Gender, Digital Divide and RTI

Image Credits: Getty

WHEN Prime Minister launched the second phase of PM’s Ujjwala Yojna some months back wherein free gas connections will be given to one crore poor families across India, I believed that large number of poor and disadvantaged families across India would have been benefited by this national flagship scheme which had been launched on May 1st 2016.  The Government claims that more than 8 crore poor families benefited by the Ujjwala scheme. But after the mismanagement and corruption in this scheme was exposed in a few habitations of Budgam district by cross checking the information our activists accessed, I came to know how this scheme was being misused in Kashmir. I highlighted the issue in my weekly programme Inkishaf as well and since then I receive frequent calls from various places of J&K about the loot and mismanagement in Ujjwala yojna.

Before the Ujjwala expose, activists of RTI Movement had exposed large scale loot in public distribution system (PDS) wherein the subsidized rice meant for poor and disadvantaged families was being siphoned off for last many years and electronic point of sale machines (e-pos) were not put into use. After cross checking the PDS portal, we exposed these mass irregularities as dozens of families were provided fake non subsidized ration cards by the employees of Food Civil Supplies and Public Distribution Department (FCS & CA).

After analysing these two cases i.e corruption in Ujjwala gas distribution and entitlement under public distribution system (PDS), I have come to the conclusion that there is a greater scope and demand for creating digital literacy among young women especially the school and college going girls in remote areas where access to internet is minimal. If we create a better digital interface for the girls from disadvantaged and economically weaker communities,I believe this would ensure more transparency in our governance especially in the public distribution system.

Access to education, healthcare services, skill-based learning facilities, equal opportunities, safeguards against gender-based violence and discrimination have been the common themes that are worked upon year after year during international day of girl child. This year's theme is a very interesting one. It revolves around digital literacy. The theme titled “Digital generation, Our Generation” is focussed on bridging the digital divide. According to the United Nations, even in the post-COVID-19 world that saw businesses,education and even parts of healthcare services moving online. There are 22 billion people below the age of 25 who have no access to the internet. Among this huge population with lack of digital services, the majority are girls. When we see this in the context of Kashmir,the situation is more alarming as we have faced prolonged internet shutdowns in the past. In the last 2 years, the internet shutdowns have been more frequent which has caused many problems including severe setbacks to online education.

Additionally, the Gender norms deeply entrenched in patriarchal societies like India often restrict and affect equitable access to technology for women and girls, especially those belonging to economically weaker and disadvantaged communities. They manifest in girls having low digital literacy rates, lack of familiarity with the digital tools, and unequal access to digital or electronic devices. The mobile gender gap report points out that Indian women are 56% less likely to use mobile internet than men, with only 35% of active users in the country being women.

Technology is highly gender-cognizant and a growing digital divide is something that India has been grappling with for a long time. For young and adolescent girls, restrictions imposed in the private and public space get extended to the digital space as well.

Reports say that only 29 % of India's internet users are females. Unless this digital gender divide is bridged, India’s aggressive push towards digitization will further entrench the political, economic, and social marginalization of females. The bulk of policy and commercial interventions focus on improving access to internet services by upgrading spectrum and broadband infrastructure and bringing down the costs to individual users, in addition to facilitating the uptake of digital technologies through programs for digital literacy. Isolated technical solutions, however, will be inadequate to address the social and cultural roots of India’s digital gender divide.

As a long time RTI campaigner, I have observed that very few women or young girls have been accessing information using the Right to Information Act (RTI) as a tool. Previously, most of the Govt offices would ask for submitting RTI applications in the office or through post. That ran the risk of revealing the information seeker’s identity. This would discourage women from using RTI, especially the college or university students as they wanted to avoid such interaction with Govt officials.

As the information can be sought through digital mode as well now, I believe we must encourage more and more girls to seek information under RTI from  public authorities . Although the online RTI facility isn’t available in the Govt offices in UT of Jammu & Kashmir, we can very easily have access to information from central Govt offices by clicking on www.rtionline.gov.in website. Had our girls in rural areas been familiar with various online portals of the Govt of India, their families would not have been looted by officials of the food department or by their LPG gas dealers.

Social norms control women’s autonomy and aspirations, impacting their access to technology and digital tools. This begins from a very early age when adolescent girls are controlled in terms of their mobility, access to leisure, use of technology, etc. The Population Council of India survey reports that 70% of young boys have access to the internet regularly as compared to 33% of girls in the age group of 15-19 years in Uttar Pradesh. In Jammu & Kashmir, the situation is more or less similar and needs to be addressed.

The International Day of the Girl Child could be described as the brainchild of the World Conference on Women. In 1995, at the conference in Beijing, it was decided that such a day dedicated to the growth of girls around the world was a necessity. As a result, countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This made the declaration the first of its kind which  separated the girl child from the umbrella of women and acknowledged their specific needs. Observed on October 11, the day focuses on the rights, safety and education of girls. The core objective is to make girls an active part of the progress of the world. Digitally literate girls can be of great help to their families.  I believe they need to be encouraged to use various Govt applications to have access to various national flagship programmes. In rural areas, school going girl children can guide their poor parents about the Public Distribution System , MG-NREGA , PMAY, PM Kissan and other entitlements. As compared to boys, girls would be more effective in ensuring good governance and Govt entitlements using digital platforms. We need to bridge this huge digital gap by creating a strong and effective digital interface for girl children especially belonging to disadvantaged groups.


Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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