Digital Divide in India

By on April 10, 2013

It is dangerously destabilizing to have half the world on the cutting edge of technology while the other half struggles on the bare edge of survival.-  Bill Clinton

A glimpse into the past history of technologies tells us that new technologies as and when they created growth and newer opportunities, tended to also heighten economic inequalities and foment social unrest. Evidence of this has been witnessed across the globe over the centuries – be it with the advent of agricultural mechanization, industrial revolution, information revolution or the present all encompassing digital revolution –  of which we are all a part.

We have also seen growing evidence across the globe that most (if not all) societies and nations have got polarised as advanced or developing nations with the advent and adoption of new technologies. In the process sharp divisions have also got created. In today’s 3G, 4G, information and digital age we can but expect the same to happen again – unless strategic and tactical policy interventions are realised in quick time.  The divide (now globally proclaimed as Digital Divide) if not addressed well, can but only make ‘the digital divide’ even deeper and wider, rendering large cross sections of societies as dangerously crippled and primitive. We are but living in the information age. Information and access to information if not available to all, is but the new hunger and malnutrition revisiting us in digital form. Apropos there is an urgent need for govt, policy makers, scientists, technocrats, innovators, corporations, industrial bodies, technology lobbyists/ evangelists/ champions and individuals to act constructively, smartly and responsibly (csr)

In India numerous questions keep haunting us every day:

  • While internet in India has crossed the tipping point of 100 mn users in 2011 [IAMAI report (2012)], still only a modest 20 percent of urban Indians are connected. Worse only three percent of rural Indians are connected –  as only 38 mn users in rural India have accessed internet  to date (of the total 833 mn rural population)
  • Computers (PCs) penetration is under 10% (vs. +80% in North America or UK) and in rural India this is a scaring sub 1% .
  • As Indians, we have the second highest number of facebook users (more than population of Europe), but yet internet penetration across entire population is sub 10%

On balance, I believe it is wise and fair to accept the criticism that India is among the worst performing countries in the world for digital inclusion (Maplecroft report). This however presents us with a significant opportunity for inclusion and growth via computers penetration, internet usage and overall literacy (in addition to the myriad and compounding benefits that would accrue via the multiplier effects phenomenon at the macro economic/ national level).

So what is the solution and what/ where are the seedlings for same to ensure India will not miss the full promise of the Information Age?  What attempts are being made to bridge the digital divide? What directions do we take?  What new policies are needed and who will champion the same? What impact will all this have on forex situation as we import more and more hardware? What are we doing about the growing number of redundant computers? Is reliable domestic recycling an option? Can we become even smart on what and how we import (After all this affects our real national income given the macro forex concerns)?  Is recycle and reuse of old PCs a reliable option? Is refurb industry a key solution to India’s digital divide challenges?  If so why and how should corporations and people adopt this new standard?  Etc etc …

Clearly it is our collective responsibility as constructive people and responsible statutory bodies to urgently address the issues and challenges of digital divide – Lest we miss the boat and really fade away – the present information/ digital age will but only accelerate even more rapidly in the years to come. We know from hard experience that unequal education hardens into unequal prospects. We know the information age will only accelerate this trend further. Ergo the following are some points to ponder, dialog and build solutions upon:

  1. The challenges to digital divide likely has its problem roots in (i) affordability (ii) access and (iii) quality of service/ educational aspects. Addressing these aspects at the core will be the first step to drive rapid penetration.   Cost effective computers, new distribution channels and reliable service creations are all needed ahead and are but strategic imperatives – Tabs per se may not address the issue alone, considering that the low end tabs (Rs 3,000 – 10,000) can only be a interim mediation/ information storage device at best, and comes with limited functionality and long term durability issues unlike the varied and high performing rugged desk top computers.  Likely most low end schools per se will have significant challenges in adopting and permeating education over tabs alone.
  2. We would need to assess accurately how many computers are/will be needed at a first level. Is the solution in getting 400 -600 mn affordable computers across to the relevant cross sections of people over the next 5-10 years.  Considering across India today only ~25 mn pc’s are used, is this even remotely realistic? Can we start with a target of even 100 mn computers?  And what does this do to our forex situation? At these numbers the IT hardware industry will likely compete with the oil sector on forex demands? Can we even afford this? What due learning’s can we take from the mobile industry – we know affordability and access were the key drivers there? Can we replicate these?
  3. We should as a nation not hesitate to get the right professional working model(s).  Carving out the right model is crucial to demonstrate the right intent. Many mature and advanced countries have wholesomely adopted refurbished computers – specifically in schools and educational institutions. Refurb computers in these geographies are seen as ‘just as new’. Both students and decision making bodies are seen as making smart conservative and eco-friendly choices and are rewarded in many ways – beyond fashion statements and lip service as an institutional mechanism, eliciting the widespread participation of policy maker, decisional bodies, large corporations including Microsoft, Dell etc….
  4. Is proclaiming 1 computer for every child or everyone deserves a computer an option to work with? Many countries including china, US, Nepal etc have all adopted a OLTP program (one laptop per child). Considering India is young and will be emerging even louder as a boomers generation “everyone deserves a computer (EDAC)” is motivating. We need to then ask questions what will drive this and what ecosystem is needed for this. Is this better achieved with PPP or Pvt. Sector encouragement or govt subsidies, and what/ who will bear the cost of this/ or how will we fund this? That is if we can arrive at a quick consensus and policy making charter on same acknowledging (a) need for computers penetration (b) structures for making the same happen (c) institutionalising the charter of going green and (d) rewarding due and appropriate consciousness on same  via tax incentives or green rewards to SME corporate, educational bodies  etc
  5. Or is proclaiming conserving precious forex an option to work with ahead…  Most economically conscious people would directly know the ill effects of oil import burden and the impact it has on real income. Others experience the same thru volatile cost burdens and inflationary aspects.  Can we then as a nation afford another such import burden? Imagine the double whammy as hardware imports continue to grow and gnaw away our real income. Worth reflecting more on this and incentivising young individual and new/ old  sme type companies to adopt such forex conserving options. Today we are providing large(r) sops to companies via imports that are generating forex income, and they in-turn are importing more hardware. Why? Is it just a function of awareness, of habit or an indifference that we can ill afford? Are there then low hanging fruits/ opportunities that we are missing or not even considering? What short term tactics and long term strategies would address this to comprehensive and synergistic benefits?
  6. We all have a need to evaluate and understand better issues of and by digital divide: Digital divide cannot be addressed by select stakeholders as an isolated issue. It is a collective issue and would need to be better addressed possibly by a new type of industry body/ segment – possibly the refurbished industry. How then can such an industry gain more wings and support? Clearly it would need wholesome participation and understanding from all quarters and begin with understanding what / how/ why of computers, the effect users can cause as becoming responsible ecosystem players, while championing the cause of recycle and e waste issues. Can we borrow learning’s from the plastics and other similar industry which over time have successfully championed the cause of recycle, reuse and reduce waste. In the realm of our various luminaries both inside and outside govt., we would need their ‘experience talking’ louder than isolated discussions alone. If this needs to get vetted by good professional advice and globally mature heads to arrive at proper technology/ knowledge sharing and policy making, then it’s worth the try too, than reinvent the wheel all over again.  Our problem of today has been solved by someone already and what harm in borrowing the keys of learning and action then…

In sum, the digital divide issues of tomorrow are likely to get even more complex, frustrating and painful. That is if we don’t do something about it soon.  The above pointers in this blog are but some pointers to reflect more. Personally believe there is need to leverage proven practices and seek specific advice from global gurus, professors and champions of this problem. The journey and the end results can only be acknowledged ahead as having made the ‘right smart choice’ that future generations will tell us better.

Originally published by the author ( co founder, ceo – Reboot Systems India Pvt Ltd –  10/2012) at


About Subba Rao NV

Subbarao is an entrepreneur, management professional and a hands-on business leader with +20 years exp in consumer goods, tele-communications, wireless applications/ solutions and retail sectors, where he has handled large teams and multi unit businesses. Earlier he held VP- Sales & Marketing, COO/ CEO/ Apex positions at TATA Docomo, Bharti Airtel, Tanla Solutions and Conagra Foods (India). Having started at P&G as a management trainee, he has worked and led over 25 brands. Over the years he has lived and worked in different geographies including US, Japan and Vietnam, while holding p&l and growth responsibilities for market & value share leadership. In 2012 Co-founded Reboot Systems (India), a refurbished computers business - set up the brand, business and retail/ franchisee store model. After successfully exiting same (03/2015), is working to launch and establish his next start up - ( a platform based integrated 'jobs-skills one stop portal - presently in development stage'), to find a way out of skill-gap issues and to address the problems of skill-divide. Subbarao is also a member of Hyderabad Angels and a charter member of TIE and in his spare time runs a blog called best matters. [ email: ]

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