An estimated 2.6 million people in Asia and the Pacific region are still don’t have access to digital connectivity, said Atsuko Okuda, regional director, International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at the 7th Community Network Exchange and the 8th e-North East conclave held in Guwahati in end-November. She also pointed out that only seven years remain for achieving the overarching aim of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of “Leave No One Behind” by the target year of 2030.
Osama Manzar, founder and director of the Digital Empowerment Foundation, added that even those who are connected are not meaningfully connected, while the unconnected are suffering for being off the grid.
The Community Network Exchange programme focuses on bringing together community network practitioners and enthusiasts of community-driven internet connectivity to exchange ideas and serve as catalysts for the grassroots connectivity movement.
Since 2010, e-North East has been a platform focusing on “Tech for Society”. It seeks to connect stakeholders working on issues critical to inclusive, last-mile, sustainable, and meaningful information and communication technology (ICT) and internet usage for development in the North East Region (NER) of India.
Dr Syed S. Kazi, convener of e-North East, stated, “The e-North East has been able to engage stakeholders from the government, industry, civil society, academia, and other practitioners in the digital space and involve them through discussions, advocacy, research, and actions in emerging digital issues and opportunities affecting the indigenous tribal groups and communities, including how and why artificial intelligence (AI) is relevant and contextual to the region.”
Nevertheless, there are huge challenges given that the northeastern states are lagging behind in terms of overall development parameters. A large majority of the population is not meaningfully connected, even as development of IT infrastructure remains a major hurdle.
By 2030, every person should have safe and affordable access to the internet, including meaningful use of digitally enabled services, in line with the overall aim of the SDGs. In the digital world, it means “leaving no one offline”.
The SDG Target 9(c) objective is to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the internet in least-developed countries by 2020”. The aim is that all citizens should have access to the infrastructure for using the internet, and the cost should be within their economic means. Available data shows that, we are lagging far behind, both in terms of meaningful connectivity and access to internet.
Across the globe, 3.7 billion people, or almost half of the world’s population, currently do not have access to the internet. The least developed countries are also the least connected, with only 19% online. Though India is not an LDC (according to UN standards), many states and rural areas lag behind in terms of development parameters, including meaningful connectivity, especially in the northeast.
Of the 1.428 billion of India’s population, there were 881.25 million internet subscribers at the end of March 2023, according to a Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) report. The National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 report released in January 2022 says internet use amongst adult women in India is only 33.9%, and for adult men it stands at 57.1%. Moreover, there is a wide gap in urban and rural internet usage. The reach of the internet is alarmingly low in vast swathes of rural India.
According to the Lok Sabha report of December 2018, there are 10.25 million internet users in Assam and 6.09 million in the other seven northeastern states put together. Like other parts of the country, in the northeastern states too, there is a huge gap between urban and rural internet users and between men and women.
According to the NFHS-5 report, male internet users in the northeastern states range from above 50% to 80%, while women fall below 50% to as low as 22%.
Apart from internet usage on mobile phones, there is very low computer use in northeastern India. The Council for Social Development (CSD) report on the impact evaluation of the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Sharsakta Abhigyan (PMGDISHA) in 2019 noted that the percentage of households owning a computer is below 40%. The highest was recorded in Mizoram, with 45.8% in urban areas. In rural areas, it drops to below 20%, and as low as 3.2% in Tripura.
Households with internet facilities are below 50% in the northeastern states, going down to as low as 5.7% in Tripura. Owning a computer is one thing; being able to use and operate it is another. In the NE, the percentage of people able to operate and use computers is below 10% in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, and Meghalaya.
In terms of the quality of internet connectivity in the rural areas of the region it is erratic, unstable, and unreliable. Geographically, in the hills and remote areas, the internet has no reach. Moreover, in these areas, there are no mobile towers either.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, rural students in the northeastern states were totally cut off from not only physical classes but online classes as well. They do not have the privilege of a computer or a mobile phone as internet connectivity is simply not available. Even in urban areas, families share smartphones for online classes and other uses such as online shopping, payments, etc.
Men enjoy more technological advantage. In many families that own computers and smartphones, they are usually operated and used by the male members. The majority of women do not have smartphones in the rural northeast. Even if they own a phone, it is a basic one. Besides being unable to afford it, the concept that technology is for boys or men is still prevalent in society.
Digital connectivity and use of the internet or social media has been a sudden onset. Not only does poverty or affordability play a role, technological know-how, which has been lacking and a drawback for many, is also a factor.
For Gen X to catch up with Gen Z, or the millennials, is a challenge. There is a generation gap between parents and children. Parents, especially mothers, are unable to help their children. Digital payment is something that is far-fetched in the informal economy, which is still an important part of the economy in these states, involving roadside vendors, daily labourers, or shopkeepers in small towns and villages.
Social media is majorly used, as elsewhere, but many—especially young women and teenaged girls—avoid it for obvious reasons. Undesired attention, trolling, online abuse, and misuse of social media are rampant.