Around 40 percent of the world population has an internet connection today. In 1995, it was less than one percent. KPCB’s 2016 Internet Trends report pegged India as the second largest internet user-base in the world, with China at the lead and the US now in the number three position.
Indians already feature among the largest users of What’sApp, Facebook, LinkedIn, and others, globally. But is this making a difference across all sections of our society, or is the access restricted to a privileged few?
In other words, do we still have a digital divide to contend with? And, if so, what is being done about it?
A few weeks ago, I drove down the Mumbai-Pune Expressway to visit some slum areas in Pune. The idea was to visit the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM.in) centers being run by the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEFIndia.org) to see first-hand, the kind of work being done at the grassroots level to impact digital literacy in India.
Prior to the visit, I had been in touch with Osama Manzar, the Founder & Head of DEF India, who had helped me connect with Rahul Tirpude their Regional Coordinator for Maharashtra. Rahul oversees operations in DEF’s centers across the state, and was excited to hear that I intended to make a visit to the Pune centers in the days to come. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. A little context, before we begin.
If, like me, you are not already aware of NDLM, it will help to know that the Government of India has an ongoing mission – National Digital Literacy Mission – aimed at “making one person in every family digitally literate,” as an integral component of the Digital India vision.
To that end, the NDLM partners with NASSCOM, various corporate sponsors, training partners and implementation partners to operate NDLM centers across the country to ensure that folks in rural and economically-backward areas have access to basic digital education via a month-long computer literacy program.
And, that’s where DEF India comes in. DEF India runs 150+ Community Information Resource Centers (CIRCs) across India, delivering computer literacy programs for folks in rural areas. Having done this for many years, DEF India was the candidate of choice to join hands with NDLM as its implementation partner, and help deploy centers on their behalf.
Thanks to the hospitality of Rahul, during my two days in Pune, I was able to visit the NDLM centers at the slums of Rahul Nagar and Yamuna Nagar, meet with the team that helps run them, interact with the students, and also visit one of the homes in the community.
It was a thoroughly informative experience, and I was very pleased to see the efforts being put in place by the team to spread digital literacy at the grassroots level, despite the obvious challenges. And, challenges are aplenty.
The space in which such centers are run is often arranged for by local corporators “donating” a local gym that is no longer in use, or a small room built on a temple ground, or some such communal facility.
While rural locations are relatively clean, slum areas tend to harbour unhygienic surroundings with access paths that may be difficult to traverse. In one such location, there was also an ongoing dispute between two sub-communities that lived in the same zone but refused to “share” any common facility – since the centre was technically located in one sub-community’s area, the other wanted an independent centre to be built in their area so that they could patronise it!
It’s not just about the space. Such economically-backward areas face a number of other difficulties. Anti-social elements are a common sight in these neighbourhoods, families sometimes discourage their youth and women-folk from attending such programs, and finally, there is the matter of how to make time for this when you are busy holding down a job as a domestic maid or the housekeeping staff in a nearby mall.