When assessing the digital divide, it helps to remember that the underlying issue is more than just access to the internet. The manner in which internet usage benefits the end-user is also a key factor affecting the quality of digitization across the country. The goal of digitization should not be just greater creation or consumption of online content – it should enhance the resilience of society. This necessitates the presence of an enlightened bureaucracy providing the nation an unambiguous regulatory framework.
In India, it is not just digital connectivity that is missing. So are other necessities – including electricity, literacy, financial inclusion and regulations. The end-result is that the masses are unable to optimally use the available digital solutions. Furthermore, and this is especially true during the pandemic, the majority of India’s population is struggling with life-threatening problems, which make daily survival their primary objective. Covid has altered how we live and work. It has created new inequities needing policy attention.
Millions of Indians are not only on the wrong side of the digital divide, but also on the wrong side of many fundamental divides – including healthcare, nutrition and education. Covid has aggravated this situation because lockdowns and social distancing norms have made many public programmes available only online. Unfortunately, innumerable Indians have been excluded from elementary social security nets. Unless India’s policymakers realize that access to digital technologies is a critical factor promoting socioeconomic inclusion, all progress will be confined only to the privileged minority. That will prove counterproductivein the long run.
The deep disruptions caused by the pandemic have opened up subtle opportunities to transform societies. They should be maximized by policymakers. These are the times that will really test the mettle of policymakers. The Covid crisis contains the seeds of a largescale restructuring of India’s political economy, service delivery systems and social contracts. Covid has accelerated trends such as digitization, market consolidation, roles and responsibilities of the private sector, and regional cooperation. It is also creating important new opportunities such as the promotion of local industries, the formalization of the economy, and the upgrading of infrastructure, both urban and rural. These are signals that policymakers should not miss.
Time and tide wait for no man. As Indiarebuilds itself from Covid disruptions, it should not return to a pre-pandemic reality. This is the perfect moment for policymakers to not just write their script, but also implement it in both letter and spirit. They must help build a better reality that recognizes the need for innovation, particularly in digital technologies. This is the prerequisite for a sustained victory over our multidimensional development challenges – poverty, healthcare, education, productivity, competitiveness, food and nutrition security, climate change and governance.
Digital efficacy cannot be generated in a vacuum. Policymakers need to make implementation of digital technologies a central element of a national development strategy. Better late than never. Designing well-calibrated regulatory frameworks, investment in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and financial inclusion shouldnow top our policy agenda.