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SOUTH ASIA: Digital Divide Sharpens Rich-Poor Gap

by Ranjit DevrajInter Press Service
July 21st, 2000

NEW DELHI -- South Asia has emerged as the most promising region for sourcing information technology (IT) expertise, but this is an achievement that is of use only to the rich nations, say critics.

The so-called digital divide between industrialised and developing nations is being replicated within the region, widening the already big gulf between the majority poor and an English language-speaking, Internet-savvy elite, they point out.

On average, less than one out of every 10 of the 1.3 billion people in the subcontinent have access to computers and only a small fraction of these use the Internet.

The region's emerging prominence as an IT 'superpower', best seen in the case of India, is said to be accentuating the sharp contrast between an educated white-collar 'elite' and the rest.

Increasingly, the new sub-continental Internet-using elite identifies less with their digitally-deprived compatriots than with what Kenneth Keniston, expert on South Asian software at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), calls the global 'digirati.'

In the past half century, South Asian nations have done little to raise living standards of the majority poor who are a world apart from a microscopic, English language-speaking elite that is close to the centres of political and economic decision making.

The big Indian names in the global IT industry such as Sabeer Bhatia, creator of Hotmail and Azim Premji, rated by Forbes magazine among the world's five richest people, belong to this class.

Says New Delhi-based education expert, Kirti Jayaraman: ''The Internet is very much a big-city phenomenon and confined to the elite classes who may as well be living on a different planet with access to the Internet from their homes, offices and schools.''

According to Jayaraman, the digital divide can be seen quite clearly in schools in India's big cities. Here, the children of rich and middle class families go to English language-medium schools stacked with computers linked to the Internet.

On the other hand, the urban poor send their children to government schools that instruct in the vernacular language and lack tables, chairs and even roofs.

The situation is worse in India's vast rural hinterland. Barely 25 km from New Delhi is India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh which according to U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates will take all of this century to make all its 170 million people literate.

The eastern Bihar state of 100 million people will not be able to do this till the next century. One of India's best known politicians, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who belongs to the state and identifies himself with the illiterate rural poor, recently wondered what all the IT fuss was about.

Yadav's cynicism is not seen as misplaced. The critics have noted that India's IT prowess is of little use to most of its people who are either unlettered or lack the means to use the new technology.

Only a handful of South Asians can actually take advantage of the region's much-acclaimed IT achievements. In a region where the average annual income is less than 500 dollars, very few can own both a telephone and computer.

On average in Bangladesh, there is one telephone line for every 100 people, while in India and Pakistan, the ratio is only twice this. In Nepal, the 'teledensity' -- telephone connections per 100 people -- is 0.9.

Even literate South Asians cannot benefit from the IT revolution without a working knowledge of the English language because of poor 'localistaion' -- a highly technical process by which computer programmes are translated into another language.

This is even more difficult in a country like India with 18 officially recognised languages.

The situation is not helped by inefficient telecommunication facilities.

Well-known economist Jeffrey Sachs has rated India on top of a list of 53 countries with potential for investment by global software companies because of its IT expertise. But he placed the country at the bottom when it came to infrastructure, especially telecommunication.





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