Open Journal Systems

World Libraries | Volume 17 | Issue 1 | Singh

Bridging the Digital Divide in India: Some Challenges and Opportunities
Neena Singh

Abstract

This article discusses initiatives made in India towards digital access to information and the role of several programs in bridging the digital divide. Highlights include the far reaching policy reforms of the government in agriculture and rural development, giving impetus to reform in the telecom and IT sectors.

The author emphasizes some of the projects initiated by the government to reach remote and rural areas like “Grameen sanchar sevak,” “Gyan Doot,” the CARD and e–Seva projects, etc. It further discusses Digital Library Projects, viz. the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) and Vidya Vahini, digital mobile libraries and library networks and community information centers. The paper also mentions the role of educational institutions like the Indian Institute of Technology in reducing the information gap by launching projects like Infometa and Webel, and it discusses the role of private business houses and Indian dot–com companies in information dissemination. The article also highlights some of the challenges and barriers to digitization and the need for strong determination, good policy–making and political support in bridging the digital divide in the country.

India, a union of states, is the second most populous nation in the Asian region behind China. The country has achieved impressive progress in the field of science and technology and is emerging as one of the strongest economies in the developing world. Information and communication technologies have brought significant changes in development of the Indian society through information dissemination. Technology today is what industrial machines were to the industrial revolution. In today’s world they are engines of growth, power and wealth and very crucial for economic and social development.

No other technology is as profound as information technology (IT) in human history. IT has had a great influence on the economy and lives of people across the world. In India the benefits of IT are beginning to be seen and the impact of these benefits are creating great change. It is also true that the use of digital technologies in the world has not only improved people’s day–to–day life but it has also divided the world into information rich and information poor, i.e. the information haves and have–nots. The unequal access to information and communication technologies has led to a massive divide digitally. Although India has been one of the emerging super powers in IT, the benefits have been remarkably slow, particularly in rural and remote areas. Besides socio–economic factors, geographic, educational and attitudinal factors have been some of the challenges for the government when introducing IT–oriented programs.

Scope of the Paper

The scope of this paper is to evaluate the efforts made India in bridging the digital divide. It discusses several ongoing projects and programmes initiated by the government, non–government organizations and private business houses, and describes some of the challenges faced by the country in overcoming these barriers. The scope of this paper is to highlight the reflections rather than to sharply draw any conclusions.

Discussion

The discussion is based on information collected from various documentary sources, reports, and e–resources available to highlight the efforts made by the country towards bridging the gap between the “haves” and “have–nots” in remote and rural areas of the country. The discussion is based on the following relevant parameters:

  1. Growth and development of the information society.
  2. Initiatives, opportunities and prospects made towards bridging the digital divide.
  3. The role of community information centres, government programmes, libraries and institutions.
  4. Challenges and barriers to bridging the digital divide.

1. Growth and Development of the Information Society

Information and communication technology has given rise to many benefits in our society. Tools like television, radio and the much talked about Internet have always given direction to change. The application of IT in various fields and Internet technology has been able to influence larger sections of society since its development.

Technological change is the major contributor to the growth and development of the information society; e–learning, e–libraries, e–health, e–governance, etc. have become pillars of the information society. Realising these developments, a world summit was organised by the United Nations in 2003 in Geneva, under its General Secretary, Kofi Annan. The goal of the summit was to develop a common vision and understanding of the information society and to draw up a strategic plan of action for concerted development towards realising this vision [1]. Access to information in society is not uniform and globally there has always been a gap between those people and communities who can make effective use of IT and those who cannot, leading to a kind of digital divide which is the major concern for the governments of developing countries.

In India the use of IT and computerisation began in 1978. In 1985 the government of India decided to increase the pace of IT use at the district level. The National Information Centre (NIC), a central government organisation, was chosen to implement a national programme called “DISNIC,” Information System of NIC, to computerise all district offices. Commissioning nearly 500 computer centres to a country–wide network, and connecting these computers, was a major achievement [2]. With the rapid progress of the IT industry, there have been in some places in India remarkable social changes. Earlier, people were reluctant to plunge into information and communication technology and thought IT would take away people’s jobs. But today a complete change in people’s mindset is apparent. Many state governments are giving a boost to the IT sector. States like Andhra Pradesh in Hydrabad, Maharastra in Pune, Karnataka in Banglore, etc. have developed cyber–cities.

The government of India has declared IT as one of the trust areas for the country’s development and has recognised it as an “essential service.” It has proposed many mega–projects which include telemedicine, distance education to boost adult education in rural areas, setting up information kiosks, etc. Foreign investors are also venturing into India for big investments in the IT sector. Today, Fortune 500 multinational corporations have their offices in India, bringing not only a good multicultural business environment but also better services and products. It is expected that IT is going to capture close to eight percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2008. The software professionals contribute to more than one quarter of the country’s total export earning [3]. The fast developments that have taken place due to technological changes have also propelled a great divide of the information haves and have–nots in the country. The unequal access to information has posed challenges to the government to take appropriate steps to bridge the gap. Some of the efforts made by the government and the non–governmental organisations to bridge the digital divide in the country will be discussed.

2. Initiatives, Opportunities and Prospects

India is a multicultural, multi–language and multi–religion country with complex socio–economic conditions. The growing population, insufficient funds, and delays in implementation of government policies and programmes have been some of the challenges that have lead to unequal development in the society. While some people are rich and have many resources, others do not. The educational system of India also has been slow to achieve the set target framed by various commissions and committees and schemes launched from time to time. Although the country has increased its literacy rate to an encouraging 65.38 percent according to the 2001 census, more needs to be done. The government has made encouraging steps to improve the lives of common people through several IT–oriented projects. Some of the efforts made towards bridging the gap are discussed as follows:

2.1  Infrastructure development in bridging the digital divide
2.2  Role of government programmes for e–governance
2.3  Role of community information centres (CIC)
2.4  Role of libraries and information centres
2.5  Role of academic institutions
2.6  Efforts made by private business houses
2.7  Role of dot–com companies

2.1 Infrastructure development in bridging the digital divide

The basic requirement for reducing the digital divide for countries is to give priority to the development of their telecommunication and IT infrastructure in order to provide universal and affordable access to information to people in all geographical areas of the country.

The government of India celebrated the year 2003 as the 150th year of Indian communication and telegraphy. The country has travelled a long way in improving its telecom sector. At the time of independence there were only 80,000 telephone subscribers and that was mostly in government organisations. Until the 1980s telecom was not a priority. However, the formulation of the National Telecom Policy in 1994 and later improvements made in the policy in 1999 led to a significant growth in the telecom sector, with corporatisation of telecom services in 2000. The density of telephones has already increased from 1.44 percent to more than six percent. The cellular mobile sector has also grown exponentially from 1.2 million to more than 19 million subscribers. As well, the rural teledensity has increased from 0.4 percent to 1.5 percent [4].

The Honourable Prime Minister has recently launched a pilot project of Rupees 3 crore (Ed. note: 30 million Rupees), the “Grameen Sancahar Sewak” project, in a bid to promote telecom services for rural people using WLL (Wireless in Local Loop) technology. The project has been conceptualised to provide accessibility to public telephone service to rural populations at their doorstep by worldwide Web technology. The scheme would be implemented through the Gameen Dak Sewak (Village Post delivery agents). These agents would work as the franchisees of the telecom department. The agents would be provided wireless telephones with display facilities, so when an agent goes to houses to deliver letters, he would carry a fixed wireless telephone to facilitate phone service to all citizens of that area. In the initial phase this pilot project would cover about 800 villages in 21 telecom circles covering all the states except Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Haryana and Punjab. About 1,800 village postal agents would be used for this purpose [5].

The IT infrastructure, particularly the penetration of information technology, has improved but a lot still needs to be done particularly in rural and remote areas. According to the International Data Corporation, the estimate of Internet users was around one million, which reached to more than five million in 2003–2004, making India the fourth largest international market in Asia. Growth will depend on low–cost access, low–cost personal computers and Internet cable, and increasing competitive Internet service providers (ISP), which is now becoming a reality. According to the largest projection of GOI and NASSCOM, the total Internet connection and users reached 15 million and 50 million by the end of the year 2003 [6].

The rapid advancement in the IT industry and its impact on society has brought significant social changes. Earlier, people were reluctant to plunge into IT communication. Now all states have had a sudden change in their thinking and are coming to vital decisions to boost their IT sector.

The government of India has declared IT as one of the thrust areas for the country’s development and has recognized it as an essential service. States like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharastra, West Bengal and now Tamil Naidu have been playing a significant role in introducing IT for industrial and economic development. These states have active action plans emphasizing the growth of IT industries that will extend the benefits of IT application to all types of industries, enterprises, and private and public organisations and institutions. Several state governments have started investing in an IT infrastructure for e–governance projects. The government has realised the need to focus their efforts on initiatives that can reduce the cost of operating government agencies, such as Web–enabled human resources and financial management systems.

2.2 Role of government programmes for e–governance

Despite significant teledensity there still exists a divide between rural and urban areas that needs to be bridged. While the urban teledensity exceeds 15 percent, the rural penetration is about 1.5 percent [7]. One of the prime concerns of the governments in developed and developing worlds has always been to ensure the accessibility and availability of information and public services without much hassle. State governments in the country have been actively involved with several IT–oriented projects in an effort to bridge the digital divide, some of which are discussed as follows.

i) CARD Project

The Computer Aided Administration of Registration Department (CARD) project initiated by the government of Andhra Pradesh illustrates the effective use of IT to improve citizen–government interface. Under this project, land registration offices through out Andhra Pradesh are now provided with computerized counters. Citizens can now complete registration formalities without much hassle.

ii) Sourkaryan and E–Seva

One project of the government of Andhra Pradesh has been quite popular among the people. Sourkaryan, which is now operational in the port city of Visakhapatnam, provides the facility for a citizen to pay property taxes online and also view details of plans and projects of the government and local bodies. Similarly the E–Seva Kendras in the Hydrabad state city is an innovative experiment towards eliminating personal contact between citizen and the bureaucracy. Here a citizen can pay sales taxes, insurance premiums, property taxes, land taxes, etc. Additionally, the government of Andhra Pradesh has formulated a prolonged strategy to further the prospect of e–governance in the state. In a major attempt to bring remote rural areas into the information technology fold, the first “Cyber Grameen,” a rural broadband venture, was started. This project has been launched by a non–governmental organisation, “Swarn Bharat Trust,” basically to set up IT convergence hubs in rural areas of the country. By harnessing the power of rural internet broadband the “Cyber Grameen” seeks to provide a range of applications and services to stimulate the rural economies. The services provided include telephony, telemedicine, distance learning, e–mail, digital entertainment, and delivery of government services and information [8].

iii) The Bhoomi Project

The Bhoomi Project of Karnataka state covers 6.7 million farmers and holds millions of records of land ownership. The project has earned the goodwill of many people and also international funding agencies. This project has reduced the delays involved in interacting with the bureaucratic hierarchy of the state revenue department. Bhoomi centres are located all over the state. Any land record can be reviewed through a touch screen at these kiosks; the project can also be used as a databank for various projects of public and private sector organizations.

The project has won the 2002 Commonwealth Association of Public Administration and Management award for creating “self content governance and opening up new frontiers.” Both the UNDP and the World Bank have lauded Bhoomi for bold vision and implementation. With the success of the Bhoomi project other states of India, viz. Tamil Naidu, Maharastra and Madya Pradesh have started evolving models based on Bhoomi in their respective states.

iv) The Gyandoot Project

Gyandoot, which literally means “Knowledge Messenger,” is the first ever project in India for a rural information network in the Dhar district of Madya Pradesh which has the highest percentage of tribes and dense forest. Every village has a computer centre or “soochnalayas” at prominent market places or major roads. People can easily log in and complain or request information on crops, forest fields, water resources, etc. of the district. Twenty–one village Panchayats in the District have been connected with computers or information centres; several private sector information centres called “Soochnalays” have also been opened. One such popular centre is in “Manwar Agriculture Mandi,” where the latest crop prices are made available to the farmers. The land records of a few tehsils of district Dhar are also available on these computers. Also, Internet connections have been provided to get global information by linking to the World Wide Web. The government of Madhya Pradesh is attempting to make Gyandoot Project a great success by extending it to other districts. The state is in the process of starting 7,800 IT kiosks with the help of the private sector. To train common people to be computer literate, 7,500 “Jan Shksha” public instruction centres have also been identified, and policy is being formulated to bring IT to the common people’s need and benefit. Efforts are also being made by the government to involve public libraries in this project. In fact, public libraries can play a vital role in making the programme successful by acting as information centres (soochnalayas) for the Gyandoot Project. For this to occur, a Public Libraries and Information Centers Act needs to be passed. Also, strong will and commitment among the professionals and policy–makers are required [9].

It is expected that the Gyandoot Project will play an important role in bridging the digital divide between the urban and the rural people. The village people by virtue of their remoteness will no longer be technologically behind. The Project will be of great help to the farmers to get better crop yield by providing timely information to them. E–voice and e–chat will bring farmers and experts face–to–face to solve problems in agriculture and farming. This project has won international acclaim and the 2000 Stockholm challenge award for its imaginative approach to the problems of development and government at the root level.

v) FRIENDS Project

The Fast, Reliable, Instant Efficient Network for Disbursement of Services (FRIENDS) Project has been launched by the state of Kerela in the southern part of the country with a view toward mitigating the hardship of citizens paying taxes by eliminating middlemen, delays and long queues. Essentially, FRIENDS is a centralised collection counter which accepts almost all types of tax and utility payments. This project has expanded to serve 13 million people in 12 districts of Kerela. The basic philosophy of FRIENDS is to treat citizens as valued customers.

Similarly in Tamil Naidu state a private outfit “N Louge” offering low cost tele–solutions has worked wonders in Madurai districts by using the local loop technology and making available fibre optic lines running across the district, by helping private entrepreneurs run services including that of e–governance [10].

vi) Lokamitra/Smart Project

Himachal Pradesh (HP), the hill state of the country, has initiated the Lokamitra project with grants from NABARD to provide the general public, especially those living in distant rural areas, easy access to government information and facilities of e–governance to their door steps. Lokamitra “Soochnalaya Kendras” (information centres) have been set up in 25 panchayat areas run by unemployed youth.

These Kendras provide current information relating to the district and government information. The government of HP has also developed IT Vision 2010 in collaboration with NASSCOM (National Association of Software Companies) to convert the hill state into an IT destination and also make Simple–Moral–Accessible–Responsive and Transparent (SMART) Government.

2.3 Role of community information centres

The central and state governments of India, especially the Ministry of Information Technology, have taken several initiatives for rural development through community information centres. These may be considered as rural electronic libraries. The project has been started in Sikkim and North Eastern states of India to provide IT facility in each and every block. Each CIC will have one server computer system and five client configuration computer systems linked in a local area network and connected to a V–SAT for Internet access. The facility will help government functionaries to use e–mail and the Internet for communicating with district and state officers. Efforts are being made to use the IT Infrastructure at the CICs to capture local information of the block and make them available worldwide through the Internet.

Besides the efforts made by institutes and private sectors in the country in the context of information dissemination, the community information services listed as follows is quite impressive:

Agri watch (www.agriwatch.org)
Greenstar (www.greenstar.org)
i–kissan.com (www.ikissan.com)
Soyachaupal (www.soyachaupal.com)
Web site for aqua farmers (www.cddc.vt.edu/aquachaupal.com)

E–Chaupals Project

The Project launched in the year 2000 has been quite popular in rural areas of India. The e–chaupals enables rural people to access information in their local languages on crops and market prices. Around 2,700 e–chaupals provides services to more than half a million farmers in five states of the country, viz. Maharashtra, MP, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh.

2.4 Role of libraries and information centres

Libraries with their commitment to freedom of access to information and promotion of life–long learning are central to bridging the digital divide where all services are provided to all regardless of age, race or language. Libraries in India, like those in other developed world countries, have been changing their role from traditional storehouses of information to providing access to information from any part of the world. Today the professional librarians are being better recognised as information disseminators or communicators rather than custodians of information. Although digitisation has been a slow process in the country, several projects like the National Science Digital Library (NSDL), Vidya Vahini Project, and Digital Mobile Library have been an encouraging step taken by the government to bridge the digital divide.

i) National Science Digital Library (NSDL)

The National Science Digital Library Project was conceived by the government to provide cheaper access to science and technology books to students. A task force was constituted in April 2002 by a planning commission and the project was approved in 2004. NSDL is a facility planned to provide focused content to undergraduate and higher–level students. Two hundred students from the remotest corner of the country will be able to download text from the Web with the help of five keys. The NSDL Project will prepare 100 e–books with the help of publishers; these will be ready for e–hosting by the end of 2006–2007. Also, 1,600 publishers in the country have been involved in the project to host their content for affordable delivery and access.

ii) Vidya Vahini Project

This is an encouraging initiative of the Department of IT and Ministry of Communication of the government of India towards bridging the digital divide. The Project aims to connect government and government–aided or secondary schools in the country. It enables schools to form their own intranet and Internet facilities for information exchange. Phase one is planned to cover 140 government–aided senior secondary schools in seven districts across the country, and it will be later extended to other districts.

iii) Digital Mobile Library

In order to bridge the digital divide in a larger way the government of India, in collaboration with the Centre for Advanced Computing (C–DAC) based in Pune, aims to bring about one million digital books to the doorsteps of common citizens. The Internet–enabled digital library will promote literacy. It will make use of a mobile van with satellite Internet connections. The van will be fitted with printers, scanners, cutters and binding machines for providing books in bound form to end users.

These projects are encouraging steps taken by the government to bridge the gap between the information haves and have–nots in the country. The poorest and underprivileged students will no longer be deprived of the latest reading material by virtue of their remoteness or affordability.

iv) Library Networks

Library networks are playing an important role in bridging the information needs of the people. Realising this need, the planning commission in 1984 recommended that the government modernise library services and information in the seventh five–year plan by means of library networks. Consequently the biggest library network, the INFLIBNET (Information and Library Network), was initiated in 1991 by the university grants commission with headquarters located in Ahmedabad. The programme is directed towards modernisation of libraries and information centres and the establishment of a mechanism for information transfer and access to academicians and researchers in India.

Several city networks, such as CALIBNET, the Kolkatta Library Network; DELNET, the developing library network, Delhi; Bombay Library Network (BONET); Madras Library Network MALIBNET; Pune Library Network (PUNET); and, Ahemedabad Library Network (all sponsored by NISSAT Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) are promoting resource sharing and disseminating information by creating centralised union catalogues of their holdings.

v) Public Libraries

Public libraries in India need to be geared up with the latest technologies and IT infrastructure. At present the public libraries are technologically behind in both resources and technology. Very few libraries provide access to the Internet. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has generously supported the process of modernisation of public libraries in United States and beyond. It has provided technology grants so that people can access the Internet. In India there is no major initiative for any local philanthropic help for modernisation of public libraries. However, some scanty efforts are being made by Indian Institutes of Technologies by launching the small project of “Infothela” (Information Box) equipped with Internet facility for the people.

Several community information centres have been opened with efforts of the Ministry of Information Technology to help people use e–mail and Internet for access to information. A few states like West Bengal have encouraged the establishment of community library and information centres (CLICs) in rural areas. Around 1,500 CLICs will be set up in places where there are no public libraries. These centres would provide information relating to career, vocational opportunities and developmental activities carried out by village Panchayats in the state.

2.5 Role of academic and research institutions

Academic institutes, particularly the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), have been making encouraging efforts to help rural and technologically disadvantaged people to access the Internet. IIT Kanpur initiated a project and developed a battery–powered facility, the “Infothela” (Information Box), which is equipped with an assortment of Internet and telecom facilities to impart the benefit of IT to people in remote areas. The characteristic of wireless Infothela includes spreading information about education, weather agriculture, and employment. The program is also laced with a “Digital Mandi” facility, which is an electronic platform for agro–commodity business. Under this project the farmer will be given warehouse certificate facility. To encourage active participation educated and unemployed village youth have been empowered to operate the project [11].

Another project has been started by IIT Karagpur to “bridge the communication gap between the sightless and the sighted.” The project has enabled the blind to surf the Internet, read text in Indian languages and even take up normal office work. A software IIT Webel has been developed to translate Braille into plain English [12]. Similarly the National Association of Blind, with the help of Microsoft, initiated two projects: a cyber–cafe for the blind in Mumbai and a Braille printing unit in Bangalore. These projects have made encouraging efforts to empower the blind people by bridging the digital divide.

Technology for the benefit of the common man is also introducing telemedicine in a big way in India. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) started a pilot project in 2002 with a “technology demonstration” and has been established in nearly 100 hospitals, with twenty of these at super–speciality hospitals and 80 of them in remote districts and trust hospitals. The result of the use of this technology is extremely encouraging. It is noted that 15,000 patients have obtained consultation services from super–speciality hospitals without travelling to big cities. Lives have been saved in remote places through instructions obtained from experts with the help of this facility. During the recent tsunami disaster which struck the coast of India and the Islands of Andaman and Nicobar, the SATCOM–based telemedicine and GRAMSAT Islands Network provided by ISRO was pressed immediately into service [13].

Telemedicine is now becoming a reality. However, the system must be expanded and designed to be more user–friendly and economical. What is needed is to bring awareness among people about telemedicine and telehealth and their advantages. In this regard an International Telemedicine Conference was held 17–19 March 2005 in the city of Banglore to share views and experiences on the technological developments taking place all over the world. A meaningful and economical integration of ITC and medical technology into what is called telemedicine will bridge the gap between those privileged to have health care facilities and the rural areas of the country.

The National Institute of Agricultural Extension and Management based at Hydrabad in Andhra Pradesh state under the National Agriculture Technology Project (NATP) has set up Internet kiosks in 24 districts of seven states: Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharastra, Orissa and Punjab. These kiosks are provided with CDs containing databases of agricultural expert systems for diagnosis of pest–related problems and are becoming quite popular among the farming community.

2.6 Efforts made by private business houses

Some of the private businesses, like the Tata Council of Community Initiatives, are playing an important role in promoting adult education in the country. The council has extended several innovative computer–based literacy programs to improve India’s adult education by preparing multimedia presentations.

Similarly the Azim Premji Foundation has been involved with universalization of elementary education by creating effective and scaleable models to improve the quality of learning in school.

Some of the corporate giants like “Hindustan Liver” have embarked upon a project called i–shakti, an IT–based rural information service to provide information to meet rural needs. The project envisages setting up of 1,500 kiosks for delivering information services to over 10 million rural people across 7,500 villages in Andhra Pradesh.

The Oglivy and Mather Company project “Param” is initiating rural connectivity in the country. This electronic connectivity network has been conceived to reach the remotest corner where no land line or media–based communication is available. The motto of the project is to “connect the last mile first.” The “Param” Computer interacts with the operator in the local language in both spoken and written form.

A well known corporate dairy giant, the “Amul India” based in Anand in the state of Gujrat, has developed a network of Dairy Information System kiosks (DISK). Currently 2,500 village–level kiosks have been connected and when the project is completed it will cover 70,000 villages milk societies. The kiosks offer milk account, market intelligence and telephony.

2.7 Role of dot–com companies

Dot–com companies have played an important role in bridging the digital divide in the country. They have become the largest buzzword in the IT industry. Portals like Rediff.com and Siffy.com are in a battle royal for the title of number one e–mail provider. The two major global players, Yahoo! and Hotmail, are quite popular in the country. More than 90 percent of browsers access the Internet to check their mail. These companies have become the most viable marketing and advertising vehicles on the Internet. Rediffmail has grown by a whopping 94 percent to 4.08 million users, more than that of Hotmail’s 2.3 million users. Rediff is presently available in 11 Indian languages [14].

The earthquake in the state of Gujrat provided a unique example to this industry with its coverage in the portal Global Earthquake Response Center (www.earthquake.com). It has given birth to coverage of crucial events and breaking news with area specific coverage; for example Ahemedabad.com and Kutchinfo.com took active part in providing ground news and information at the time of the quake. Dotcom companies are also playing an important role in promoting e–business. People from any corner of the country can purchase e–market products they need with the click of a few buttons. Reservations for railway and airline tickets have already gained popularity and are catching up with the common people.

Challenges and Barriers to Bridging the Digital Divide

A fundamental requirement for reducing the digital divide in countries is to give priority to the development of their communication infrastructure and provide universal and affordable access to information to individuals in all geographical areas of the country. There are a number of barriers to bridging the digital divide. Although underserved communities in India are gaining access to computers and the Internet their benefits are limited because of the following factors.

Infrastructural barriers

Despite the incredible growth of the Internet since the early 1990’s, India still lacks a robust telecommunication infrastructure with sufficient reliable bandwidth for Internet connection. Due to higher costs the necessary upgrading of hardware and software is difficult; hence, despite the rapid spread of the Internet the gap is growing wider as the technological standard grows even higher. Faster networks, higher level machines, more complex software and more capable professionals are required, but in many nations including India the funding is not available to support these developments.

Libraries and information centres, with their commitment to freedom of access to information and promotion of life–long learning in India, are yet to have a robust infrastructure. Public libraries which can provide access to the Internet do not have computers and Internet access. Although cyber–cafes have been increasing, poor people cannot afford to have access due to high cost.

Literacy and skill barriers

Education and information literacy will play an important role in keeping society from fragmenting into information haves and have–nots. In the perspective of the digital divide, IT literacy is very important to allow access to digital information. In a country like India where roughly 50 percent of people do not have reading and writing skills for functioning in everyday life, IT literacy is out of the question. Generally, online content and information have been designed for an audience that reads at an average or advanced literacy level and those who have discretionary money to spend.

Education in information literacy will play an important role in keeping the society from fragmenting into a population of information haves and have–nots. The lack of skill in using computer and communication technology also prevents people from accessing digital information.

Economic barriers

Poor access to computer and communication technology also causes a digital divide. In India the ability to purchase or rent the tool for access to digital information is less among the masses. The lower income group does not have discretionary money to spend on cyber–cafes or to get Internet connectivity on their own to access digital information.

Content barriers

The Internet allows ideas and information to be shared freely from citizen to citizen globally. In many ways the strength of the Internet is a function of the number of people and organisations creating quality content. Since no entity controls the Internet, anyone with Internet access has the potential to contribute information. Therefore, to solve the digital divide, steps should be taken by the government to ensure that all citizens are able to receive diverse content relevant to their lives as well as to produce their own content for their communities and for the Internet at large.

Language barriers

India is a country having a multicultural and multilingual population. Today a large percentage of information content on the Internet is in English, which is a barrier for the people whose primary language is not English.

Conclusion

The unequal access to information and communication technologies has led to the digital divide not only in developing countries but globally as well. Although India has made encouraging efforts to bridge the gap by initiating a number of projects and programmes for rural and remote locations, a lot more needs to be done to bring the people into the information society. All that is required is strong determination among people, good policy–makers and political support to bridge the digital divide. Libraries and information centres have a special role in providing information to all in order to reduce the gap between those who have the facilities to access digital information and those who do not. The country needs to improve the infrastructure of public libraries and link them with community information centres.

Notes

[1] “World Summit on the Information Society,” at: http://www.itu.int/wsis, last visited 16 July 2002.

[2] Dutta, Subrat. (2003) “Impact of Information Communication Technology on Society.” Yojna. 47, no. 7: 24.

[3] Ibid. (2003) Yojna. 47, no. 7: 30.

[4] Gosh, Shyamal. (2004) “Indian Telecom Scenario.” Yojna. 48, no. 1: 20.

[5] Mahajan, Subrat. (2003) “Impact of Digital Divide on Developing Countries with Special Reference to India.” SERALS Journal of Information Management. 40, no. 4: 328–329.

[6] Dutta, Subrat. (2003) “Impact of Information Communication Technology on Society.” Yojna. 47, no. 7: 31.

[7] Gosh, Shyamal. (2004) “Indian Telecom Scenario.” Yojna. 48, no. 1: 20.

[8] Rao, Radha Krishna. (2003) “E–Governance Gaining in Popularity.” Kurukhetra. 9: 12.

[9] Hindustan Times. Delhi (2002) Nov. 15.

[10] Rao, Radha Krishna. (2003) “E–Governance Gaining in Popularity.” Kurukhetra. 9: 12.

[11] “Kanpur–Lucknow Lab. Kanpur Media Lab Asia,” at http://www.iitk.ac.in/MLAsia/infothela.htm, last visited 5 February 2003.

[12] Banerjee, Sharmila. (2001) “Now the blind can surf Internet.” Hindustan Times (26 July).

[13] Satyanarayana, M.N. and Sathyamurthy. (2005) “Telemedicine: Specialty Health Care for All.” Employment News. 30, no. 4: 1–2.

[14] Dutta, Subrat. (2003) “Impact of Information Communication Technology on Society.” Yojna. 47, no. 7: 31–32.

About the Author

Dr. Neena Singh, G.B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, CFHA, The Hill Campus, Ranichauri — 249199, Tehri. Garhawal (India). E–mail: nshill_6 [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] in

© 2007 Neena Singh.



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