In today's world, the digital divide is not just a technology problem. It is a governance problem. In a world where access to government services, products, information, education and much more are primarily available as online resources, the lack of digital access to individual citizens is a problem of democracy. This requires government and private sector participants to come together to build not just digital infrastructure and services but also the applications and resources that are accessible by all, irrespective of location and literacy.

What is the digital divide?

In simple terms, the digital divide is the gap among citizens in terms of access and use of the internet and digital services. This gap exists at three levels:

  • Digital Access and Coverage: This is the most direct expression of the digital gap. It is a simple measure of those connected to the digital ecosystem and those left out. Digital access also includes access to devices that can use such digital coverage. Today in India, more than 870 million citizens are connected through mobiles and landlines, with nearly 500 million who are unconnected and, as a result, left out of the national mainstream.
  • Digital Literacy: Discussions of the digital divide requires us to recognise that citizens may lack the basic digital literacy skills required to participate in the digital world. This is especially acute in societies where literacy is limited to simple reading and writing skills in their native language. This means that even when access and coverage are available, many citizens are as disconnected as those living in unconnected areas.
  • Digital Utilisation: And finally, there is the problem of lack of utilisation even when there is access and literacy. This may result from poorly designed resources or expenses involved in utilising digital tools. It may also result from digital fear, where users who are happy to check their account balances online fear connecting their bank accounts with services for suspicion of fraud.

Across these three levels, the ultimate problem is one where many citizens are left out of a world that is increasingly becoming digital first.

Why is it a problem of democracy?

But this can't be seen purely as a technological issue. Life is today becoming digital first. E-governance initiatives have transformed almost every government touchpoint into a digital one. Many government initiatives like Aadhar (universal digital identification number), Zero-balance bank accounts, and direct benefits transfers require digital connectivity. Imagine the below scenarios:

  • A citizen is unable to procure free food grains because they can't authenticate their Aadhar number
  • A zero-balance bank account is blocked because KYC documents were not submitted
  • A student can't access online classes since her family cannot afford a laptop or smartphone

In each of these cases, citizens are deprived of their constitutional rights to food, dignity and education.

The digital divide is not just a gap in accessing tools and technologies. It is a gap that exacerbates social divides and inequities in many societies. Hence, it is not merely a technological problem but a 'democracy problem' that requires a national response.

How can the digital divide be bridged?

There are many things that both the government and private sector can do immediately to alleviate the worst impacts of the digital divide. Here are a few ideas.

  • Digital Access The first step is to introduce market-first policy shifts by governments that reduce barriers to rolling out networks and introducing new technologies that make digital access universal and inexpensive.
  • Create multi-lingual resources Bridging the language divide is essential to bridging the digital divide. The next generation of digital resources must be available in multiple regional languages. While this may seem like an additional cost, it is insignificant compared to the benefits of bringing vast numbers of non-English speakers into the digital fold.
  • Provide voice and video capabilities Digital fear prevents many users, live seniors or those from semi-urban and rural locations, from utilising digital services. The best way to drive utilisation for such users is to provide native voice interactions. With the advent of natural language processing and AI capabilities, this is very much within grasp. Video instructions are another excellent way to engage users across all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds.
  • Upskill citizens User unfamiliarity is one of the biggest reasons for the failure of digital initiatives. And this requires intense, sustained public communication to ensure that every user is comfortable with the digital resources provided. A great example is India's transition from paper ballots to electronic voting machines (EVMs). In the late 1990s, a consensus emerged that EVMs were the best way to ensure accurate fraud-proof voting nationwide. But this required a massive public relations campaign to educate the nearly 400 million-strong Indian electorate on using the EVM and why it was a better way of casting votes. This communication was also focused on building confidence in the minds of all stakeholders, from the voter, election offcials, national and international media and most importantly, the political parties themselves, whose buy-in was essential.
  • Provide digital touchpoints Until new technologies evolve to deliver smartphone features at current feature phone prices, governments and enterprises must provide the public digital infrastructure that citizens can use to access digital services. In India, many states have provided kiosks known as e-seva locations at the local government oce where citizens can transact digitally with the government. When deployed at a population scale, such initiatives can finally bring the promise of the digital-first world to all users, irrespective of their socioeconomic status.

How can we measure the success of our initiatives?

An accurate assessment of digital inclusion must go beyond just access. It must measure how effectively digital technologies have improved the lives of citizens across socioeconomic strata. Here are some criteria that we can focus on.


In many ways, this is the acid test. Here are some of the questions to be asked for a more accurate picture:

  • Are users utilising the services as intended?
  • Are they harnessing digital services to obtain real-life transformation?/li>
  • And how many are happy to promote these digital services and tools in their communities?


One of the cruel realities of the digital divide is that it impacts people who earn by the hour the most. This means that every trip they have to make to a physical location to complete a transaction or obtain services costs them earnings in the real world. Digital initiatives that help users and citizens to save time and prevent wage loss are truly humanist measures of initiatives' success in bridging the digital divide.


Digital solutions must bridge the affordability gap that impacts users in the lower socioeconomic strata of society. Costs also act as friction points in building digital ecosystems. Solutions that truly attain population scale have minimal incremental costs to users and participants. The Aadhaar database or NPCI inter-connectivity does not charge intermediaries for id verification or inter-bank connections even though they can choose to do so.