Digital Illiteracy and COVID: A Brutal Reckoning for India

The ever-growing ubiquity of technology has made digital literacy the new currency of the 21st century. The ability to navigate the tectonic shift from physical to virtual interactions has assumed great significance, given that the pandemic has induced an unprecedented wave of hyper-digitalisation and tech-dependence. Across the globe, the pandemic has exposed the harsh realities of the digital divide, and nowhere is this more evident than in India, where the abrupt push into cyberspace has worsened the plight of its digitally illiterate population.

To begin with, education has been disrupted, with the closure of 1.5 million schools having affected as many as 247 million children. The lack of technological fluency among students, parents, and teachers has impeded the transition to remote education. According to estimates, only one-third of schoolchildren in India have been able to pursue online learning. Ironically, while digital illiteracy has hindered the dissemination of education, it has given an impetus to the spread of misinformation. The deficit of digital skills has resulted in significant chunks of the citizenry being unable to assess the credibility of the content they encounter online, making them vulnerable to the deluge of fake news, unverified claims, false cures, conspiracy theories, and political propaganda related to COVID-19 on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the meteoric growth of e-commerce during the pandemic has severely impacted countries facing a shortfall in digital aptitude. In most developing countries, including India, many consumers and businesses do not possess the technical skills needed to leverage online opportunities for buying and selling. Furthermore, with the integration of digital financial services in the existing banking system, the challenge of financial inclusion has come to the forefront. Although these e-services have ushered in a slew of crucial benefits, including faster, safer, and easier transactions, access to them is difficult for users with low digital proficiency.

The prevailing digital imbalance has also perpetuated a vaccine divide in the country. For the roll-out of COVID-19 jabs (for the 18-45 age group), the government has instituted a policy that mandates citizens to register online on its dedicated CoWIN portal. This incorporation of web-centric formalities in the national COVID-19 inoculation drive has proven to be highly onerous for the digitally disadvantaged population and has inevitably skewed accessibility in favour of tech-savvy netizens.

Half measures and meagre progress

The existing state of affairs, although unsettling, is not surprising. As yet, India has fared poorly in bridging its gaping digital divide. This is evidenced by the deplorable condition of digital literacy in the country. The latest government data on household social consumption relating to education indicates that only 17% of the population (aged 5 and above) can operate a computer and just 20% have the ability to use the Internet. To a great extent, it is the glaring inefficiency of the government that lies at the root of the problem.

Under its flagship “Digital India” programme, which aims to transform the country into a digitally empowered society, the government has, to date, operationalised three digital literacy schemes. In 2014, the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) and the Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (DISHA) were launched concurrently to impart digital training to about 5 million citizens, and within two years, both achieved their stipulated targets.

However, in a country of almost 1.4 billion people, with more than 80% being digitally challenged, the two schemes barely made a dent in reducing the technological divide. Although the government chalked this up to budgetary restrictions, just three months later, in February 2017, it approved yet another scheme – Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan (PMGDISHA) – with an outlay of over $300 million, more than 6 times the combined expenditure made on NDLM and DISHA.

This scheme was introduced with a more appreciable target of 60 million households. But, as highlighted in a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, it is riddled with design flaws, including an inadequate focus on qualitative parameters, weak post-training monitoring, lack of third-party audits, and insufficient fund allocation. In terms of performance, the scheme is marred by non-achievement of targets; its deadline for completion was 31st March 2019, but so far, a little over 40 million have received training and barely 30 million have been certified. There is also evidence to suggest that the scheme is plagued with pervasive fraud.

In crisis, there is opportunity

With the UN incorporating “digital literacy skills” as a thematic indicator under its Sustainable Development Goals, it is becoming increasingly evident that digital literacy is no longer a conspicuous privilege but an essential right. The physical constraints brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak has buttressed the need for strengthening the participation of citizens in the digital ecosystem. For the pandemic to be a catalyst for change, timely and concerted action by the government is imperative.

Instead of rolling out multiple short-term schemes with similar objectives, an emphasis must be placed on implementing a comprehensive long-term scheme with perceptible outcomes. Furthermore, the formulation of a national digital literacy policy, in consultation with the stakeholders, must be prioritised. By identifying and addressing challenges that are endemic to India, such as access to digital infrastructure, integration of regional languages, connectivity in remote areas, and representation of vulnerable groups (like women, differently-abled persons, below poverty line persons, scheduled castes, and scheduled tribes), such a policy could serve as a roadmap for effective government interventions. The European Commission’s Digital Competence Framework for Citizens (DigComp) is a useful starting point in this regard.

Nonetheless, if the past efforts of the government are any indication, universal digital literacy will remain a distant dream for India. The abject passivity and rampant indolence of the government, as revealed by its slapdash patchwork of policies, has precluded any propitious development towards digital equity. Considering the rapid advancement of technology, it is likely that in the near future, digital inclusion will become inextricably linked with socio-economic progress. What remains to be seen is whether the government will embrace its self-professed goal of building a digitally empowered India or fall back to its pattern of announcing grand schemes that prove ineffectual at best, and disastrous at worst.