The following article appeared on Foreign Policy on September 26, 2015. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.
Technology offers considerable hope in overcoming many of India’s challenges, given the rapid rate of change. At about 19 percent, India has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates among major economies. That said, some 30 million users, or roughly 2.5 percent of India’s population, are coming online annually, and that figure is set to accelerate. Facebook wants to tap into that market, in part with its Free Basics app, which allows users access to pared-down Internet services at no cost. But for India’s poor, the difficulties in getting online — including language barriers, illiteracy, and poor infrastructure — are more complicated than just affording the price of a phone or computer.
The implications of expanded Internet access for media dissemination, education, and entertainment are self-evident. It’s not just about enabling Indians to watch more cat videos. Digital access is critical to integrating India’s citizens — particularly the poor — into the economy. For example, efforts underway toward financial inclusion, biometric identification, and digital access have the potential to overhaul India’s massive and wasteful subsidy regime. Better identification, more bank accounts, and expanded online access can cut out middlemen and corruption and can ensure that the poor receive what they are owed by the state. There has been significant progress: So far, some 900 million people, or roughly 72 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people, have signed up for a national biometric identification scheme begun under Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh. And Jan-Dhan Yojana, Modi’s signature effort to enable access to banking, credit lines, and insurance, has resulted in the creation of more than 180 million bank accounts (though critics have noted that many are left unused). While basic mobile services are widespread and cheap in India, enabling access to cost-effective broadband will be necessary to tap the full potential of these efforts. [Read the full article.]