Sometimes the movies know how to read the signs. In a striking scene in Gully Boy, a 2019 Hindi film about the rise of a rapper to fame from the slums of Mumbai, actor Ranveer Singh, playing the protagonist Murad, spray-paints his list of life’s essentials on a wall: “Roti, kapda, makaan + internet.” Three years and a pandemic later, that pithy wish-list of food, clothes, shelter and internet still holds. Covid only rammed it home: the internet is not just a basic necessity, but has become fundamental to Civic and economic life. What goes for a hotshot in the creator economy goes for a farmer in rural India. Lack of digital access today is no small measure of deprivation. Think of the millions of students who were shut out of education when classes moved online during lockdowns; of those who struggled to access Co-Win for a vaccination slot; or could not hear the doctor’s advice across a bad link in a remote village. Consider the price that businesses pay for arbitrary web shutdowns and the plight of households at the bottom of India ‘s socio-economic pyramid that risk staying deprived of welfare benefits for being on the wrong side of a digital divide.
Our map of connectivity is also a snapshot of inequality. The distances on that map might be shrinking, according to a Nielsen report. A little under half the country’s population are active on the internet, the study found, but users in rural India rose 45% from 2019, outdoing the urban count on growth. Hand-held telecom devices remain the primary mode by which 99% of users get on the digital highway. Getting more people onto the grid calls for either a rise in income or a fall in access prices. So far, explosive add-ons can be attributed mostly to the latter, thanks to India’s re-invention as a land of budget smartphones and dirt-cheap data. Pre-pandemic, that also led to a rising tide of opportunity, lifting many boats. That may now be ebbing, not just because of a ‘K-shaped’ economic recovery from the covid crisis, but also the likelihood of telecom tariffs going up. By Nielsen data, 60% of rural and 41% of urban residents remain offline. Reaching them could prove to be a long and slow grind. But this only means we must double down on that aim.
For all the cheap smartphones that marketers had envisioned, last year only saw these nodes of access get dearer, as global supply chains failed to ease up. This year has been off to a bad start on account of the war in Ukraine and covid freeze in Shanghai. High-speed data had tariff hikes in 2021 and the shape of the telecom sector suggests more to come. In other words, India’s digital divide may deepen just as the state’s embrace of the net for service delivery tightens. To keep its JAM initiative—of Jan Dhan accounts, Aadhaar identities and Mobile access—up to speed, the Centre’s Digital India effort aims to grant about 250,000 panchayats hi-fibre links. While this has been slow going, the proposal of a private-public partnership to lay optical fiber cables has had too few takers. In any case, the push of a state-run project is rarely as effective as the pull of market demand, best stirred by private lures to hop online. Perhaps business rivalry can yet do what’s needed. But let’s make no mistake. Internet poverty can have severe consequences. The longer we have digital have-nots, the harder it will become for our worst-off to claw their way up. Unmitigated inequality would put India’s economy at risk of middle-income stagnancy. Let no citizen get left offline who’d rather not be.