With the internet becoming essential for education, communication, livelihoods and government services and entitlements, access to the internet is no longer a privilege or luxury. Those who do not have access to the internet (or have rudimentary or limited access) will fall further and further behind in the digital age. The CCDS study examines the extent of digital inequality in a rapidly-expanding Indian metropolis and explores the barriers to internet access for the poor and marginalised.
The digital have-nots are often those who are already disadvantaged along the traditional axes of inequality. They include the poor who do not have the economic capital to buy the infrastructure required to log on to the web; those who do not have the social capital – including education and ICT skills – to use computers and the internet; and those who do not have the freedom or autonomy to use digital technologies – such as women.
Digital inequality ends up reinforcing existing social inequalities, and therefore constitutes a major social inclusion and public policy issue.
Digital inequality between the developed, developing and least-developing nations, between rural and urban areas and between genders has been studied by social scientists and policymakers globally over the last two decades. Research on digital inequality within supposedly ‘well-connected’ urban areas, however, is still to gain ground.
The CCDS study explores the barriers to internet access for a broad spectrum of low-income and socially-excluded populations in Pune city, an urban agglomeration in Maharashtra state, where roughly 40% of citizens live in informal settlements or slums. Data on the extent of digital inequality and its causes will offer crucial insights for the digital inclusion of marginalised urban populations.
Extent of digital inequality
The CCDS study, undertaken between July 2013 and December 2015, surveyed nearly 10% of households in six low-income settlements of the urban agglomeration – a total of 1,634 households. The study revealed that only 18% of adult residents use the internet, despite taking a very broad definition of internet user, including all those who have ever accessed the internet on any device, anywhere, in the last three months.
Further inequalities in internet access within the settlements were observed along the lines of gender, age, education, wealth and occupation.
Digital inequality by gender: There is a big gender gap: 16% of women in the study locations are internet users compared to 58% of men. The number of non-users among women is double the number for men.
Digital inequality by age: There is a big age gap: The majority of users – 64% – are in the 16-20 age-group. Only 7% of the 35+ report internet use.
Digital inequality by education: Use of internet rises as levels of education rise. There are few users with no education or only primary education. Households where a family member had completed schooling or was enrolled in Standard 10 were three times more likely to be connected to the internet than households without an educated member.
Digital inequality by wealth: Affordability strongly determines internet access. A higher proportion of internet users fall in the upper wealth quintiles.
Digital inequality by occupation: Students and those in more secure jobs in the formal or informal sector were much more likely to be online than daily-wagers or non-working people.
Digital inequality due to lack of awareness: In the margins of the city where the study populations live, roughly 40% of non-users have never even heard of the internet.
Barriers to access
Infrastructural constraints: No wired broadband services are offered in the low-income settlements although these services may be available in commercial and middle-income residential areas a stone’s throw away. No free or subsidised public access points are available in the settlements and commercially-operated cybercafes tend to be located some distance away. Users reported the variable network connectivity and coverage offered by mobile telecom service providers as a major barrier to fuller use.
Economic constraints: Households that are poorer are constrained by the absence of enabling infrastructure like computers, dongles, smartphones and feature phones, as well as the cost of internet services.
Educational constraints: Education is also linked to purpose of use. Though at the time of the survey, users were mainly logged onto social networks and entertainment sites, those with higher levels of education up to higher secondary/diploma/vocational courses were also using it for education/jobs and information search. Regardless of level of education, however, use of the internet for online transactions and e-governance services was limited, indicating that they might not be user-friendly for these diversely-literate populations with very basic internet infrastructure.
Lack of ICT skills: Lack of the skill to use computers and other digital devices like smartphones and tablets keeps a big section of the study population away from the digital world. Households where a family member had learnt how to use a computer were four times more likely to be connected than households where no member used a computer.
Gender constraints: Gender differences begin with literacy, with 70% of women literate compared to 87% of men. Only 40% of women own their own mobile phone compared to 79% of men. Fewer women than men can use a computer. But the biggest barrier for women appears to be the absence of agency and autonomy in going online, either on their own or family member’s device or at public access points like cybercafes. The internet is considered unsafe and inappropriate for women in these neighbourhoods.
Attitudinal constraints: Some non-users believe that the internet has nothing relevant to offer them. Others believe it is addictive and a waste of time, with a strong potential for misuse.
Regardless of the congested and unhygienic environments in which the study populations live, regardless of their economic and educational constraints, poor housing and absence of digital infrastructure, digital communication is very important to respondents: 97% of the households studied had a mobile phone and 89% had television. An overwhelming 80% of users and 78% of non-users said that the internet was as basic a necessity as electricity. There is a strong aspiration to go online and be part of the digital society.
The CCDS study offers a reality check on the digital ‘revolution’ that is being celebrated in India. It points to the enormity of the task of digital inclusion if ambitious programmes such as Digital India are to benefit all citizens, not just the broadband elites. It illustrates that digital equality is not just about getting people connected to the internet. It is about ensuring that everyone has equal opportunity to access high-speed and affordable internet services, as well as the media/digital literacy to use the technology to the fullest.
Some of the recommendations that our study makes are:
- Reframing the digital divide debate and shifting the focus from access to technology alone to access + adoption, with a focus on the social contexts of technology.
- Providing high-quality internet access for marginalised urban communities: While free/subsidised Wi-Fi spots can facilitate quick access on mobile devices, fuller use of the internet is best enabled through public access centres with high-speed broadband on computers. The location of these public access centres within or close to low-income areas will facilitate access by women in particular. The presence of mentors will help users make fuller use of the internet, including in applying for state entitlements and services.
- Enhancing user capability by offering short workshops and trainings with flexible timings and audio-visual instruction in place of the one-size-fits-all ICT trainings offered in the state at present.
- Improving the quality of ICT training and infrastructure in schools that cater to the urban poor.
- Raising awareness of the internet and its benefits by developing concrete examples of use for particular communities and demonstrating the value of the internet for them.
- Addressing social acceptability through awareness-generation on online safety and responsible use of the internet.
- Building relevant (local) content and services and making them available in regional languages to help marginalised groups access information related to livelihoods, health, housing, education, personal enrichment, public amenities and entitlements.