Week #7 Digital Disparity in India

Continuing on from my last blog post, it seems to me that I have already covered this week’s brief (that of analysing the narrated experience) within it. So, I took this week’s post as an opportunity to delve deeper into India’s digital divide.

Athique notes that to capture the most from a market, platforms require substantial national infrastructure (think Amazon and the US postal system+ digital network or our very own Covid check-ins and smartphone ownership + the mobile network). In underdeveloped areas, close working relationships with the state and private organizations are often developed. As transnational corporations like Facebook and Google, whose expansion plans are decelerated by infrastructural breakdowns and scarcities (Mukherjee, 2018), rely on a certain level of infrastructure to support the use of their platforms (how can Uber work without sufficient network coverage and bandwidth). So do governments with national developmental goals in mind. As such both parties benefit from such public/private arrangements.

This is certainly evident with the Digital India initiative which, in turn with foreign investment has shown great progress in developing the nations digital infrastructure. So, what does foreign investment look like in India? Well… in the first half of 2020 around $17 billion was invested in India by US tech firms alone. (Iyengar, 2020) $5.7 billion of which was from Facebook backing telecommunications company JIO (Pham, 2020) which has been developing India’s mobile network. In a slight digression, this isn’t the first time Facebook has invested heavily in Indian businesses either. (Pham, 2020) With the nation being home to the largest Facebook and WhatsApp communities in the world. The company has had much involvement in the development of the region. In 2014 Facebook was embroiled in controversy when it partnered with mobile network operator Airtel, whose was found to be giving preferential pricing and coverage to Facebook owned sites. Especially, since Airtel provided internet coverage for rural and peri-urban areas which often had limited Internet infrastructures and as such digitally disadvantaged populations. (Mukherjee, 2018)

And so, India is marred by a great digital disparity. With the second-largest group of internet users worldwide, still half of its population lacks internet access.(Beniwal, 2020)The regions that have internet access roughly equate to 64% of urban areas & only 20% of rural areas. (Rajya Sabha TV, 2019)For the last 20 years India has been synonymous with the digital service sector. (Athique, 2019) Consisting of a large well-educated work force located around historically advantaged areas (in the context of greater India) which in turn, see higher levels of development and more employment opportunities. This has led many young people to move out of their villages towards the successful cities. (BBC, 2021)

These trends have led to many villages being left developmentally behind urban areas. This technological divide has been accentuated by the current pandemic. Notably, the roll out of the official vaccine booking app Co-WIN, which Indians aged 18-44 have been required to use to book vaccine slots since May 1. (Jain. 2021) Despite the fact that less than 50% of Indians have access to an internet. (Beniwal, 2020) Additionally, Covid related school closures has led to the requirement of online schooling. However, of the kids that don’t have access to the internet or internet connected devices it has so far equated to roughly a year-and-a-half of missed school. Moreover, students who were in year 3 before Covid-19 are now in year 5, and will soon enter high school, but with reading abilities of a year 1 pupil. (Mukherjee, 2021)

Students without internet access going to makeshift school underneath overpass construction. (Sky News, 2020)

India consists of 28 separate states, 8 union territories and is currently the largest democracy in the world. The population is made up of many different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, spread across the sub-continent which climate ranges from tropical in the south to temperate and then alpine in the north. With such a large population, the network effects of platform adoption and the chance for capitalisation is enormous. However, the rapid digitalisation of certain areas has thrown inequalities yet to be mitigated into sharper relief. It seems the progression of high-development areas grows further ahead of their poorer counterparts every day with a furthering disconnect between India’s reality and the government’s. Perhaps it can be summed up then by the words of a rural doctor.

They make policies in the cities and think the entire country runs on apps.

Regi George, Tribal Health Initiative

Athique, Adrian., 2019. Digital Transactions in Asia. Digital Transactions in Asia: Social , Economic and Informational Processes. (pp. 1-22) edited by Adrian Athique and Emma Baulch. New York, NY United States: Routledge

BBC. 2021. A brief introduction to India – Case study – development in an emerging country – India – Edexcel. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zc72frd/revision/1&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Beniwal, V., 2020. As digital divide widens, India risks losing a generation to pandemic disruption. [online] The Print. Available at: <https://theprint.in/india/education/as-digital-divide-widens-india-risks-losing-a-generation-to-pandemic-disruption/568394/&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Iyengar, R., 2020. Why Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are investing billions in India. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/17/tech/google-facebook-india-investment-jio/index.html&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Jain, M., 2021. Why India’s digital divide is hampering vaccine access. [online] Devex. Available at: <https://www.devex.com/news/why-india-s-digital-divide-is-hampering-vaccine-access-99943&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Mukherjee, R., 2018. Jio sparks Disruption 2.0: infrastructural imaginaries and platform ecosystems in ‘Digital India’. Media, Culture & Society, 41(2), pp.175-195.

Pham, S., 2020. Facebook is spending $5.7 billion to capitalize on India’s internet boom. [online] CNN. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/22/tech/facebook-india-reliance-jio/index.html&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Rajya Sabha TV, 2019. In Depth – Digital India. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyTS84yRgHM&ab_channel=RajyaSabhaTV&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

Sky News, 2020. India’s digital divide magnified in coronavirus pandemic. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0TVwrzOmGY&ab_channel=SkyNews&gt; [Accessed 10 September 2021].

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