Access to digital technology in India is largely dependent on a person's gender, caste, religion and economic status, Oxfam's 'India Inequality Report 2022: Digital Divide' has found with its reach limited to mostly male, urban, upper caste and upper-class households and individuals.
India has a 30% gender gap between men and women when it comes to owning mobile phones. Meanwhile, 94% of the respondents with a phone were salaried permanent workers while "less than 50% of unemployed are with a phone".
For the report, Oxfam analysed data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy's (CMIE) household survey from January 2018 to December 2021 which looks at data on internet access, mobile ownership, computer, and broadband availability to assess the inclusivity of digital initiatives to deliver public services and entitlements.
"The report highlights how digital technologies are accessible to the rich and privileged. The report shows that a person with a post-graduate or a PhD is 60 per cent more likely to have a phone than a person with no education. This is worrying because this digital divide can further deepen the existing socio-economic inequalities in the country. We urge the state and Union governments to immediately take necessary steps to universalise internet connectivity and treat digital technologies as public utility not a privilege", Amitabh Behar, CEO of Oxfam India, said in a statement.
Here are some key highlights from the report:
Women lag behind men in owning mobile phones
While the percentage of men having mobile phones by the end of 2021 was 61%, only 31% of women had mobile phones during the same time, the Oxfam report found. "Socioeconomic factors such as gendered social norms, affordability, geographical location and levels of digital literacy determine who owns and gets to use the available gadgets," the report said, adding that gendered social norms have resulted in comparatively lesser levels of assimilation of women in digital transformation than men.
The report further added that while mobile phone ownership might not be an indicator of women's empowerment, "broader research" suggests that having a mobile phone reduces women's information poverty and strengthens their independent decision-making, while also providing the access to health services.
Some rural communities in northern India have banned women's mobile phone use altogether, and other communities have decrees declaring internet use "immoral" for women. This can be corroborated from another report by C3India and Digital Empowerment Foundation, which found that 611 girls out of the 2,600 indicated that the "protective nature" of the family limited their free access to the phone. Parents offered reasons such as "phones are not safe", "waste of time", "may harm her eyes", or that the daughter "may misuse it". Fifty-six girls were allowed the phone only to attend online classes whereas no such restrictions were imposed on the boys.
The report found that Indian women were 15% less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33% less likely to use mobile internet services than men. It also found that only one third of internet users in the country were women.
Economic divide drives digital divide
Economically underprivileged population has the lowest rate of digital literacy at 17%, while the top economic quartile has 77% digital literacy, the report found, hinting at the digital divide triggered by economic status. "There is evidence of a palpable digital divide between the rich and the poor, the urban areas and rural areas, men and women and among different caste and religious groups," the report said.
The Oxfam report further added that the data concludes that often the most marginalized groups have been the least digitalized whereas the "privileged groups reap the benefits of digitalization."
Citing data provided by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the report said that only one-fifth of the population can operate a computer or use the internet. According to the report, only 2.7% of the poorest 20% households have access to a computer. Among the top 20% households, 27.6% have access to computers.
A mere one-third of its internet users are women. Indian women are 15% less likely to own a mobile phone, and 33 percent less likely to use mobile internet services than men.
Digital divide in education
The disparities in access to digital forms of education became more prominent in the pandemic when there was an active shift to online modes of education as regular classes remained suspended owing to Covid-19 protocols. The NSSO data has found that only 2% of the lowest-income decile have access to computer with internet, while 41% of the highest-income decile have digital access.
The report said that over 75% of parents, surveyed by Oxfam between May and June 2020, faced challenges in supporting children to access education digitally and 84% of teachers reported facing challenges in delivering education digitally.
"Two out of every 5 teachers lack the necessary devices to deliver education digitally. There was also lack of preparedness among the teachers as it is found that less than 20 per cent of teachers reported receiving orientation on delivering education digitally," the report found.
Caste-based inequalities were also seen in terms of digital access among students of different caste groups. The report found that only 4% of the students from ST and 4 % of the students from SC have access to computers with an internet facility. Seven per cent of students from OBC community and 21% of the students from 'Others' group have access to computer with internet facility.
The report also found a caste divide when it came to having a mobile phone. " On average, the general category is 10 per cent more likely to have a phone than STs from January to April of 2018. This gap dropped to 3 per cent by the end of 2021," the report said.