An agenda to foster digital inclusion in India
The smartphone could be India’s weapon to improve economic productivity, attack pervasive inequality, and meet UN development goals
Of the 1.18 billion mobile connections in India, 600 million have smartphones, and encouragingly this number is increasing by 25 million per quarter. About 700 million Indians are now internet users and consume about 12 GB of data per person a month.
Despite these impressive numbers, the flip side is that around 600 million Indians do not have smartphones. In today’s world, people without smartphones are excluded from fully participating in the digital revolution that has encompassed us. Full digital inclusion will be an important step towards improving the lives of disadvantaged Indians, while also improving the productivity of our workforce and our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate.
We need a drive, much like with Aadhaar, to ensure that all Indians have a smartphone. At the lower end of the income pyramid, digital inclusion will allow us to address many of India’s sharpest inequities. It can bring India’s disadvantaged into the mainstream by allowing them to access all that digital inclusion offers — information (especially on government schemes), access to education, health care, commerce, entertainment, and skilling. So, what might digital inclusion encompass?
The first step is to provide access: Get all Indians a smartphone. We need to create a trade-in scheme for feature phones that can allow the purchase of a smartphone at a concessional price. This would be an inspired subsidy that should come packaged with a certain amount of data usage free for defined purposes by disadvantaged groups.
The second step is to ensure connectivity to Indians in the remotest villages. Currently, about 25,000 villages lack connectivity. It is fantastic that we have connected over 570,000 villages, but we must ensure full connectivity at a reasonable level of bandwidth by the end of 2022.
Once all Indians have smartphones and connectivity, they must know how to use them. A multi-pronged approach should be considered for getting them to learn the full functionality of their phones. The handset providers along with the government should work together to ensure this. Institutions such as post offices may be used for training people on usage. This training should be delivered in all regional languages. Post offices can also have a repair wing for smartphones.
Thereafter, we need to curate and deliver a certain set of activities to these smartphones with a centralised outreach in regional languages. This should be done through a public-private partnership with the government subsidising the consumption of programmes chosen by citizens for their learning.
There are eight areas, among many, that digital inclusion can enhance, with an active role played by the government and civil society.
One, basic adult education — ensuring all Indians, can read and write and have basic numeracy. Currently, around 260 million Indians cannot read and write. In today’s world, this is an outrage and condemns them to debilitating poverty. Fixing this gap is important because so many people cannot just be left behind.
Two, access to basic health care and hygiene: Indians should be able to listen to podcasts and talks in their local language on basic hygiene and nutrition. They can also learn modern health protocols around vaccinations and inoculation, clean water, and even pregnancy-related health care.
Three, primary education for children: During Covid-19, primary education moved online for two years, disadvantaging the poor. We need to use our learning with online education to find locations where children of disadvantaged groups can attend online classes too using their smartphones.
Four, skilling courses for different crafts such as electrical work, plumbing, carpentry and other specialisations should be curated, and accredited sites should be allowed to advertise so that smartphone users get access to upgrade their skills.
Five, manufacturing and service companies could offer more advanced training for lower-end jobs in their industry on how to use different kinds of machines or applications required in their business. Accredited and updated job sites should be maintained, and people should be taught to access them. They should also show vacancies and salaries that such jobs pay. Six, cropping and agricultural information on seeds and fertilisers and soil use should also have a site. A partnership with the private sector is beneficial and many companies that have their Krishi Kendras could be expanded. An updated weather channel app on the phones should also be available for the farm sector to thrive.
Seven, safe e-commerce sites and how to use them for remote purchases should also be demonstrated. They should be given financial literacy training so that they can get the benefits of the Indian retail financial services tech stack, the envy of the world.
Finally, a channel on alerting our people on environmental degradation, pollution, conservation, and greenhouse gas emissions is also an urgent need, especially in light of the climate crisis.
This will require significant efforts to ensure that the disadvantaged learn how to use their smartphones fully and well, through engagement.
Competitions should be created, and prizes offered. All modern techniques should be used. Once people learn to use the smartphone, there will be automatic self-development. Any smart mechanisms we use to improve basic education and health will be invaluable. In fact, it is in many ways a moral imperative for us all.
For us to meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, improve economic productivity, and attack pervasive inequality in India, the smartphone could be our weapon. Let us use it.
Janmejaya Sinha is chairman, BCG India
The views expressed are personal
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