Digital transformation cannot solve structural inequalities, says new Oxfam report | Bot To News

New Delhi: With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, India dramatically shifted operations to the digital space. Many everyday tasks rely on stable Internet connections. While there has been a paradigm shift in the way people access essential services, socio-economic divides in the physical world are mirrored in the digital world as well, says a new report by non-profit organization Oxfam India.

The NGO publishes an annual India Inequality Report and this year’s edition focuses on the digital divide. The digital divide refers to the unequal ability of certain segments of society to access digital information and communication technologies.

“Technology and digitization have benefited the privileged but also contributed to the inequalities that create the digital divide. This divide often stems from unequal access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs),” the report says.

Amitabh Behar, chief executive officer of Oxfam India, said India’s growing inequality was “exacerbated” by the digital divide. “Growing inequalities based on caste, religion, gender, class and geographical location are also reflected in the digital space. People without devices and the Internet are further marginalized by difficulties in accessing education, healthcare and public services,” Behar said. Commercial company. He said governments should universalize Internet connectivity and “treat digital technologies as a public utility, not a privilege.”

The report measures indicators such as access to devices (mobile phones, computers, televisions, etc.), access to electricity and digital literacy to assess the extent to which social inequalities translate to the Internet.

While the country suddenly moved to digital media for essential services like education, healthcare and financial transactions due to the digital revolution, the report pointed out that 96.6% of the respondents to the CMIE survey did so later due to the pandemic. Between September and December 2021, they said they did not have a computer or laptop.

“Mobile phones with Internet connectivity can also serve the purpose of attending online classes, etc., and are convenient for applications, making it more convenient to have a laptop or computer to carry out tasks,” the report said.

The digital divide based on caste is very apparent. Oxfam found that by 2021, a person belonging to the general category is 8% more likely to own a computer than a person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe (ST) community. This figure rose to 7% in 2018.

Similarly, general and other backward classes (OBC) have 4-6% more televisions than those belonging to ST and Scheduled Castes (SC) communities.

Conversely, the gap between the general category and STs in owning mobile phones has narrowed from 10% to 3% between 2018 and 2021.

The divide between the upper and lower castes of India’s population has widened since the start of the pandemic when it comes to owning large appliances. However, it has narrowed down to smaller devices, less expensive than the former.

Assessing the digital divide requires us to consider the gap in the quality of access to the digital world, as whatever is compensated by less capable devices than computers and televisions.

Gender and class division

Gender inequalities are also reflected on the Internet. Only one-third of Internet users in India are women, the report said. Women are 30% less likely than men to own a mobile phone and are less likely to use it for internet services. This will pose a threat to the education rate of women.

Oxfam reports that during pandemics, “internet drop-outs” occur [from educational institutions] come disproportionately from groups with the lowest probabilities of going online in the first place.” As women have less access to the Internet, women’s educational attainment rates have increased. The gender divide in society is reflected on the Internet, which can widen it both online and offline.

Another important aspect covered by the report is class, affordability, employment and education level. India ranks 47th among 110 countries in terms of internet affordability, according to a global index on digital living standards. Hence, internet access is relatively cheap in the country.

However, the benefits of cheap internet are being enjoyed disproportionately. Studies show that “each gigabyte (GB) of data costs 3% of their monthly income for low-income households (earning less than $2 a day) and 0.2% for middle-income households (earning $10–$20 a day).”

Those with computers, mobile phones and electricity have the highest proportion of salaried employees, while the least are daily wage labourers. When it comes to educational levels, the higher the level, the more likely the person will spend money on devices and internet charges.

If we consider high affordability, permanent employment and higher educational qualifications as indicators of higher socio-economic class, the higher class is more likely to have access to the Internet and the digital world. . Hence, there is a wide digital divide between lower and upper socio-economic classes.

Even if one can afford digital devices, a major barrier to accessing the digital world is digital literacy. The gap in digital literacy between rural and urban households is estimated at 35%. The latter is more digitally literate.

Members of ST communities have the lowest level of digital literacy at 21%, and anecdotal evidence shows that women, especially entrepreneurs, are less digitally literate than men. While access to digital devices is widespread, the ability to actually use them is largely dictated by social divides and inequalities in India, the report says.

Inside a classroom at Government Boys High School, Rose Avenue, I.T.O. Credit: Tanya.

Social factors determine access

Overall, India’s digital divide has occurred based on several social factors. The data indicate that those who are male, identify as ‘higher caste’ and class, and live in urban areas are more likely to have long-term internet connectivity than other disadvantaged groups.

“In a country suffering from high socioeconomic inequality, the digitization process cannot be considered a panacea for the inherent challenges of the physical world. This becomes more problematic when half of the population lacks gadgets and the internet or the technical knowledge to navigate the digital environment,” says Oxfam.

Digital technology brings with it many barriers and challenges, the report warned, adding that the digitization process may not only perpetuate inequalities, but also exacerbate them, “which must be addressed for an inclusive, resilient and sustainable digital environment. ”.

As the report highlights economic inequality as a key driver of the digital divide, Oxfam says governments should make efforts to reduce this inequality by improving the incomes of the poor. This can be done by easing the indirect tax burden on citizens by increasing the minimum wage and providing universal health and education services.

To improve Internet availability, Oxfam recommends that service providers establish social networks and public Wi-Fi or Internet access points. Additionally, the report recommends investment in the digital sector to reduce consumer prices and efforts to improve digital literacy among the underprivileged.

It ends with:

“Recognize that technology-based solutions are not always the right answers. People should have multiple ways to access public services and their rights. Digital means should not be the only way to access these. Even in times of crisis like pandemics, governments should consider low- or no-tech solutions.

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