Tech-based solutions do not always present the right answers, and governments need to consider low- or no-tech solutions, even in crises like a pandemic, said Oxfam India in its latest report on inequities being accentuated by the digital divide.

Digital technologies were supposed to make public services and schemes more accessible, but the ‘India Inequality Report 2022: Digital Divide’ shows this isn’t happening, said Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, urging governments to universalise internet connectivity and “treat digital technologies as a public utility, not a privilege”.

The percentage of men owning phones is as high as 61 per cent while only 31 per cent of women-owned phones in 2021, the report said. Further, it pointed out, “Pre-pandemic, only 3 per cent of the rural population owned a computer. This has come down to just 1 per cent post-pandemic. Whereas in urban areas, the number of people with computers is 8 per cent.”

The use of digital technologies in delivering essential services such as education and health is also reflecting the country’s digital divide and its consequences, it added.

“Internet access is also increasingly being considered an important public health issue. Health experts now insist that broadband internet access must be recognised as a social determinant of health. Considering the digital revolution that the health sector has undergone, the lack of access to the internet means being excluded from vital health information and resources,” the report noted.

“India’s growing inequality is accentuated due to the digital divide. The growing inequality based on caste, religion, gender, class, and geographic location also gets replicated in the digital space. People without devices and the internet get further marginalised due to difficulties in accessing education, health, and public services,” Behar pointed out.

Accountable grievance mechanism

The report recommended, among other things, that digital literacy camps be conducted, especially in rural India, to teach the use of technology in schools, and digitise panchayats. “Establish a responsive and accountable grievance redressal mechanism to handle edtech and healthtech-related complaints by parents, children, and other consumers,” it added.

The report analyses primary data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s (CMIE) household survey from January 2018 to December 2021. It looks at CMIE’s data on internet access, mobile ownership, computer, and broadband availability to assess the inclusivity of digital initiatives to deliver public services and entitlements.

The report also uses secondary analysis from the National Sample Survey (NSS).