Roti, Kapda, Makan (trans. Food, Clothing, and Shelter) has been the refrain resonating throughout India’s tryst with social and economic development from Independence until the present times. These basic needs characterize the modalities of survival and their acquisition signals a foot out of the threshold of poverty. Today, despite significant progressive steps towards social and economic development India still suffers from pervasive income inequality – currently undergirded by connectivity, access to internet, and digital devices. This is because the architecture of governance and public service delivery has come to depend on digital infrastructures.
While internet has become the indispensable vehicle of public service delivery on one hand, it has also become a source of expanding social and economic opportunities in the hands of the individual. It expands their capacity for self-expression and widens the potential for wider civic participation; it acts as a node for access to information, and diversifying livelihood opportunities. However, despite India having the second largest number of internet users after China its digital dividends are still restricted to the urban areas with a wide urban-rural gulf in internet and smartphone penetration and quality of service.
The Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) has been working for the last 17 years to bridge this digital divide by bringing marginalised and underserved populations closer to development outcomes through the means of information and communication technologies and access to information. Through this short survey covering 14 states and 51 rural and underserved districts, 16098 respondents were asked to rank Roti, Kapda, Makan, Employment, Mobile, and Internet in the order of their preference. The results showed that overall Roti, Kapda, and Makan occupied the first, second, and third positions respectively followed by Employment, Mobile and Internet. Despite internet increasingly becoming the medium for facilitating access to social protection and thereby the basic need, the preference ordering potentially indicates the discernment between internet as a medium versus internet as an end use. The results also indicate the indispensability of physiological needs and the need for progressive meeting of those needs in moving towards mobile and internet as end use that expands social and economic equities for an individual.
Interestingly, within only first preference ordering, Internet has wedged its way right after Food, followed by Employment, House, Clothing, and Mobile with nearly 70% of the respondents ranking Internet as their first preference being below 30 years of age. However, with only 15% respondents ranking Internet as their first preference underscores the contextual factors of affordability and access in driving individual ownership and use of internet and mobile phone. This is complemented by DEF’s extensive experience and learning in leveraging digital technologies to drive change in and through access to infrastructure, education, governance and citizen services, and markets and social enterprises which have shown how individual ownership and usage have accelerated outcomes in adoption; digital media and information literacy, access to information, entrepreneurship, social protection, and livelihoods.