The Cheat Sheet

Digital divide in times of Covid-19

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on April 16, 2020 Published on April 16, 2020

Is this about access to information technology during the pandemic?

Yes and more. If you have been observing the growth and spread of Covid-19 and the public policy responses to it, you may have by now concluded that digital technologies — especially social media platforms and technologies — are playing an extremely crucial role in keeping the world together by opening multiple channels of communication, collaboration, care work and such.

Yes! Can’t imagine life without social media!

Indeed. It is impossible to fathom what would have happened had there not been social media during these difficult times! As things stand now, for many of us social media distancing seems a less taxing task than social distancing thanks to our (over) reliance on digital communication networks and platforms. But psychologists suggest this has been a boon during these lockdown times as facilities such as video-calling, group-calling, etc., help lessen mental stress in people who are forced to stay at home.

You said it!

But there is a flip-side. When the world moves indoors and IT takes over most salient features of people’s lives, the digital have-nots are pushed towards the edge, and sooner or later they are left out of the race. For instance, when urban India, mainly the metros, fare well in terms of access to broadband (which helps the faster movement of data-enabling services such as video-calling, movie downloads or streaming), rural India or the poor populace in urban centres are having extreme difficulties in using such services.


There’s more to it. As you may know, India is home to the second-largest internet user-base in the world, behind China, with nearly 65 crore people having access to the web. That also means, there is a significant other half which is digital-data-poor. And the sad, but obvious, fact is that most of them are living in the rural areas.

Oh, that’s sad indeed.

Estimates from telecom watchdog TRAI shows that India’s total internet density stands at about 49 per cent. While 66 per cent of India’s population lives in villages, only a little over 25 per cent of them have access to internet services. At the same time, in urban centres, where just 34 per cent of the country lives, the internet density is nearly 98 per cent.

That’s a hell of a gap!

Interestingly, numbers released late last year by Internet and Mobile Association of India or IAMAI, which put the total number of monthly active internet users at more than 45 crore, shows stark disparities between women and men when it comes to access to the internet. While nearly 30 crore men have access to the web, barely half the number of women have access to the internet. This divide, according to IAMAI, gets worse as we reach the villages from city centres. The divide is starker in north India while States in the south have better networks.

Frankly, I — a male living in a South Indian city — must be super privileged!

No doubt about it. If your children are enjoying Google Hangout meetings with friends and classmates and have access to Zoom online classes and virtual lectures, this is the time to think about their counterparts in rural India and start questioning the haphazardly exclusive ways in which digital technologies have penetrated this country. Interestingly, the story is the same if you blow it up to a global level.


A recent report by Google, INSEAD business school and Adecco recruiters has revealed that none of the Asian or African countries is in the Top 10 list of countries that have access to cutting-edge technologies such as AI or fast broadband. Hence, the UN’s Digital Economy Report, brought out by UNCTAD last year, warned that the digital divide will worsen inequalities if global collaborative efforts are not taken. The latest analysis from UNCTAD, in the context of the coronavirus crisis, says the pandemic has exposed the “wide chasm between the connected and the unconnected, revealing just how far behind many are on digital uptake.”

In sum, as we stay home and safe, we may make some noise for inclusive digital penetration, starting from India.

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Published on April 16, 2020

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