This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on May 25, 2017.
Why is it always that the same groups of people are excluded from all services, entitlements and rights? Why is it that some of the basic necessities that the state is supposed to offer to its citizens have become privileges for a few sitting at the top of the economic and social pyramid?
Some communities and groups that have been historically excluded for decades, continue to be excluded even today based on the existing inequalities of caste, religion, tribe and gender. These are those who are poor daily-wage earners, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, women, senior citizens, physically disabled, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, transgenders—and their children. With the lack of adequate, meaningful and holistic support from the government, generation after generation from these groups is engulfed in the same vicious cycle.
The recently released India Exclusion Report (IXR) 2016, the third in the annual series published by the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi, highlights that India was ranked 97 out of 118 countries in the Global Hunger Index last year, 14 spots lower than where it stood in 2003, while several other poorer countries have improved their rankings, and moved ahead of India in the same period.
What is dismal is that the food producers of India are suffering. While 55% of India’s population is dependent on the agricultural sector for livelihood, “the government invests less than 4% of public resources”, says IXR 2016. Lack of prioritization of the agriculture sector in the government policies and budget, coupled with chronic issues within the sector, have pushed more than 300,000 farmers to commit suicide in the last two decades. Within the sector, socio-economic hierarchy and low representation of women have remained a cause for concern.
Meanwhile, India’s rich are getting richer. It comes as no surprise that the country’s richest 1% own more than 50% of the country’s wealth, according to an Oxfam study. Today, India ranks among the top 10 largest economies of the world yet inequality between the rich and the poor is only growing. IXR 2016 points out that poverty rates are 14% higher for Adivasis and 9% for Dalits when compared to non-scheduled groups in rural India.
The report further brings attention to some stark figures: if India measures poverty with the global yardstick of $2 income a day, as much as 80% of our population would be poor. Nine out of 10 households earn less than Rs10,000 a month; less than one in five households have one or more family member with primary education; only 3% of rural households have at least one member who is a graduate. Government policies, state budgets and historical socio-economic divide have done little to truly reduce the divide.
Incidentally, for the first time, IXR 2016 explores the exclusion from the “public good” of digital access (other public goods explored in the report this year include pensions for old people, agricultural land and legal justice, etc.). In the chapter Exclusion from Digital Infrastructure and Access, which has been written by researchers at Digital Empowerment Foundation, digital inclusion has been defined as a “wagon to social inclusion that ensures individuals and disadvantaged groups have access to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the skills to use them to be able to participate in and benefit from an increasingly electronically mediated knowledge economy and information society”.
Though ICTs have been designed as an equitable tool, and adopted by the government to make its services more accessible to citizens, flawed implementation has been a barrier to reducing the digital divide in India. The socio-economic divide that has been present in India has translated online, too. Among the one billion Indians that are offline, are poor daily wage earners, Dalits, Adivasis, minorities, women, senior citizens, physically disabled, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, transgenders and their children.
Under the Digital India initiative, the government has made available all its services and schemes online but it has failed to connect these excluded groups to the internet at a pace it should have. The ambitious National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) is great on paper, but its implementation has been abysmal. Under phase I, 100,200 panchayats were to be reached with fibre optic cables by March 2014; but only a little over 80,000 have been connected till date. Less than 20% of the connected panchayats have internet, shows the chapter.
Digital tools and technology enable access to public goods such as education, schemes, entitlements, information about one’s rights or vocations, and telemedicine services, among others.
Further, it opens channels of communication between individuals, groups and the authorities, allowing them to voice their opinions, demand their rights and receive government notifications in real time. Poor implementation of NOFN and lack of contextual digital literacy training, thus, only highlight how the government has failed to pull the excluded out of exclusion.
ICT is an essential tool for achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as agreed by the UN General Assembly; by not providing affordable and equitable access to the internet, India will fail to deliver on its promises towards the SDGs.