The World Bank has said in a report on “Digital Dividends” that nearly a billion Indians still need to connect to the Internet. On the face of it, its emphasis seems out of place. More than 300 million Indians are still below the poverty line and rural electrification is still not 100%. But we must pay heed to the Bank’s views because it means well for India at many levels. The Rs 20,000-crore National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) project to link 250,000 gram panchayats has been slow to move and its broadband sibling, the Bharat Net, has been plagued by delays.
We may boast of one billion mobile connections, but only 200-odd million are smartphone-linked. The Bank put India’s Internet user base at 228 million in 2014, compared with 682 million in China. There is ground to believe India’s number has since doubled but that may not be enough.
The Prime Minister’s Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile (JAM) combination to hasten development will get a definite boost if the Internet is added – and that would mean a lot for the Digital India mission that spans everything from e-governance to startups. Why not offer state-subsidised smartphones to everyone who has an Aadhar number, subject to economic criteria? But more than that, there is a need to boost cheap wi-fi hotspots across rural India to match the devices.
Google has shown the way with its scheme to offer free wi-fi at 400 railway stations, but the Net Neutrality controversy over Facebook’s FreeBasics programme for restricted Internet access showed that it is best for the government to take full-service access as a critical infrastructure issue, without cutting corners or relying on private initiatives. Also, effective project management is critical for a fast Internet roll-out. The Modi government must put its best administrators on the job for this. Digital access has multiple paybacks in the form of increased empowerment of the poor, market access to artisans and farmers and smoother, cheaper e-governance for the masses. Let it not be said that there is digital poverty in the backyard of the nation that leads a software revolution.