In India women, rural communities and the elderly struggle to gain the internet access they require to operate as democratic citizens in 2019. While the UN has welcomed India’s progress on making the internet more accessible to those who aren’t online, a broader understanding of participation and inclusion is needed for India to continue to progress argues Sharique Hassan Manazir (Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University)

UN e-government survey & evaluation methodology

The UN’s e-Government Survey Report for 2018, like every year, produced an ‘e-government index’ and  ‘e-participation index’ to understand how nations around the world are working towards the promotion of Digital Democracy, a popular buzzword among policymakers and academics working on ICT and Governance. The UN derives this e-participation index by focusing on a government’s use of online services in providing information to its citizens, or as they write “e-information sharing”, “e-consultation” or “e-decision-making”.

Three major aspects of Digital Inclusion, the idea of enabling as many people as possible to use the internet, however are missing from this report. The first is a lack of a holistic understanding of the idea of Digital Inclusion as an important factor in governance, especially from a South Asian perspective. Secondly, the report gives an impression that Digital Inclusion can only be better by improving e-governance accessibility (i.e by lowering the digital divide – the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not – or increasing outreach to e-governance projects). And lastly, and most importantly, nowhere in the report has the existing state of Digital Inclusion been taken as a parameter to gauge the e-governance or e-participation index.

Ann Macintosh and the theoretical framework for e-participation

Truth be told, if the bibliography is not counted, the term Digital Inclusion does not appear in the whole three hundred page report. Thus the method to exclude concerns of digital inclusion by only focusing upon aspects of the digital divide to evaluate the e-governance & e-participation Indexes is based upon more than a decade of old theories of citizen e-participation. The first theoretical framework for citizen e-participation in public policy formulation was proposed by Ann Macintosh in 2004. She identified e-enabling, e-engaging and e-empowering as three major dimensions of e-participation.

In the year 2005, the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations presented e-information, e-consultation and e-decision as the three-stage framework for explaining citizen participation in the digital sphere. Virtually similar to Macintosh’s approach, here e-information is also explained as enabling citizens online by empowering them with key digital-related information. In this respect, e-consultation dealt with engaging citizens in a public services specific way, while e-decision making referred to empowering citizens to co-design and co-produce policies.

While Macintosh’s framework was a welcome step for better understanding e-participation, it deals the issues mostly from the supply side, and issues arising from the user’s end – barriers like age, gender, caste, ethnicity, income, physical and mental health, which of course play an important role in citizen e-participation, but were not part of the discourse. Sadly until today, the same understanding of e-participation is used in UN reports though there have been various new citizen e-participation frameworks which are more robust and inclusive.

Digital inclusion and language

India’s improvements in the UN’s two surveys is impressive. In 2014 the country ranked 40th in the survey results. By 2018 India has leapfrogged to 15th. Similarly, in the index results, India went from 118th to 96th in just four years.

One of the biggest challenges for India, a country with the world’s second highest number of languages, as explained in the 2018 report, is finding content online in a local language. Despite progress providing local, relevant and useful content, in addition to raising awareness about it, much more effort is required.

What the report misses

Data from other organisations than the UN reveals some serious challenges for India beyond language. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India report (IAMAI Report) based on data from the  2011 Census, in rural India, only 20.25% population has access to the internet, while in urban India 65% has access. In India, the use of the internet is majorly male-dominated in both rural as well as urban areas. While 41% of internet users in urban India are female, only 36% of the total internet users in rural India are female. According to the TRAI report, in India about 60 million people are disabled and 42.5% of them are women, while 75% of people with disabilities come from rural areas. Therefore in India, it is still the case that despite progress, some groups of people in society are still left marginalised online.

The internet and the elderly

Recent research has also shown that older households are less likely to have an internet connection in their home.  According to the 2011 Census, there are nearly 104 million elderly people in India (aged 60 years or above) of which 53 million are female and 51 million are male. According to another research report of the total internet users in India, 85% are in the 18-40 age group and only 15% of the population of those aged 60 and above use the internet. Thus we get a clear picture that old age too acts as a barrier for adoption of internet technologies and requires special policy level intervention for more of a successful democratic accessibility policy.

Thus if we want to understand or evaluate the impact of ICT in governance or how countries like India are advancing towards digital democracy, various parameters affecting digital inclusion like age, gender, caste, religion, ethnicity, income, education of users need to be better studied and evaluated.

In developed countries, the evaluation of various aspects of digital democracy is made from the perspective of a digital divide (i.e the accessibility of e-governance projects through either increasing number of project or increasing accessibility to internet). But in most South Asian countries, like in India, there exist a wide disparity within the parameters of digital inclusion.  Therefore we can not simply rank the idea of  Digital Democracy in these countries based simply on the basis of the supply of each parameter as provided to users. Instead, we must begin analysing and studying users specific barriers, which at times exclude them from being part of the whole digital democracy initiative. Only then with the help of the UN will countries like India effectively enable its citizens to fairly contribute to civic life online.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo credit: Pexels, Pixabay 

Sharique Hassan Manazir is PhD Candidate at Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University working upon Digital Democracy and Policy Formulation in India. He is also the founder of Digital Inclusion Research Forum, a forum of distinguished academicians and subject experts from various fields working towards a more digitally inclusive society. He is the 2013 UN Volunteer Award Recipient and his research interest includes ICT, E-Governance, Digital Democracy and R statistical tool.

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