Digital revolution or 'exclusion through technology'?

Ninglun Hanghal *

A common scene in every household in Manipur during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown is that of a mother and children sharing a smartphone. The children are working on the task given by teachers through the mother's phone Whatsapp. This is virtually the norm as schools in the urban and semi-urban areas resort to online classrooms.

For a mother like Mamta Lukhram, a resident of Imphal east, it is her smartphone that she and her daughter share for all online purposes. "My daughter has to miss her class if I am taking online classes or out for my field study as I have to move with my phone," says Lukhram, a sociology teacher at Maram Don Bosco College in Senapati, 100km north of capital Imphal. Lukhram said she was hesitant about online classes but as schools and colleges are unlikely to open anytime soon, she grudgingly used the mobile phone."I could not reach many students because either they do not have a smartphone or the required connectivity," rues Lukhram.

In the new internet classroom, India's northeast is on the last bench so to say. When TRAI gives its connectivity figures, Northeast's 11m wireless subscriber statistic is clubbed under a single heading, "Northeast" comprising seven states barring Assam. Even state-wise break-up of statistics for the Northeast is difficult to spot.

Meanwhile, in small towns every family mostly shares one or two mobile phones. Majority of women in rural Manipur usually own simple feature phones. Biakmoi, a mother of two in Lamka town, Churachandpur, has a phone but without any app or internet. "My elder son has it, so he helped his younger sibling," she said. Her elder son has just graduated.

Ningyamiin the hill town of Ukhrul says that her daughter studying in class III uses her phone. "Her teachers send us video clips or homework on my phone Whatsapp," said Ningyami, who is also a school teacher. She says online classes or engaging children on their parent's phone is not effective, "Children are not interested. Most children want to play games or watch youtube.

"Ningyami felt that conducting online classes in rural tribal areas is impossible. One finds that even parents and particularly the mothers,let alone students do not have smartphones which a requirement for online classes.

In interior tribal hill districts, online classes are a far cry. With schools closed due to pandemic lockdown, most children helped their parents in domestic chores or in the fields during the sowing and weeding season.

Ronica Vungmuankim, a resident of Lamkain Churachandpur observed that information technology is very new for the people of rural Manipur. A TISS alumnus and development practitioner, Ronica says that tribals are community-oriented and their physical spaces are owned and managed collectively in societal and familial platforms. On the other hand, online education demands a quiet and individual space for learning.

This, coupled with limitations in access to resources and technology is a huge challenge. Ronica finds that the new Digital Information Technology is not interactive. "Even though you attempt to interact online, children especially girls would hide their faces or not respond," she said.

For independent researcher Achan Mungleng in Ukhrul, the IT technology is not a necessity. Mungleng who works on traditional handloom and textiles said that her work requires personal interaction which is not possible through technology.

According to Mungleng, "In my engagement presently, I do not need digital technology as I am working with the older women generation."Mungleng said that she is not organizing a conference or a seminar, so the question of IT technology does not arise.

"My work requires information that can be passed on from person to person only, not through any technological medium," said Mungleng.

The "new normal" has worried women activists and development workers. Marybeth Sanate, secretary of Rural Women Upliftment Society in Churachandpur said there is no way they can work digital or online. Sanate feels that it is discriminatory and said, "What will happen to rural women? We will be left out."

As Ronica observed, the new modes of information technology are still alien to people in these parts of the world. The case is not only about rural women. Sanate said that even women organization leaders, who are accessing the internet on their mobile phones are not keen to go online or use technology. For instance, Sanate explained that if she were to take initiative to organize a webinar or online sessions, women tribe leaders, mothers' association leaders may not participate.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Hechin Haokip, secretary of Center for Women and Girls."It is not possible for me to work online. "Haokip whose work covers Chandel and Tengnoupal tribal districts along the border with Myanmar, said that she goes online only on matters related to communication with the NGO partners or if it is required to speak at a conference.

Infrastructure in the region is already inadequate and adding to that internet connectivity is also extremely poor. Haokip relies on her airtel mobile internet connection. "Since the lockdown the net connection has got even worse soI never go live with any video and instead only keep the audio on," she said.

According to Haokip if one is based in cities or metros, digital and online work is feasible, rather a compulsion and necessity. That is not the case in most parts of Manipur. For instance, even if Haokip's women members or stakeholders have the gadgets, they do not have the capacity or the skills to use them.

"This is exclusion through technology. If you are insisting on digital or online technology, you are leaving out a large section of the people," said Haokip.

Even as a large section of the population uses social media, or mobile phones, the traditional means of communication is still the means of information dissemination in Manipur. Public announcement through microphone along the roads, street corners in colonies, specific locations are still the norm and practice. This is particularly conspicuous during the pandemic lockdown.

The present state of information technology penetration and usage in Manipur shows where women, a large majority of them stand. The Council for Social Development (CSD) New Delhi, undertook an impact assessment of the National Digital Literacy Mission during April-July 2016. NDLM was implemented in 2014.

According to the survey conducted with a total sample of 222 respondents in Manipur, there were only 15 females as against 24 males in the age group of 14-29 who could use or operate a computer. In the age group of 30-45 there were four females as against eight males.

Of the target of 6666 persons in Manipur for digital training by the NDLM, 13% of the trainees had no one in the family who is IT literate. Another 40% had just one member who was IT-literate and 37% has two to four members. Only 8% had four and more members who were IT literate.

The survey found that across India not even half the job seekers in urban areas were able to operate a computer. The rural scenario is even worse. Similarly, the number of females who can operate a computer is far below that of their male counterparts in every age group.

Ninglun Hanghal is Laadli Media Fellow 2020. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author. Laadli and UNFPA do not necessarily endorse the views.

* Ninglun Hanghal wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on August 21, 2020 .

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