Google Internet Saathi: Truly Digitising India?
Google plans to expand the program to 300,000 villages and cover 50% of rural India in the next few years.
Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have one thing in common. According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Gender Gap Index 2016, these countries are the most gender equal in the world. India, not famous for the same egalitarianism, ranks a lowly 87 on the same list. Countries like Kenya, Bangladesh, and Brazil outrank India.
But what’s more glaring is the digital gender gap in India, the world’s second largest internet population.
According to a study conducted by mobile industry trade group GSMA in 2015, of an estimated 2.6 billion cell phone users in low and middle income countries, 1.4 billion were men and 1.2 billion were women.
A large chunk of that digital gender divide was concentrated in just one country – India, where 114 million fewer women had access to smartphones compared to men.
The GSMA study cites cost as the biggest barrier in owning and using a mobile phone; security; harassment and social norms also tend to discourage access to technology. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway is that if women were given access to technology, not only would it make them feel more independent and increase employment, it could also unlock an estimated $170 billion market opportunity for the mobile industry in the next five years.
That’s perhaps why tech giants like Google and Microsoft are focusing heavily on India’s digital transformation. Of course, it helps that Prime Minister Modi is pushing the Digital India program forward with so much gusto.
Google’s Internet Saathi: A Friend Indeed?
About two years ago, Google India partnered with Tata Trusts to launch a digital literacy program called “Internet Saathi”. The program aims to educate women in rural India on how the internet could benefit their everyday lives. Once the women are trained, they, in turn, train other villagers in the vicinity. Google provides internet enabled devices and the requisite training material while Tata Trusts aids program implementation.
Internet Saathi: Is It Working?
The program is now live in over 60,000 villages across ten Indian states. Google says 2 million women have already benefited from the program. The company plans to expand the program to 300,000 villages and cover 50 percent of rural India in the next few years.
Manasi Sarkar, a resident of a village in Jhargram block of West Bengal became an Internet Saathi in December. She told BloombergQuint that using the internet has given her a fighting chance at a livelihood, “I have been trained for a couple of weeks and have taught over 50 villagers since I started working. I work with 10 other girls and we use the internet to search for jute handicraft samples, which we then make ourselves and sell in the markets.”
She also talked about how increased awareness and literacy can translate into more jobs for villagers.
But, companies like Google face several roadblocks whilst they attempt to shape India’s digital transformation journey. For one, connectivity is an issue in many Indian towns and cities, let alone remote villages. While technical literacy and self confidence are also barriers, one of the biggest issues are social norms that prevent women from coming on board the digital bandwagon. One of the villagers told BloombergQuint, “My husband owns a smartphone and only lets me use it occasionally. All I have is an ordinary feature phone which can make and receive calls.”
To be sure, Google provides devices and training material to the ‘saathis’, but the ones who are still undergoing training have access to a phone only for a few hours when they attend sessions. Sarkar said many women often find this as impediment in picking up any real skills.
Literacy is another big hurdle. Vandana, a labourer in Gokulpur village in West Bengal said, “If you are well educated, then learning the computer and smartphone makes sense. I am not educated so I won’t be able to learn.”