Archive for April 24, 2020

The great digital divide

Moolchand’s cheap Chinese handset has, of late, turned silent. Not that the instrument has conked off but, the pre-paid number in the mobile is now “out of service” as it is not topped-up for days on end. It takes a minimum of Rs. 50 to keep the mobile active but in this extended period of lockdown and weeks of zero income, Moolchand scarcely has any money left with him for the purpose. And even when he manages to cough up the little currency needed, he could neither find a shop open to get it done nor has the knowledge and the access to charge it online. His wife, living in a remote village in Purnia district of Bihar, has no clue of either his whereabouts or his wellbeing as the only line of communication with the family now lay in tatters. Moolchand is desperate to reach out to his family for about a month now but even the most advanced mobile technology won’t allow him do just that without putting money to the account!

The new age connectivity of the mobile and the internet is touted as a great leveller that would ensure seamless access to information and to services that would ensure equality among all the citizens. But as the days of COVID-19 pandemic get prolonged, what emerges as a stark reality is the great digital divide that segregates the poor and the marginalised from the rest of the countrymen. When basic food and other essential needs are out of bounds in the normal bazar, it gets usurped and hoarded by the upwardly mobile through a web of online purchases and modes of payment. While the likes of Moolchand struggle to survive through a mixture of community handouts and government doles, the tech savvy class indulge in many an online activity of fun and leisure, all from the comforts of their homes. The shutdown robbed the urban poor of both their income and the self esteem and digital technology is nowhere near to their rescue. 

With the penetration of the high-speed internet and the easy access to digital platforms , the idea of “work from home” was quickly lapped up by the privileged few while the vast majority of the populace lost their livelihood to the Corona onslaught. Many innovative methods to transact business online were smartly adopted and soon Zoom meetings, Webinars and the likes became the order of the day just when multitudes in innumerable shelters despaired to quell hunger and thirst. The drawing rooms of the middle class households increasingly morphed as office spaces in the new scheme of things while every conceivable space in the relief camps where taken up for human occupation. The access to technology has endowed the fortunate class with newer privileges and its very denial to the vast majority is threatening their survival. The Coronavirus has indeed demarcated the digital haves from the digital have-nots in the most cruel way.

As in business, the elites have quickly integrated the digital offerings for the purpose of education too and now almost all private schools conduct classes online. Lessons are taught through a combination of Google classrooms, whiteboard demos and interactive activities with teachers and students secured in the safe environs of their homes. This new methodology is bringing about a paradigm shift in the ways lessons are transacted while the less fortunate children on the wrong side of the digital divide have neither their schools running nor have the wherewithal to harness the technological advantage. This would further widen the knowledge base and the skill sets among students from different economic strata that is already skewed over many fault-lines.  Digital technology thus is fasting emerging as the new differentiator with those without access to it hugely marginalised and even losing the battle for survival.

Meanwhile Moolchand’s mobile got an SMS alert which read thus “ Your mobile services are temporarily disconnected. You can reactivate the number by paying online by clicking at the link given below”. He neither could read the message nor did he care to know what it meant…he just waits for things to become normal so that he could charge his mobile from the nearby petty shop.

Yours

Narayanan

PS: Moolchand is only a representative of the vast number of migrant workers who are stranded in various cities across India.

April 24, 2020 at 11:32 am 12 comments


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