Opinion: From e-offices to railway ticketing and cashless UPI transactions, key services in India are increasingly being delivered digitally. While many benefit from the convenience, there are considerable downsides for the millions of people who struggle to carry out basic day-to-day functions in a world that assumes everyone is comfortable online. In the pursuit of progress, there is a danger of erecting a wall between wider society and marginalized groups living in semi-urban and rural areas, especially the older, poorer, and more vulnerable population.
The issue is exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, making digital access unaffordable for many. Shockingly, nearly nine out of ten jobs are advertised only on the internet, effectively excluding those who would benefit from them the most. This disparity must not deprive people of essential resources.
Despite the government’s ambition for widespread digital transformation and making India a global hub for digital services, there seems to be no assessment of the economic impact of digital exclusion in recent years. A credible plan to address this issue is lacking, and there is little analysis of the impact of artificial intelligence on public-facing services and its trajectory over the next five years.
The Prime Minister’s office should take direct interest in tackling the issue of the internet underclass. It is imperative to provide better social tariffs to enable poorer individuals to access the internet, and broadband coverage needs improvement beyond its current state. This highlights the limitations of solely relying on cost-benefit analysis and pushing the burden of administering services onto users.
Countries like Ireland have prioritized local, in-person support alongside their digital transformation strategies. There is a strong case for ensuring adequate provisions for those who cannot or choose not to use online public services.
As each year passes, India appears to be, intentionally or unintentionally, isolating less technologically adept groups. It is unjust to deny individuals access to benefits or customer services due to their lack of computing knowledge. For the sake of fairness and inclusion, this trend must be halted.