Bridging the Digital Divide

As a follow-up to the recommendations made by the Task Force,
the government has taken  a number of major policy decisions. However, the
present level of IT infrastructure in the country is nowhere close to the common
man being able to take advantage of the Internet and IT services.”

That’s not a random critic speaking; it’s the rather grim
picture painted by the working group on IT for masses, set up by the ministry of
information technology (MIT) to look into the pace of reforms.

The stated objective was to ensure these developments do not
create a ‘digital divide’ between those who have access to IT-based
services, and those who do not. The government said it wanted to ensure that the
benefits of IT did not remain confined to a particular class of society. The
report spells out an urgent need to take steps to ensure the deployment of IT on
a mass scale.

Reaching to the people

Behind the “IT for the common man” cliché are two
components: the availability and affordability of access devices, and, the
infrastructure including telecom and datacom, Internet-enabled cable, etc.

The government wants the Internet to be a key enabler in
bringing IT to the masses. Now that seems a distant dream. MIT estimates that
India has eight million phone-owning homes (of the 24 million phones in India),
35 million cable connections (70 million households have TV)–and just a
million Internet connections.

The situation is clearly nowhere near a mass movement.
“For IT to reach the masses, the big question is affordability,” says
IDC India’s president Ravi Sangal. “Unless prices are within the reach of
the common man, penetration will not increase.”Government officials say
that one should not expect a lot to happen very soon. Things will “take
time”. DoT secretary Shyamal Ghosh says that a good first step is that the
environment for competition has been created. “The impact will be felt in
due course,” he says, “but the important thing is that the kick-off
has happened.”

Infrastructure and services

The telephone network continues to be the most prominent
Internet access medium. So, due to a very low phone density in India, Net access
stays confined to limited parts of the country. The Task Force stipulated
various measures aimed at spreading the telecom infrastructure to far-flung
areas, and promoting the use of the Internet among the people. Removing VSNL’s
Internet monopoly to create space for private players was a significant step.
But the benefits have yet to trickle to down to the masses. “You must
realize that these have just been opened up,” Ghosh says. “They can’t
lay 200,000 km of fiber overnight,” says Ghosh.

Other measure included the National Telecom Policy ’99,
permitting leasing of excess/spare capacity for data transmission by the
railways, state electricity boards and power grid corporations. The policy also
lays emphasis on rural communication, and proposes low data services to 290,000
villages by December 2001–that is, the village phone booths would become
“public tele-info centers” with Internet capability.

The spread of infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the
ambitious targets. The present time frame taken by DoT to make data circuits
available to Internet service providers is too long. Worse, there is absolutely
no guarantee of the service. Just as the ISPs make no guarantee to the end-user
about the 56 kbps dial-up bandwidth (even when end-users get a 56 kbps
connection, their data rates are at a tenth of that), VSNL and the DoT make no
guarantees about the leased lines’ uptime or bandwidth. It’s common to pay
for 2 Mbps Internet access from VSNL and actually experience 128 kbps or less.

DoT puts the onus on private operators. Says Ghosh,
“Earlier, we had only one service provider; now we have several of them.
So, the rules of the game will be determined by the access provider. With the
opening up of this sector, market forces will determine how much bandwidth is
necessary and how much will be available, because the provider has to take an
investment decision. They will provide it only if they see that so much demand
will come.”

The availability of bandwidth continues to be a major problem
in the country. “We have taken the necessary steps where the incumbents
have been told to provide bandwidth on demand within a specified time
limit,” Ghosh says. “You might get complaints that the Internet access
is not quick enough, but it now depends on the private operator. You have to
plan your growth in infrastructure along with growth in anticipated traffic.
That synchronization is very important so that the customer gets good
service.”

Even more than the international gateway bandwidth, India
lags very badly in terms of local and national backbone bandwidths. The
ambitious national Internet backbone (NIB) project by the DoT lies in limbo. So
despite its big revenue surplus for the past 50 years, thanks to its monopoly
status, the agency has done little in terms of putting the key infrastructure in
place. In 1998-99, DoT earned Rs 10,320 crore and utilized only 20% of the
surplus in rural areas. Of the 4.5 million new connections provided in1999-00,
less than 30% were outside the 12 largest cities. With such low spending by the
key agency itself in rural areas, one is skeptical about private players willing
to make investments in those areas where profitability will be a key issue. In
such a poor infrastructure scenario, it will be a big struggle before IT
“reaches the masses”.

The literacy mission

The mission of "computer literacy" was another
significant task taken up. Many doubts were raised when the action plan said it
aimed at "universal computer literacy in all secondary schools in lead
districts" and to "make IT a mass movement." Former NIC chief and
Task Force member N Seshagiri says that it’s impracticable to install
computers in every school in the country, especially when many of them do not
even have black-boards and benches. "A more practical idea is to have a
common computer center where they can be given a rudimentary knowledge of
computers in their local languages," he says. A good idea, but far from
implementation.

In a country where even basic literacy hasn’t been achieved
as yet, expecting computer literacy to reach the masses could be a far-fetched
idea. Vinita Sharma, a computer teacher at a government school, points out that
huge investments are required for initiating such a training process. "And
even if the initial set-up is created," she says, "computer education
is redundant if your skills are not continuously upgraded with the changing
technology."

Spreading IT

The Task Force also emphasized the need to work out an
awareness creation strategy, but the action plan is still on the drawing board.
It advised the government to launch IT in Indian languages and encourage its use
in the agricultural sector, to promote large-scale penetration. Last year, the
National Informatics Center launched the "Warana" wired village
project covering 70 villages around the river Warana in Maharashtra. The project
aims to provide agricultural, medical, and educational information to villagers
through networked "facilitation booths" in the villages. A good start.
Now, such projects need to be quickly replicated in thousands of villages.

The government’s intention of taking IT to the masses is
probably quite genuine. Besides the recommendations of the 1998 Task Force,
there was another similar set of elaborate suggestions given by the working
group on IT for the masses. Then why are the benefits not reaching the target
audience? Is there a lack of commitment among the implementing agencies, or is
it because of an absence of clear timeframes or lack of procedures for
accountability? Probably it is a combination of all these factors that has led
to a slow pace of development. The country’s large population could be turned
into a valuable asset, if the benefits of technology were properly exploited.
There is a need for much greater commitment on the part of implementing bodies,
and for monitoring on the part of policy formulators and committees such as the
infotech ministry and the Task Force.

SHWETA VERMA
in New Delhi

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