The fight against COVID – 19 should not divert attention away from digital inclusion but focus on it as a centre – piece of public health policy

By Osama Manzar and Anulekha Nandi

As public health and safety measures like social distancing and lockdowns demonstrated agile responses like work from home for many of the urban milieu, a rapid assessment survey by Jan Sahas showed how migrant workers were evicted from informal settlements or labour camps and abandoned by their labour contractors with unpaid wages. Nearly 93% of the workers surveyed by Jan Sahas earned between Rs. 200-600 per day and 92.5% have already lost work ranging from 1 – 3 weeks.

The informal sector in India comprises of close to 81% of the employed workforce with 77% coming under the category of vulnerably employed. A significant proportion of this category is comprised of seasonal agricultural migrants. The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimated an annual 9 million inter-state migration in India between 2011- 2016 while the 2011 census puts an estimation at 139 million accounting for both inter- and intra-state movements. The announcement of a 21-day lockdown triggered the massive exodus of millions of migrants, claimed to be largest since the Partition of India.

Putting the scale of impact on migrant workers into perspective, more than 79% of the total labourers who have outstanding debts believe that they would not be able to pay off their debts in the near future while 50% believe this would put them in risk of violence. 42% reported not having rationas on the date of the survey and a lack of livelihood for more than 3-weeks with an average 2-5 dependents would led to death by starvation. On the other hand, human resources heads of major companies report that work from home is here to stay as it increases productivity and lowers establishment costs.

Never before, have the fissures in the Indian digital divide been thrown into such sharp relief. While access and connectivity have continued to structure the equites, opportunities, and digital dividends – the pandemic has shown its indispensability for livelihoods and right to life. With no availability of livelihoods in the cities and no available means of transport to their villages, migrant workers have been forced to make arduous journeys on foot through highways, forests, and villages. At least 17 migrant workers and their family members – including 5 children have died en route.

Low smartphone penetration and connectivity in India also mean that COVID – 19 related awareness or relief measures do not reach the migrants. 62% of the labourers surveyed for the Jan Sahas study said that they were not aware of the relief schemes and packages announced by the Central and State governments while 37% responded that while they were aware of the schemes they did not know how to access it. An ensuing conversation with Ashif Shaikh of Jan Sahas also revealed that though most migrant workers carried phones, their batteries were currently discharged or that they were out of pre-paid credit which was also a cause for them not being able to reach out to their friends and relatives and access information.

Further, as the influx of migration increases in the rural areas it going to raise the expectation of public service delivery of social protection schemes through existing e-governance architectures. Thus, further reinforcing the function of internet as medium for public service delivery in rural India. Through its work in leveraging information and communication technology and access to information in extending social protection coverage and building rural entrepreneurship models, DEF has seen the role that internet, connectivity, and the potentialities predicated on them have on improving livelihoods and income opportunities in rural areas. In the time of COVID – 19 where rural communities and institutions are struggling to respond to the pandemic, community based social entrepreneurs and banking correspondents nurtured by DEF are ensuring individuals are able to access their direct benefit transfers. This would not have been possible without access to information predicated on connectivity, digital literacy, and digital entrepreneurship initiatives.

Internet Saathi making masks for local government hospital, Rewa, Madhya Pradesh

Smartpur Digital Van spreading awareness about Covid-19 and delivering SOS essential items, Haryana

Distribution of SOS food kits to the vulnerable by CIRC center coordinators across 600+ location

The internet has been crucial in service delivery and has increasingly become, and in no other time more sharply than the present, an arbiter for inclusion. Crises and emergencies like the COVID – 19 pandemic have brutally highlighted how access to internet and connectivity have become an inalienable right to life. All public service delivery of social protection in rural areas are currently contingent on e-governance and internet infrastructural support and access to information continue to be crucial in supporting our underserved populations in these critical times.

Samarth Soochnapreneur (Differently-abled Information Entrepreneur) providing digital services

The fight against COVID – 19 should not divert attention away from digital inclusion but focus on it as a centre – piece of public health policy. As access to information about social protection, means of access, and internet infrastructure to enable them could save millions of lives and livelihoods that stand to be endangered as a result of this crisis. This situation also highlights the need to formulate a digital crisis response plan under Digital India that focuses on focuses on unintended exclusions of the unconnected. The response plan can alsoinclude the effective utilisation of the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) to provide support and extension services to vulnerable populations during times of crises.

If the experience with COVID – 19 has taught us anything, it is that public health policies as well as crises and emergency response should have a digital inclusion plank to mitigate the fallouts for vulnerable populations and ensure the availability of adequate safety nets.


Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation

Anulekha Nandi leads the Research and Advocacy department at Digital Empowerment Foundation