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Linguistic inclusion on the internet

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The union government not only recognises the presence of a digital divide but also tasks a department to bridge it. Point 8 inSchedule II of the Allocation of Business Rules, a periodic allocation of responsibilities across Government of India ministries and departments, relating to the Department of Electronics &Information Technology (DeitY) under the Ministry of Communications and Technology, says unequivocally that the DeitYis mandated to take the “initiative on bridging the digital divide”.

The first point to clarify is that there is no specific policy document that addresses the digital divide in India. There are policies on broadband, accessibility, cyber security, information technology, use of IT resources, and even on publishing an e-book, but there is no explicit policy for bridging the digital divide despite the specific remit of the DeitY.(1)

If there is one place to begin the exercise of understanding what initiatives may be construed as addressing the digital divide, it is Digital India –a programme to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy – since it is an umbrella ‘programme coordinated by DeitY and implemented by the entire government’ that brings together existing initiatives and also incorporates new plans with some clear idea of implementation deadlines.

The vision for the programme is centred on three areas: Digital Infrastructure as a Utility to Every Citizen, Governance & Services on Demand and Digital Empowerment of Citizens. As earlier discussions on digital divides and inclusion on netpehchaan.in have suggested, there are both supply and demand, or access and adoption, issues that need to be addressedin order to bridge the divide. Two vision areas – Digital Infrastructure as a Utility and Digital Empowerment of Citizens – suggest that the access and adoption issues will be part of the Digital India programme.

In fact, even before the cabinet meeting on August 20, 2014 approved this programme, the finance minister in his July 10, 2014 budget speech spoke about it when discussing budgetary allocations. He said, “There is an imminent need to further bridge the divide between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. For this it is proposed to launch a pan-India programme Digital India.” He went on to note the different components of the programme and allocated a sum of Rs 500 crore towards it.

Within the vision areas of the programme, five stated aims speak to the requirements of bridging the digital divide: high-speed internet as a core utility, easy access to a Common Service Centre, universal digital literacy, universally accessible digital resources, and availability of digital resources/services in Indian languages. More specifically, there are nine pillars meant to realise this vision. Of these there are only some that can be considered as steps to bring about digital inclusion (See Table 1). The others are enabling schemes largely devoted to e-governance and improving the efficiency of government departments, ensuring implementation of government schemes and also making efforts to ensure that the reliance on imports for telecom- related goods is reduced with the manufacturing being done in India.

Table 1

Pillar

Specific Plan*

Details*

Timeline / Comments*

Broadband Highways

Broadband for all Rural

  • Coverage: 250,000 GP
  • Timeline: December 2016
  • CAPEX: Rs 32,000 Cr
  • Nodal Dept: DoT

1yr: 50,000 GP
2yr:  100,000 GP
3yr:  100,000 GP

Broadband Highways

Broadband for all Urban

  • Virtual Network Operators for service delivery
  • Mandate communication infrastructure in new urban development and buildings

Changes in Rules to facilitate

Universal Access to Mobile connectivity

Universal Access to mobile connectivity

  • Coverage: Remaining uncovered villages (~ 42,300 villages)
  • Timeline: FY 2014-18
  • Cost: Rs 16,000 Cr
  • Nodal Dept: DoT

Ongoing Programme Increased network penetration & coverage of gaps

Public Internet Access Programme – National Rural Internet Mission

CSCs –
made viable, multi-functional  end-points for service delivery

  • Coverage: 2,50,000 villages (now 130,000)
  • Timeline: 3 Years - March 2017
  • Cost: Rs 4750 Cr
  • Nodal Agency: DeitY

Ongoing Programme
Reach of Govt. services to all GPs

Public Internet Access Programme – National Rural Internet Mission

Post Offices
to become
Multi-Service Centres

  • Coverage: 1,50,000 Post Offices
  • Timeline: 2 Years
  • Nodal Agency: D/o Posts

This should be long term vision for POs

Early Harvest Programmes

Public wifi hotspots

  • Coverage: Cities with pop > 1 Mill., tourist centres
  • Nodal Agency:DoT/ MoUD

Digital Cities Completed by Dec 2015

e-Kranti Electronic Delivery of Services

Digital Literacy Program – CSCs / others

  • Coverage: 50,00,000
  • Timeline: 5 Years
  • Cost: Rs 500 cr
  • Nodal Agency: DeitY

Digital Inclusion

* The headings have been inserted by the author to draw up this table.

In order to understand the initiatives, and then see whether they are adequate to addressing the digital divide, let us first look at the seven schemes that have been culled from the Digital India presentation.

Broadband for all – Rural

The expansion of broadband has been part of the strategic plan of the department of telecommunications. This plan was approved on October 25, 2011. The Special Purpose Vehicle to implement this, Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited, was incorporated on February 25,2012. As per the 2013-14 Annual Report of the Department of Telecommunications, the timeline of the project was 100,000 gram panchayats to be connected by March 31, 2015, another 100,000 byMarch 31,2016 and the last 50,000 by December 31, 2016. The Digital India presentation puts down 50,000 in Year 1, 100,000 in Year 2and 100,000 in Year 3, keeping the end date of December 2016. It seems that the goalpost has been moved. Even if we go by the lesser figure, a minimum of 50,000 gram panchayats should have been connected. The BBNL website has a link to active GPs connected and the total active gram panchayats are 2006. Only five states find mention. Forty-one gram panchayats in Gujarat, 844 in Karnataka, 114 in Kerala, four in Madhya Pradesh, and three in Chhattisgarh have been connected.

Broadband for all -- Urban

As the notes in the Digital India presentation for this line item make clear, this is not a specific scheme of the government. The emphasis is on changing the rules to enable urban areas to have greater access to broadband connection with cheaper prices, and of mandating broadband connections in the construction of buildings and other infrastructure. In May 2015, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) recommended that Virtual Network Operatorsbe allowed in India through a proper licensing framework. In making the recommendation, TRAI has noted that VNOs can play an enabling role in providing broadband access to remote areas and also in bringing down prices. As for ensuring that broadband connections be provided in buildings and other infrastructure projects, the Broadband Consultation Paper from TRAI asked this question explicitly: “Should the government consider framing guidelines to mandate compulsory deployment of duct space for fibre/ telecommunications cables and space for telecommunication towers in all major physical infrastructure construction projects such as building or upgrading highways, inner-city metros, railways or sewer networks?” It may not be incorrect to assume that the recommendations post these consultations would include compulsory provisioning of duct space.

Universal access to mobile connectivity

This is an ongoing programme and the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) has been providing funds for mobile connectivity to those villages where there is no mobile coverage. The last annual report puts the number of such villages at 55,619. However, the Digital India programme puts the number at 42,300 suggesting that about 13,000 villages have possibly been covered over the last year.

CSCs – Viable, multi-functional end-points for service delivery

This is again an ongoing programme that was approved by the Government of India in September 2006. The initial plan was to establish 100,000 ‘ICT-enabled front-end service delivery outlets, equitably spread across rural India in the ratio of one CSC per six villages, thereby covering all 6 lakh villages’. As per the DeitY Annual Report,139,168 CSCs are operational. The timeframe in the Digital India presentation is that by March 2017, 250,000 villages will have one CSC. Even on completion, then, only less than half the villages in the country would have been covered. But it will still be more than double the spread of CSC from a ratio of CSC to villages of 1:6 to 2.5:6. Incidentally, the Performance Evaluation Report for 2013-14 gives a score of 0 for ensuring sustainability of the CSC Network, where the success indicator was the number of additional states with more than 70% transacting CSCs.

Post offices to become Multi-Service Centres

The 2014-15 Annual Report is tentative with regard to the role post offices are expected to play. Recognising that the Digital India Programme entrusts the Department of Posts to ‘shape up the post offices into a multi-service centre’, the report notes that the department is digitisingall its 154,882 post offices including 129,389 GraminDakSewak Post Offices. It adds, “The [digitised]post office may work as multi-service centre. It may become the nodal centre for the dissemination of information vis-à-vis government policies; disbursement of social security benefits; financial inclusion of rural mass.” Considering the depth of the network, where each post office covers an area of about 21.5 sq km and an average rural population of 6,193 and urban of 26,198, it would have been better if there was a definite timeframe given for this conversion of the post offices to multi-service centres.

Public WiFihotspots

Newspaper reports quoting unnamed sources say that 25 cities will have public WiFi hotspots by June 2015. This initiative, which is the joint remit of theministry of urban development and department of telecommunication, does not find any mention in the annual report of either the ministry or the department. Similar reports also mention that 25 monuments have been selected as locations for provision of public WiFi. The Annual Report of the DeitY describes the concept and even suggests that the framework developed by ERNET has been proposed, but the only specific mention is of a proof-of-concept to be done at theTaj Mahal for which an in-principle approval has been obtained from the Archaeological Survey of India with the proposal under consideration in the E-Infra Division.

Digital literacy programme – CSCs/others

There are two different schemes that are part of the digital literacy campaign. On August 21, 2014, the prime minister launched the National Digital Literacy Mission, which was a renaming of the IT Mass Literacy scheme of the Department of Electronics and Information Technology. The original plan, which came from the National Policy on IT 2012, was to make one person in every household in the country e-literate and was supposed to be rolled out in the first quarter of 2014. With a new name, it was finally launched under the present government with the mandate to train 10 lakh individuals at two levels of literacy throughout the country over 18 months.

The second scheme with a similar intent called the Digital SakshartaAbhiyan (Disha) to make 42.5 lakh people digitally literate in selected households across the country has also been launched. The duration of this project is four years, and while 38.5 lakh candidates will be supported by the government, the rest (4 lakh) are to be trained by industry, NGOs and others through own funds or funds from CSR.

These apart there are older programmes covering scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and women, which have been undertaken by DeitY. These include IT training for beneficiaries, creation of IT infrastructure, development of bi-lingual multimedia content and capacity-building.

Apart from the Digital India umbrella programme that subsumes older schemes and initiates newer ones, there are some other schemes that have been operational that may be said to be directed towards digital inclusion.

The bulk of these initiatives on the supply side in underserved areas have come from the schemes funded by the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). The gram panchayat connectivity,mentioned earlier, is also funded from USOF. The provision of mobile communication in what are termed as Left Wing Extremism Affected Areas is one such scheme. The union cabinet approved this project in October 2014. It seeks to provide mobile services in 2,199 locations (1,836 new sites and 363 already installed by BSNL) in 10 states. The target for this project is 12 months and the agreement between USOF and BSNL as the implementing agency has been signed. The agreement for six years is not merely for the capital expenditure needed to set up the new sites, but also includes the operating expenditure for all the sites over the course of the agreement net of any income derived from the provision of mobile services.

Another access scheme funded by USOF is the Rural Wireline Broadband Scheme. Under this scheme started in January 2009, BSNL has to provide 8,88,832 wireline broadband connections to individual users and government institutions, and to set up 28,672 kiosks. The original deadline was 2014, which was extended by a year. As on November 30, 2014, a total of 6,39,572 broadband connections were provided and 14,469 kiosks had been set up in remote and rural areas. It seems unlikely that even with the extension till January 2015, the target would have been achieved since that would require completion of 30% of the work within two months of the last figures available, when the rest of it took almost six years. Also, just a shade above half the total kiosks had been set up with two months to go.

A third project funded by the USOF is the laying of the optical fibre network in the north-eastern states. There are three parts to this project. One comprising Assam, the second comprising Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura;and the third comprising Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland.All the districts in Assam except North Cachar and KarbiAnglong have been covered. These two districts are supposed to be covered by December 31, 2015. Work is continuing in Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, which form NE-I Circle, and the deadline for connecting 188 locations in 19 districts by January 15, 2015 has not been met. While675 km of duct have been laid, optical fibre has been laid only for 13 km by end of March, 2015. The deadline for this project is July 15, 2015. With progress being what it is, it is unlikely that this project will be completed before deadline.

Another scheme, which is still in the pilot stage, is the Sanchar Shakti scheme, which was launched on March 7, 2011. The goal of this project is to facilitate access forrural women to ICT-enabled services for their education, training, employment opportunities, health and safety needs. The pilot scheme addresses the requirements of women SHG members using mobile value-added services. Providing value-added services, typically, is not considered an aspect of digital inclusion. But it is interesting to find that digital inclusion is one of the intended key results of this scheme, which suggests an expansive understanding of digital inclusion. Arguably with greater penetration of smartphones, this VAS-based service can be converted into an app-based service. The two places where the pilot projects have been completed successfully are in Uttarakhand and Pune. This scheme is being studied before it is scaled-up into a full-fledged scheme.

BSNL also participates through two plans in taking broadband to underserved areas through the Special Component Plans. It does so in the north-east region and the Tribal Sub-plan in tribal areas. While there are big gaps in the target fulfillments for broadband in both these plans, the very existence of these plans shows how the government is participating in digital inclusion even when they fall short of the achievement targets.

The e-Bhasha Mission Mode Project is a key initiative for digital inclusion because without a major focus on using Indian languages enumerated in the Eighth Schedule, adoption of digital technology will be very difficult. With under 10% of the Indian population knowing and speaking English, providing tools in Indian languages and ensuring ease of interface in at least the 22 recognised languages is important. The e-Bhasha project builds on the experiences of the Technology Development for Indian Languages Programme initiated by DeitYearlier, which has done considerable work in this area.

These are the schemes and initiatives that can be clubbed together to tease out what is being done to make Indian digitally inclusive. Two things areevident from this survey. One is the absence of a unified policy at the federal level. Two, greater emphasis on the supply-side issues or the provision of infrastructure across the country.Also, it should be noted that these initiatives are those of the union government, and digital inclusion encompasses areas that are in the state’s remit. Understanding what is already in the pipeline and analysingthese schemes in conjunction with what digital inclusion entails will help in charting a possible roadmap keeping close attention to the level at which the schemes or initiatives are required. 

AlokeThakore is an independent journalist, researcher, newsroom coach and teacher. He serves as the Hon. Director of the JM Foundation for Excellence in Journalism and has been associated, over the last three years, with a number of research projects on telecom and internet access.He is also the founder-director of Font & Pixel Media Pvt Ltd, a media and education enterprise

Endnotes

(1) In the absence of any document devoted to digital inclusion, most of the discussion in this piece draws upon current annual reports of the relevant department, the policy documents, Digital India presentations, Results Framework Documents, and USOF documents. Only those documents in the public domain have been used, and since the discussion is on digital empowerment, public domain has been construed as the website of the concerned department and ministries. It should be pointed out that the organisation of information on the websites itself may be the first order of business towards citizen empowerment because neither is the information current nor are the documents and information logically presented.

Also, it is important to clarify that though the term e-Inclusion, which finds mention as an objective in the Strategic Plan drawn up by the then DIT for the years 2011-2015, is used as a synonym for digital inclusion or bridging the digital divide, the discussion on is a hodgepodge of definitions, global perspectives, measurements of divide, readiness across states, financial inclusion, role of non-government institutions, and myriad other topics. As a document, there is an unusual lack of clarity and it appears that e-Inclusion is used as a synonym for ICT for social inclusion. The section that is labeled digital inclusion lists only four programmes – CSCs, broadband access to panchayats, local language content development and document exchange between government and citizen. The last one is more of an e-governance issue rather than a digital inclusion one, and there are no details provided. To elaborate the point made earlier, this Strategic Plan has a title page that reads: Strategic Plan for Department of Information Technology for the next five years. There is absolutely no mention of what those five years are or when it was brought out. One has to read the file name to discover that perhaps it was issued in February of 2011 since the file name is “Strategic_PlanDIT_FINAL_110211”. This is just to give but one example of how information is presented on the website of the department tasked with digital inclusion, which inter alia requires information to have a degree of clarity.

Netpehchaan.in, June 2015

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