The internet and mobile phone are things that have come to rule over humankind today. All of us are so engrossed in our devices today that even the government has begun to notice it. With this mass penetration of the internet, the Government of India has been massively investing in the new project ‘Digital India’. The government is focusing on extending its services online. Though there is a long way to go, some of the first steps are in the making. Initiatives have been put in place by making use of unique identification systems like Aadhar.
Before going ahead with such a change, it is time to check if the country is ready for it. The reality is that people are far from prepared. Recent events that have transpired in the state of Jharkhand that began to use internet technology for their public distribution system show that results are not always similar to what was intended. Unintended and costly circumstances have resulted from this initiative, questioning the very viability of such a prospect for a country that is home to a large population of poor and illiterate people. The threat of digital exclusion is expressing itself in ways detrimental to the people of India.
Jharkhand’s public distribution system
Jharkhand, a state known for its mineral deposits and tribal diversity has recently made news for an astounding reason. The poorest of the poor in the remote corners of the state have lost their lives to starvation and lack of food. What seems to be like a remote story of human suffering has become a norm in the various tribal villages of Jharkhand. A huge section of the diverse tribal population in Jharkhand lives in the most remote of villages in the state. These villages are located several kilometres away from the nearest town or market, and they continue to depend upon the state and its policies for sustenance even today.
The Public Distribution System is the major source of food and nutrition for the tribal population in the state who constitute 26% of the population. Many of them are holders of the priority household ration cards through which each member of the family is assured 5 kilograms of rice each month. The other Antyodaya cardholders are given 35 kilograms of rice per family each month. These facilities were provided to them through the National Food Security Act of 2013. However, recently many of the ration cards issued to these tribal families were cancelled under ambiguous circumstances in 2016. This move has attracted the attention of various food security activists who have stated that over 20 people have died over the course of 2 years from 2016 to 2018.
It is shocking to still face starvation deaths when India is growing rapidly to emerge as a global economy. Much like some of the worst famines in history, these deaths have also been a consequence of institutional failure. Many activists uncovering the cause behind these incidents have identified that they are a consequence of the push for digitalisation. Most of the families have lost their ration cards on the grounds that they have failed to link their Aadhar with the public distribution system. The criteria for the use of the PDS don’t end with this. At the point of sale, every beneficiary’s biometrics is verified, and this requires an active internet connection.
Many ration dealers themselves have stated that several tribal villages did not get their ration for months. The cancellation of the ration card is a serious problem that has been aggravated by the lack of proper internet connection for the purpose of verification in ration shops. These dealers have faced several difficulties due to this system and have used various procedures to subvert the system and provide people with food grains. At the institutional level, it is more of a blame game between bureaucrats and politicians. It does seem evident that this humanitarian crisis is a consequence of implementing a programme without contextualising it to the situational contingencies.
Some dealers have argued that an emergency register be maintained so that the people who are in desperate need of food despite not having their names of the list can actually be given the requisite amount of food. Others demand the need for improvement in the technical infrastructure, as a vision without any means would be worthless. The blame game continues but the living conditions of the poorest in one of the poorest states in India remain unchanged. Many people in remote corners of the country do not get enough food because their villages do not have internet connectivity. In this juncture, one prominent question arises, are these deaths a consequence of digital exclusion?
The starvation deaths in Jharkhand are a situation that has aggravated the issue of poverty by adding another element of exclusion to the already difficult situation. Many of the people who have been affected by this particular situation are those who are heavily reliant on the government and its programmes for their very survival. They are the people who have been systematically excluded because of their ethnicity, their economic status and today, for the lack of digital literacy. Digital exclusion thus presents a big problem for our inclusive future.
In Jharkhand, 90 per cent of the population of the state holds Aadhar Cards. This 90 per cent can be interpreted as a big achievement and a basis for moving towards linking Aadhar with ration cards but the missing 10 per cent need to be accounted for. In this state, the 10 per cent who did not have the ration card were those people who were heavily dependent on the public distribution system for their food and nutritional needs. This essentially raises the point that numbers do not really matter but the people do. If the system was willing to look into why a 10 per cent did not have Aadhar, today we would not have faced starvation or pushed helpless families to the brink of survival.
If we were to extend this idea beyond statistics to internet penetration and mobile phone usage, we could understand that these do not essentially mean anything as mere numbers. If the government were to adopt policies that would require exclusive access to government services through devices, it would be a step of grave social injustice because we have a large population that has essentially no access to the internet or digital technology. These would actually further the digital divide and exclusion. The situation in Jharkhand was the consequence of the adoption of a modality that did not account for situational factors and for the contingencies unique to the social landscape.
The pros, cons and challenges ahead
A policy like ‘Digital India’ can be revolutionary in terms of the governance efficiency that it can produce. However, the first step in proper execution rests on our ability to have the adequate institutions and mechanisms in place. With regard to India, the biggest hurdle is the population. Even today, a large segment of Indians remains illiterate. For many people who haven’t had their experience with technology, using devices can be a challenge of self-confidence. Many educated Indians are still very sceptical of using devices and the internet. More than technology, these are challenges of human psychology.
Beyond these problems, there exist challenges of building infrastructure for the provision of these services. Many of the websites of the government do not always have the capacity to host the massive user traffic. Even in the case of the PDS in Jharkhand, the devices have been built on 2G data connectivity while even mobile phones today have 4G data connectivity. The infrastructure is limited and obsolete at times. Erratic connectivity is a big problem for future development.
Educating the people and encouraging the use of devices and the internet can give results. But integrating the poorest of the poor into the system is crucial. The digital divide is a consequence of the larger differences that exist in society. We can never really make much progress without having to address issues of poverty and inequality. Policies can never be successful without being inclusive of the needs of the people. The systems in place cannot be derived theoretically as recommended by research but must look into the situational contingencies that may arise, and be accommodative of the diversity that India exhibits.
Picture Courtesy- University of Birmingham