India risks a lost generation amid Covid-19 and digital divide

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) – Dhiru, an Indian teenager who entered 10th grade this year, hasn’t attended even one day of class since the academic year began in April.

The school was closed for months amid the pandemic, but even though it has reopened, his mother, Ms Rekha Devi, is afraid to send him to class.

Unlike some schools, Dhiru’s doesn’t offer online instruction – and even if it did, the family doesn’t own a computer or a smartphone to access the Internet.

“The school is now saying, ‘Come and attend class’, but we don’t want to take the risk,” said Ms Rekha, a domestic helper near New Delhi.

“Unlike rich people, we don’t have the option of online classes. So we’ve started private tuition for him, but I’m not sure he’ll be able to pass the exams without any schooling this year.”

Plenty of Indians are facing a similar predicament: As many as 80 per cent of Indian students could not access online schooling during the lockdown, and many might not return to classrooms when they reopen, according to a recent study by Oxfam.

That’s just one example of how the pandemic has exacerbated the country’s digital divide – the gap between those with the means and knowledge to benefit from the Internet, and those without – worsening already stark levels of inequality and weighing on economic growth.

While the divide isn’t unique to India, it is especially acute in a nation where more than half the population of 1.3 billion people is under 25 years old.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced lockdowns earlier this year, services from banking and schooling to medical consultations and job searches moved online, and in some cases, remain there nine months later.

Many companies see “work from home” as the new normal.

Before the pandemic, government researchers estimated India’s digital shift could unlock as much as US$1 trillion (S$1.33 trillion) of economic value over five years.

But the crisis is spreading those benefits unevenly and widening socio-economic inequalities, with girls suffering more than boys and rural areas more affected than cities.

“The digital divide in India is an ongoing problem and the pandemic has definitely made it worse,” said Mr Sumeysh Srivastava, a New Delhi-based Internet-access researcher at Nyaaya, an open-access platform that provides simple and actionable legal information.

“The government needs to ensure that all Indians are in position to benefit from digitisation, otherwise we’re at risk of creating a new class of digitally poor citizens.”

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Internet access

India has the world’s second-largest pool of Internet users, about 600 million, comprising more than 12 per cent of all users globally.

Yet half its population lacks Internet access, and even if they can get online, only 20 per cent of Indians know how to use digital services, according to government data.

Every 10 per cent increase in India’s Internet traffic delivers a 3.1 per cent increase in per capita gross domestic product, according to a 2018 report by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations.

But the benefits of those gains aren’t reaching everyone: Mr Srivastava said government-run digital literacy programmes cover 5 per cent or less of the population, are focused only on rural areas, and suffer from various design and implementation issues.

“The digital revolution has made services more tradable and enabled India to grow rapidly with a different growth model compared to China,” said Dr Ejaz Ghani, a former economist at the World Bank.

“But this is now being restrained by the digital divide.”

The launch of online job portals for labourers and e-passes to move around during the lockdown meant Indians who aren’t digitally literate could have lost out on livelihood opportunities.

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The government said last week that the pandemic “has necessitated delivery of stable and high-speed broadband Internet services to an increasingly large number of subscribers in the country”, and allowed for public Wi-Fi networks to be established.

That will create employment, boost small businesses’ income and raise GDP, the government said.

“Reducing the digital divide will be through increased investments in digital infrastructure,” Dr Ghani said.

“China has marched way ahead of India and closed the gap with the US on the digital revolution. We have a long way to catch up.”

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