It's not just internet access, how many can use it?
A typical internet day today across the world includes 2.2 billion GB of web traffic, 207 billion e-mails sent, 8.8 billion YouTube videos watched, 4.2 billion Googlesearches conducted and 803 million tweets sent. The World Bank’s Digital Dividends report indicates that despite being a connected world, 2 billion people still do not have a mobile phone, 4 billion do not have access to the internet and half a billion live outside the range of a mobile signal. So, while digital technologies have been spreading, the same cannot be said for digital dividends. This is why the government in India is trying so hard to resolve outstanding issues relating to internet access—as Digital Dividends points out, at $52 billion of ICT exports, India is the second-largest in the world and yet, at anywhere between 900 million and 1 billion, India has the world’s largest population that does not have access to the internet. While raising internet availability is an issue—just 4% of India’s population has 4G internet vs 95% for China—an equally large one is lowering the costs of spectrum which results in India’s data usage charges being 6-10 times higher.
All of these are vital issues and need resolution quickly. But, as the Bank points out, the bigger issue is of making Indians internet-ready in terms of their relative skill sets—that is, apart from not having access to the internet, these 900 million Indians are also digitally illiterate. What makes this even more tragic is that over 60% of India’s work-force is under threat of losing its job to automation—if it has not, this is only because their wages are very low or because the technology absorption is very low. While the jury is still out on whether Skill India is a total or a partial fiasco, it is clear that India cannot go into this century unless its citizens are much better equipped in terms of basic knowledge and in being able to deal with the impact of technology—a small set of digitally literate people striding ahead with millions losing their jobs to the march of technology is, in any case, a recipe for disaster. It is worth keeping in mind that while many Indian policy makers take solace in China’s increasing wages—another World Bank report projected 1.2 million jobs getting created as a result—increasing automation could well take away this advantage as well. Like the demographic one, the digital dividend could also turn out to be a disaster if not harnessed well.