This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on September 2, 2015.
Is digital inclusion dividing rather than connecting people? Are efforts such as the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) and Common Services Centre (CSC) schemes making people’s lives more convenient or just miserable? With Digital India, are we trying to achieve efficiency, less bureaucracy and more transparency or are we creating another barrier to cross, another opportunity for middlemen to use as a means to exploit people? By digital inclusion, do we mean harnessing computers and the Internet to convert things into a digital format or are we looking to re-engineer manual processes in a way where digital intervention can provide solutions and not problems?
In urban areas, we use email, social media and the Internet and feel we have truly achieved serious efficiency in communication—we can reach anybody, we can talk to anyone, so much so that we can even reach the prime minister in real time.
However, if we travel to rural areas, spend some time in the villages, and try to observe and experience how digital tools have affected their lives, the reality one experiences is a harsh one. In our villages, there are only a few interfaces where people experience the interventions of digital tools, and most of them end up making their lives not only miserable but also snatch away their basic rights, such as freedom, access and entitlements.
Take, for example, the NDLM, which is an endeavour to ensure that the maximum number of people in rural India become digitally literate. The scheme may have a target of just about four million, but this is a mission where even companies have jumped in with a lot of enthusiasm.
However, in the past two years, since the scheme was announced, we have not achieved even the first target of 1 million. According to the NDLM website, only 277,725 people have been certified digitally literate, against the 1.4 million enrolled through 1,164 training partners across India. Beside these numbers, what’s the bottleneck that is making it more exclusionary than inclusive? The NDLM makes it mandatory to have an Aadhaar number. If you don’t have one, you cannot become a training partner or a trainee. The demand for an Aadhaar number not only excludes many truly deserving candidates from receiving digital literacy but also violates fundamental rights and breaches the Supreme Court interim order of 2013.
Besides an Aadhaar number, the mission requires the training partner to make an additional investment in a biometric machine. Once the training of a candidate is over, the certification is done through an online test, wherein a webcam, among other equipment, has to identify the person taking the test—very often, the online system does not work properly. That is why one sees a large difference in the number of people enrolled for digital literacy and those who have got certificates. Also, a digitally literate person by training and expertise is unlikely to pass the certification test as it is meant more for testing technical expertise than user-oriented digital literacy.
The CSC scheme is the only scheme in the digital world which has traversed the last mile to provide an opportunity to people to avail of services offered by the government. The scheme is known by different names in different states; for example, in Rajasthan it is known as e-Mitra. For all practical purposes, this government scheme is in the hands of private firms; in fact, it encourages corruption, exploitation and lack of transparency, and creates another barrier for citizens to avail what they used to without digital intervention.
Out of 212 citizen services that e-Mitra kiosks are supposed to provide, most do not entertain more than five to 10 schemes, as they are not lucrative for e-Mitra operators. Of the few that are available, such as Jati Praman Patra (caste certificate), Mool Niwas (domicile certificate), ration card and Aadhaar card, none can be acquired without additional pain. The only thing digital about the provision of digital services is that the e-Mitra operator has to scan the entire filled form and send it back to the government office through a digital medium.
Even more painful for the citizen is that he cannot get any of these certificates without going to an e-Mitra counter, which in most cases charges more than the stipulated rate. In several cases, instead of a fee of Rs.30 for a ration card, e-Mitra operators are charging anywhere between Rs.100 andRs.150. Besides, the citizen has to run around all the local government officers to get signatures and photocopies and photographs before it is considered complete to be submitted to an e-Mitra kiosk.
Now, let’s calculate how many people or applications e-Mitra serves. There are 30,600 e-Mitra kiosks in Rajasthan. In the past one year, e-Mitra received 2,614,365 online applications, out of which 2,391,517 have been disposed of. Which means each e-Mitra has received only 85 applications in one year, leading to just seven applications per month on average. In the name of enabling electronic delivery of citizens’ services, this is a pathetic number.
I fear that digital inclusion efforts will end up sending the bulk of the population into a state of exclusion that will result in a divided society on a scale that the country has never seen before.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also chair of eNGO Challenge, and is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India. Tweet him @osamamanzar