to overcome infrastructure challenges.
On the 75th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “India’s techade is here. With 5G, semiconductor manufacturing, and optical fibres in villages, we are bringing a revolution through Digital India to the grassroots level.” He stated that this would revolutionize the education and healthcare sector and bring about a noticeable change in the lives of the citizens.
The journey toward bridging the digital divide is not merely about building a robust technology landscape; it’s about fostering empowerment, equality, and sustainable digital inclusion efforts in every corner of the nation.
Authored by Soumi Bhattacharya
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