Digital Apartheid in India: Depriving India’s Youth from Digital Empowerment

By Nihakira Srivastava

Arjun scrolled mindlessly through social media feeds on his brand-new smartphone, liking memes and watching viral videos as he lounged in his air-conditioned bedroom. His parents had just upgraded his device, ensuring he always had the latest model with unlimited data.

Just a few kilometers away, Raju squinted at the cracked screen of an outdated handset passed down from his uncle. He tried to do schoolwork on it, but the tiny display and slow connectivity made research nearly impossible. Their ramshackle home had no Wi-Fi, so he was limited to a paltry mobile data plan his father could scarcely afford.

At Arjun’s elite private school, every student had a tablet and high-speed internet access. Interactive multimedia lessons incorporated video lectures from experts around the world. After school, Arjun attended online coding classes and participated in global student forums.

Raju attended an underfunded government school where computer labs were non-existent. His textbooks were tattered and his overworked teachers struggled to engage the overcrowded classrooms. At night, he read by candlelight, dreaming of access to the boundless knowledge the internet could provide.

The divide between India’s haves and have-nots created vastly different worlds of opportunity – all shaped by their level of internet access from birth. For some it opened doors, while for others it remained a locked portal.

“Group of Listening Little Children Sitting on the Floor” (CC), photo by: Balljinder Singh.

This is the story of many in India. India embarked on the road to achieving digital empowerment in the year 2015 when the Government of India emphasized on the same and rolled out its vision of a ‘Digital India’. We are in the year 2024 today and next year, the vision of a ‘Digital and Empowered India’ will celebrate its first decade. The growth of India is steered by its youth as more than 50 per cent of its population are below the age of 25.[1] This century is the century of technology; the global economies will be propelled by technology and the newer challenges these technologies bring. In order to tap into the potential of our youth we have to ensure that our children are not just literate but digitally literate.

How has the vision of a ‘Digital India’ that we saw in 2015 translated on the ground, has the digital empowerment penetrated the hinterlands of the country? Whose empowerment were we referring to when we envisioned a digitally empowered India?  

In the post-pandemic world, the adaptation of technology to our daily lives has shifted to unprecedented levels, and reliance on technology will only increase in the future. Gatekeeping any technology is no longer just depriving a segment from availing the benefits of a privilege but is now a matter of necessity. Today, the internet is so intertwoven with our lives that a lack of meaningful access to the same further marginalizes deprived population groups. The internet is a corollary to our other human rights and therefore can be seen a human right in itself.

Only 24.2 % of the government schools in India had access to the internet in 2021-2022.[2] More than 75 % of the government schools have no access to the internet or Information and communication technology (ICT) in India, the pupils of these government schools are children from marginalized and impoverished backgrounds. This entails that children from privileged backgrounds who are studying in private schools and have access to better infrastructure have a head start over children studying in government schools. To ensure a better future for India, equal and meaningful access to the internet has to be provided as digital literacy is a counterpart of access to the internet.

Right to Internet as a Fundamental Right

In 2019, the Kerala High Court recognized in Fahima Shrin v. State of Kerala[3] for the first time in India that the right to the internet arises from Article 21 and Article 21A of the Indian Constitution and forms part of the right to privacy and right to education. The Supreme Court following in the footsteps of the Fahima Judgement in the case of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India[4]held internet as the medium to enforce other constitutionally protected fundamental rights such as the right to express one’s voice and opinions under Article 19(1)(a), or the right to carry on any trade or business under Article 19(1)(g). However, while the Supreme Court accepted that the right to the internet is an important right as it facilitates the enforcement of other fundamental rights fell one step short of recognizing it a fundamental right in itself.

In 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed an important resolution that “[called] upon all States to facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information communications facilities in all countries.[5]

This has been expanded upon in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which recognize that “[t]he spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies”.[6] The SDGs further call on states to enhance the use of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and other enabling technologies to promote the empowerment of women,[7] and to strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries by 2020.[8]

The 2016 UN Resolution on the Internet, adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, recognized that the internet can accelerate progress towards development, including in achieving the SDGs, and affirms the importance of applying a rights-based approach in providing and expanding access to the internet.[9] Notably, it affirms the importance of applying a comprehensive rights‑based approach in providing and in expanding access to the internet,[10] and calls on states to consider formulating and adopting national internet‑related public policies with the objective of universal access and the enjoyment of human rights at their core.[11]

Digital Literacy and its Implications on Right to Internet Access

The Internet has permeated our lives in ways we could never have envisioned before. Today, the use of the internet is wide ranging, from trade and commerce, to fashion, finance and education. The internet has become so embedded in the global economy that keeping away from it would be tantamount to being banished to a time decades ago. The Internet can bridge the existing social barriers or exacerbate them, depending on how the countries organize their Internet policy for all.

Merely providing access to the internet without ensuring digital literacy would be counterproductive. Digital literacy, by itself, is an area of skill that is crucial to the efficacy of one’s navigation of the internet – it may well be defined as the cognitive and technical prowess that is generally required to effectively use information and communication technologies on the internet.[12]

The Government of India needs to adopt a multi-layered response in order to increase digital literacy. The first step being the emphasis on creating and sustaining the infrastructure and ecosystem to support high speed internet especially in rural areas, along with equipping the educators and other stakeholders like parents with training sessions and workshops to enhance their digital skills and familiarizing them with technology based educational tools. Would it be really an empowerment of the people of India if we restrain the uses and benefits of the internet to a privileged few? Access to the internet gives the people the power to set narratives, make their voices heard and count. It is an essential part of living life with dignity.

The Supreme court has declared the right to privacy to be a fundamental right[13], and it is becoming increasingly clear that an individual person’s data must be regulated to prevent access by third parties without that person’s consent. To navigate data protection law in relation to the internet and personal data, you need to be digitally literate, as one cannot exist without the other.

Children and their rights need to be protected, especially children from underprivileged backgrounds. The rural population relies on government schools to educate their children and not allowing these children access to the internet in this day and age when our economy could not be more reliant on the internet, will lead to further marginalization of this communities, further discrimination and widening of the social and digital divide . This would be a violation of the right to get equal and quality education of children from marginalized communities, mainly consisting of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities, as enshrined in Article 21A.

The digital India we envisioned cannot leave behind a major section of India’s people and only further empower the already empowered ones. In order to make internet and ICT inclusive for all, one of the changes we can bring is in how we shape and prepare the youth to face e-economy. India has immense potential in its youth, all that needs to be done now is to provide a nurturing environment to harness this potential.  

The first approach to a solution is developing the infrastructure to provide and sustain high speed internet connectivity and providing hardware support especially in rural areas. This can be achieved by partnerships initiated by the government between the schools and telecom companies through subsidy incentives or welfare schemes. The second approach would be to develop a digital curriculum tailored to the needs of the students and teachers, covering basic computer skills, internet usage, online safety, and digital citizenship and integrate the same in a manner that harmonizes the current curriculum with the digital curriculum. Training workshops for the teachers are a priority to enhance their digital skills and familiarize them with educational technology tools. Introduce smart tools to facilitate smart education. The emphasis needs to be on integrating technology into teaching practices effectively, fostering interactive and collaborative learning environments. In a nutshell the whole community and all the stakeholders need to come together and foster an ecosystem that promotes digital literacy. The government can also show its commitment by engaging in Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) and collaborate with private sector companies, NGOs, and international organizations to leverage resources, expertise, and funding for digital literacy initiatives. There is a need to incentivize private investment by providing tax benefits and subsidies. Thus, the pressing priority at the moment is to rapidly invest in sustainable digital infrastructure while simultaneously scaling and replicating successful models catering regional needs and equip the communities to utilize the same efficiently and meaningfully.


Footnotes

[1] Kalyan Ray, ‘India becomes the world’s most populous nation; 50% below 25 years: UNFPA’
<https://www.deccanherald.com/india/india-becomes-the-world-s-most-populous-nation-50-below-25-years-unfpa-1211006.html>

[2] ‘ACCESS TO INTERNET IN GOVERNMENT SCHOOLS’, Ministry of Education, Government of India < https://sansad.in/getFile/annex/262/AU352.pdf?source=pqars >

[3] Fahima Shrin v. State of Kerala, AIR 2020 KERALA 35.

[4] Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, (2020) 3 SCC 637.

[5] UNHRC, ‘Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet’, A/HRC/20/L.13, 29 June 2012 at para 2 (accessible at: https://ap.ohchr.org/documents/E/HRC/d_res_dec/A_HRC_20_L13.doc). This was expanded upon further the following year in UNHRC, ‘Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet’, A/HRC/Res/26/13, 14 July 2014 (accessible at: https://defenddefenders.org/unhrc32-support-resolution-promotion-protection-enjoyment-human-rights-internet/).

[6] UNGA, ‘Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development’, A/Res/70/1, 21 October 2015 at para 15 (accessible at https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/generalassembly/docs/globalcompact/A_RES_70_1_E.pdf).

[7] Id. at goal 5(b) at p 18.

[8] Id. at goal 9(c) at p 21.

[9] UNHRC, ‘Resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet’, A/HRC/Res/32/13, 18 July 2016 at para 2 (accessible at: https://www.refworld.org/docid/57e916464.html).

[10] Id. at para 5.

[11] Id. at para 12.

[12] Digital Literacy’ (American Library Archives, 2021) < https://literacy.ala.org/digital-literacy/ > accessed on 23rd March 2024

[13] K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, 2019 (1) SCC 1.


About the Author

Nihakira Srivastava is an advocate who graduated from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University in 2023. Following her graduation, she practiced law at the Jharkhand High Court, where she focused on human rights and criminal law. Currently, she is a DIGITAL Fellow with the Centre for Communication and Governance at National Law University, Delhi. Her work at the Centre involves researching and advocating for equitable digital access and governance, with a keen interest in the intersection of technology and human rights.


Citation: Nihakira Srivastava, Digital Apartheid in India: Depriving India’s Youth from Digital Empowerment, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.06.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/51660



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Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 11. Juni). Digital Apartheid in India: Depriving India’s Youth from Digital Empowerment. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/11spp

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