The digital divide refers to the disparity in accessing the new technologies across age groups, economic backgrounds, gender, geographical regions, etc. As the pandemic has hit India worse than any country, it faces its most serious digital divide. An NSSO 2014 report suggests that before the pandemic, 32 million kids from the socially marginalised sections of the country had dropped out of school. With the pandemic, around 320 million learners were affected. Only 6% of rural and 25% of urban households have internet compatible devices. Along the same lines, Surveys by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the Azim Premji Foundation, ASER and Oxfam suggest that between 27% and 60% could not access online classes for a range of reasons: lack of devices, shared devices, inability to buy “data packs”, etc. In a 2017-18 survey, the Ministry of Rural Development found that only 47% of Indian households avail themselves of 12hrs electric supply and 36% of schools run without electricity. Not to forget, learning from home has widened the gender gap as female students are pushed into household chores or asked to drop out. Mid-day meals were a source of 115.9 million children in the pre-pandemic times in India. Now, they have lost this facility too and are starving. As pointed out by this data, e-learning doesn’t seem to be a viable option for regular education in India.
The pandemic has forced the use of technology even in the healthcare system. Right from reservations of beds to booking a slot for a shot of the vaccine, everything has gone online. The irony is that only 20% of internet users know how to ply these systems. In the deadliest second wave, where we lack essential medical resources like oxygen cylinders, medicines, beds, etc., resources are being shared online for COVID-19. However, the poor, who have never heard of platforms like Twitter, Instagram, are suffering a loss of lives. This divide will cause a huge economic divide between the rich and the poor in the longer run. The students who dropped out of schools or colleges, the families that lost their only bread earner, migrant workers who went back to their hometowns and are now unemployed will suffer economic instabilities ahead in their lives.
The governments of various states have tried to propose solutions for these issues like classes-on-wheels, broadcasting lectures through TV and radio, etc. Detention norms have relaxed. But these can lead to a higher dropout percentage. Instead, the government should focus on infrastructure, inclusive technological development, nutrition support.
Empowering users, affordable and good-bandwidth internet services, quality technical support are several ways the government can help reduce the digital divide. However, the second wave COVID-19 has hit India so hard that rather than reducing the digital divide, the government must focus the expenditure on providing the necessary healthcare facilities to the citizens in these uncertain times.
This article has been written by Ritu Katkar for The Paradigm
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