India Interior

A true digital revolution or ‘exclusion through technology’?

Ninglun Hanghal | Updated on September 04, 2020

Majority of women in Manipur, both rural and urban, use feature phones. Only one member of the family, mostly the son, owns a smartphone Ninglun Hanghal   -  Ninglun Hanghal

Majority of women in Manipur, both rural and urban, use feature phones. Only one member of the family, mostly the son, owns a smartphone   -  NINGLUN HANGHAL

Majority of women in Manipur, both rural and urban, use feature phones. Only one member of the family, mostly the son, owns a smartphone

Lack of smartphones and poor connectivity have severely cramped internet outreach in Manipur during the ongoing pandemic

A common scenario in every household in Manipur during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is that of the mother sharing her smartphone with the children. The children can be seen completing tasks given by their schoolteachers through the mother’s WhatsApp platform, with schools in urban and semi-urban areas forced to resort to online classrooms.

For Mamta Lukhram, who lives in Imphal East and is a sociology teacher at Maram Don Bosco College in Senapati, 100 km north of Imphal, it is a difficult predicament. She shares her smartphone with her daughter. One takes lessons online, and the other receives lessons online. “My daughter has to miss her class if I am taking online classes or out for my field study as I have to move around with my phone,” says Lukhram.

Online teaching

Lukhram is not too enthusiastic about online teaching because, she says, many children miss out on classes as they lack a smartphone at home or do not have online connectivity. But with the pandemic rearing its head and schools and colleges unlikely to open anytime soon, there is not much choice but to continue in online mode.

In the new internet classroom, the North-East region is veritably on the back bench. When the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) gives out its connectivity figures, the North-East’s 11 million wireless subscriber statistic is clubbed under a single heading, “North-East” comprising the seven States barring Assam. State-wise breakup of statistics for the North-East is difficult to spot.

Meanwhile, in small towns, most families have one or a maximum of two mobile phones which they share. Majority of women in rural Manipur usually own simple feature phones. Take the case of Biakmoi, a mother of two in Lamka town, Churachandpur. Her phone lacks the ability to download apps or use the internet. “Luckily, my elder son who has just graduated has a smartphone and is helping his younger sibling during these difficult times,” she says.

Ningyami, a schoolteacher who lives in the hill town of Ukhrul, points out that in the interior tribal hill districts, online classes have limited reach since parents do not own smartphones. During the lockdown, most children without access to online classes helped with domestic chores or in the fields.

Ronica Vungmuankim from Lamka in Churachandpur observes that information technology is very new in rural Manipur. A TISS alumnus, Vungmuankim says that tribals are community-oriented and their physical spaces are owned and managed collectively in societal and familial platforms. However, online education demands a quiet, individual space for learning. Vungmuankim also feels that digital education is not interactive. “Even though you attempt to interact online, children, especially girls, will hide their faces or not respond,” she says.

Independent researcher Achan Mungleng in Ukhrul too does not find the need for information technology. Mungleng’s work focuses on traditional handloom and textiles, which requires personal interaction. “I am working with the older generation of women. My work requires information that can only be passed person to person, not through any tech medium,” she says.

New normal

The “new normal” of working online has worried women activists and development workers. Marybeth Sanate, secretary of Rural Women Upliftment Society in Churachandpur, feels that it is discriminatory and asks, “What will happen to rural women? They will be left out.” For instance, if she were to take an initiative to organise a webinar or online sessions, women tribal leaders and mothers’ association leaders may not participate.

Hechin Haokip, secretary of the Center for Women and Girls, covers Chandel and Tengnoupal — tribal districts bordering Myanmar. She says she goes online only on matters related to communication with NGO partners or if required to speak at a conference. For, even if women members or stakeholders have the gadgets, they do not have the capacity or the skills to use them. “Then it becomes exclusion through technology. If you are insisting on online technology, you are leaving out a large section of the people,” adds Haokip.

The Council for Social Development, New Delhi, undertook an impact assessment of the National Digital Literacy Mission in Manipur during April-July 2016. The survey among 222 respondents revealed that there were only 15 females as against 24 males in the age group of 14-29 who could use or operate a computer. In the age group of 30-45, there were four females as against eight males. Of the target of 6,666 persons in Manipur for digital training by the NDLM, 13 per cent of the trainees had no IT literate member in the family. Another 40 per cent had one member and 37 per cent had two to four members. Only 8 per cent had four or more IT literate members.

The writer is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views

Published on September 04, 2020

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