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Digital Transformation Can’t Solve Structural Inequalities, Says New Oxfam Report

New Delhi: With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, India dramatically shifted operations into the digital space. Many day-to-day tasks became reliant on stable internet connections. Though there was a paradigm shift in the way people access essential services, socioeconomic divisions that existed in the physical world have been replicated in the digital world says a new report published by the non-profit organisation Oxfam India.

The NGO releases an annual India Inequality Report and has focused on the Digital Divide in this year’s edition. A digital divide refers to the disproportionate ability some sections of society have in accessing digital information and communication technologies.

“Technology and digitalisation have benefitted the privileged but have also been the cause of inequalities creating a digital divide. This divide largely stems from unequal access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs),” the report says.

Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said that India’s growing inequality is “accentuated” due to the digital divide. “The growing inequality based on caste, religion, gender, class, and geographic location also gets replicated in the digital space. People without devices and the internet get further marginalised due to difficulties in accessing education, health, and public services,” Behar said, according to Businessline. He said governments should universalise internet connectivity and “treat digital technologies as a public utility, not a privilege”.

The report has measured indicators such as possession of devices (mobile phones, computers, televisions, etc.), access to electricity, and digital literacy to assess to what extent social inequalities have been translated onto the internet.

The report points out that though the country experienced a sudden move to digital mediums for essential services such as education, health and financial transactions due to the digital revolution, and then further due to the pandemic, 96.6% of the respondents in a CMIE survey conducted between September and December 2021 said that they did not own a computer or laptop.

“While mobile phones with internet connection can also serve the purpose of attending online classes, etc., and would be convenient for apps, having a laptop or computer would be more convenient for carrying out assignments,” the report says.

The digital divide on the basis of caste is also quite palpable. Oxfam has found that a person from the general category is 8% more likely than someone belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (ST) community to possess a computer as of 2021. This number has risen from 7% in 2018.

Similarly, general and other backward classes (OBC) are 4-6% more likely to have televisions than those belonging to the ST and Scheduled Castes (SC) community.

On the contrary, the gap between the general category and STs in owning mobile phones has dropped from 10% to 3% between 2018 and 2021.

The schism between the upper and lower castes of the Indian population has expanded since the beginning of the pandemic when it comes to owning large devices. However, it has narrowed with respect to smaller devices, which are less expensive than the former.

It is imperative that we also consider the gap in the quality of access to the digital world to assess the digital divide, as whatever is being compensated for is occurring through devices with a more limited capacity than computers and televisions.

Gender and class divide

Gender inequalities have been reflected on the internet as well. The report states that only a third of India’s Internet users are women. Women are also 30% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and are also less likely to use it for internet services. This can pose a threat to women’s education rates.

Oxfam reported that during the pandemic, “Internet drop-outs [from educational institutions] come disproportionately from groups with lower probabilities of going online in the first place.” With women less likely to have access to the Internet, the chances of women’s education rates dropping have increased. Gendered division in society has been mirrored onto the internet, which could further widen it both online and offline.

Another important facet is class, encapsulated by the report in affordability, employment, and educational level. India ranks 47th in Internet affordability out of 110 countries, according to a global index on digital quality of life. Thus, Internet access is relatively affordable in the country.

However, the perks of cheap internet are enjoyed disproportionately. Studies show that “each gigabyte (GB) of data costs low-income households (earning less than $2 per day) 3% of their monthly income versus 0.2% for middle-income households (earning $10–$20 per day)”.

The highest proportion of people with computers, mobile phones, and electricity are salaried employees, while the least are daily-wage workers. When it comes to educational levels, the higher the level, the more likely the person is to spend money on devices and internet charges.

If we are to consider higher affordability, permanent employment, and high educational qualifications as indicators of belonging to an upper socio-economic class, then the higher the class one belongs to, the better the chances they have of accessing the internet and the digital world. Thus, there is a wide digital divide between the lower and upper socio-economic classes.

Even if one is able to afford digital devices, a major inhibitor in accessing the digital world is digital literacy. It has been found that the gap in digital literacy has been quantified as 35% between rural and urban households. The latter is more digitally literate.

Members of ST communities have the lowest level of digital literacy, at 21%, and anecdotal evidence shows that women, especially entrepreneurs, are less digitally literate than men. Even if access to digital devices is widespread, the ability to actually utilise them is largely dictated by social divisions and inequalities in India, the report says.

Inside a classroom at the Government Boys Senior Secondary School, Rouse Avenue, ITO. Credit: Tanya.

Social factors determine access

Overall, India’s digital divide has occurred on the basis of multiple social factors. Data indicates that people identifying as male, ‘upper caste’ and class, and living in urban areas are more likely to have a long-term internet connection than other underprivileged groups.

“In a country plagued by high socioeconomic inequality, the process of digitalisation in itself can not be posited as the panacea for the inherent challenges of the physical world. It becomes particularly problematic when half of the population neither has access to gadgets and the Internet or the technological know-how to move to a digital environment,” Oxfam says.

Warning that the process of digitalisation may not just ensure that inequalities endure but may even exacerbate them, the report says that digital technology brings with itself a lot of hurdles and challenges “which need to be addressed for an inclusive, resilient and a sustainable digital environment”.

Oxfam says that because the report highlights economic inequality as a key driver of the digital divide, governments should make efforts to bridge this inequality by improving the income of the poor. This can be done by increasing the minimum wage easing the indirect tax burden on citizens and provision of universal health and education services.

To improve availability of the Internet, Oxfam suggests that service providers establish community networks and public WiFi or internet access points. Additionally, the report recommends investment in the digital industry to drive down consumer prices and initiatives to improve digital literacy among underprivileged sections.

It concludes:

“Acknowledge that tech-based solutions are not always the right answers. People need to have multiple ways to access public services and their entitlements. Digital means should not be the only way to access these. Even in times of crises like pandemics, governments also need to consider low- or no-tech solutions.”


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