‘Digital divide’ may be a term which came under the spotlight quite recently, but what meant by it existed in our societies for centuries, if not millennia. Significant differences between banks of knowledge possessed by different sections of society were visible probably since medieval times.
The ancient Hindu society was an ideal example. In that society, the supreme right not only to protect and nurture the knowledge but also to generate the same, to some extent was solely on the hands of the Brahmins. That was how they, not the Kshathriyas – the rulers – or the Vaishyas – the rich – formed the most important, most powerful and the most honoured layer of the society. Brahmins had neither money nor power, but they could easily control both, as they only had the access to knowledge. They were the traditional teachers, academics, researchers and preachers. The information flow was effectively controlled to prevent the lower strata of community accessing the knowledge. This ‘information divide’ created a situation, in which Brahmins had the hegemony to control the behaviours of the rest, to the level to decide even the days on which they should or not bury the dead.
This knowledge gap has taken a multi dimensional form today. The age-old theories on information or knowledge are no longer valid. The ‘thibu theneka sora sathuran gatha nohena’ aspect of information has long become inappropriate. In the contemporary society, information means money and vice versa. Thus, in a way, the ‘digital divide’ can be interpreted as another dimension of income poverty. If A has money, he buys information; if B does not, he could not. This builds a correlation between information and money though it does not have to be perfect. It also hints a close interdependency between information and money. When you increase one, the other automatically increases usually, though not necessarily proportionately. In simple terms, a sure way to bridge the economic and social differences of the society is to ensure a fair distribution of information and knowledge. Didn’t we know this? Wasn’t it the whole idea behind introducing the free education system in Sri Lanka in nineteen forties?
With the advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) this information gap has taken a more complex form. The ‘digital divide’ not only speaks about the financial issues but also considers the technical and social aspects. The ‘digitally poor’ might not necessarily be the have-nots. Perhaps even some of the financially ‘athi-heki’ in the society might be termed as digitally ‘nethi beri’. This is where the urban rural disparities appear.
In Sri Lanka, there can be no better way of summarising the situation than by the popular call: ‘Kolombata kiri; gamata kekeri’
. This might first have been coined to emphasise the income differences between the two communities, but it explains the information differences much better. There exist an enormous information gap – larger than many of us ever think – between Colombo and the rest of the country, with even cities like Kandy and Matara not fully excluded.
This needs little elaboration but this case study deserves a mention. Few months ago, I happened to notice a project report done by the daughter of a friend of mine, for her A/L individual project. It was a thick report on the life of a star from a white dwarf to a red giant until it undergoes a supernova to form a neutron star and then finally converts into a black hole. On the face of it, it appeared to be an excellent endeavour, completed with images and graphs. Obviously, it has been awarded with the maximum marks. I too was quite impressed with this work, which I estimated to be an effort of at least six months and asked her how long it took and how she could manage to do such a comprehensive and presentable report with all the rest of work. She smiled and replied it took her not more than three days. This naturally surprised me, but then she explained that she played some time on Internet searching for all the information (with the help of an elder cousin) and cut and pasted them to the report. At her level, she was expected only to collect information and present them, not to analyse them and build any theories. Therefore, it was perfectly done. No wonder she got the highest marks.
Now imagine what a counterpart of her, studying in a rural area (Let’s call this second girl Niluka.) could do if given the task of completing the same type of a project. Niluka might not have a PC at home and it is difficult to think her school having a computer lab. Even the small town she might infrequently visit to buy textbooks or clothes might not be equipped with a cyber café. Some communication centres do offer Internet surfing facilities, at unbelievably high prices, so even if they are available, she might not be able to surf for long. Again, she herself might not know to use a PC or to surf Internet. She does not have friends who can help her through E-mail. So for her project, Niluka has to solely depend on whatever the information she could gather from the school library. She may have to draw the necessary pictures by hand and will get no help from latest computer graphics in designing the cover of the report. However, both reports will be evaluated for same criteria. It appears unfair, but that’s that.
Let me further elaborate this point taking some hard facts. The following table presents some economic, social and digital indicators with respect to four provinces in the island and all of them come from the Consumer Finances and Socio Economic Survey Central Bank of Sri Lanka conducted in 1996/97.
||Average of seven provinces
|Average Income per month per spending unit in Rs.
|Availability of Electricity
(Percentage of households)
Telephone/ Mobile phone
(Percentage of households)
|Availability of Personal Computer
(Percentage of households)
This clearly shows the socio economic differences among provinces are not as noticeable as the so-called digital differences. The income per spending unit and the percentage of electrically furnished households in Uva, North Central and North Western provinces are in the range of half of what the same are in Western province. On the other hand, when it comes to the use of telephone and computers, the differences are stunning. This could have been more evident if the figures for the Colombo district are compared against the same for the provinces.
When it comes to Internet, this difference is even wider. Unfortunately, still no comprehensive surveys or studies have been done to compare the Internet penetration in rural areas versus that in urban areas of Sri Lanka. One way of doing this is to analyse the number of Internet accounts given for each district, and check what percentage of that falls within rural areas. This figure, for one reason or the other, has not yet been made available by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission. It only furnishes the aggregate number of Internet subscribers (not users, as one subscription might be used by a large number of users), which fell somewhere around 70,000 by the end of last year. On a fair ‘guesstimation’, I do not think there cannot be more than 5,000 connections given to subscribers out of Colombo.
With the absence of any indicators to evaluate the rural Internet penetration, Sri Lanka Telecom has checked the Internet traffic on different exchanges throughout the country for a given period. The outcome was a useful revelation. As presented by an SLT official at the Annual Sessions of Computer Society of Sri Lanka, few weeks back, 87% Internet traffic was attributed to exchanges within Colombo district! Next came Kandy, with a pathetic 2%! All the rest of the country contribution was summed up to 11%. There can be several limitations to this study itself, but this gives the picture. Out of all Internet users in Sri Lanka about 87%, reside in Colombo district! Talk about ‘Kolombata kiri; gamata kekeri’!
The rural Internet penetration is low due to several key reasons. Some of them can be summarised as:
- High cost of Internet usage (In a survey conducted by the author among 244 Internet users in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, Matale and Hambantota districts, 25% found the surfing charges very high while 66% called them high.)
- The low computer literacy levels
- Difficulties in using in English – the de facto language of the net (Unlike in India, where vernacular languages constitute a large percentage of local web content, in Sri Lanka, still English rules. Not even many of our local government organisations have bothered to present their content in Sinhala and Tamil. This makes an unbridgeable communication gap between the technology and the users.)
- Attitude problems (Most belong to the older generation still feel that Internet is not for them. The above survey also revealed that out of the respondents, only 15% is above 45 years of age. Most of the users belonged to the lower age categories.)
- Technical issues such as the difficulties in obtaining computer maintenance services, user support services etc., at the village level
Another interesting point is that a rural user has to pay more than his urban counterpart does, to use Internet facilities. This is because in many cases an outstation user has to dial a server in Colombo paying national telecommunication charges, while the Colombo users pay only the local charges. Some telecommunication service providers have taken steps to address this situation by specifying local charges for Internet users irrespective of the location from where they dial-in, but that solution has still failed to overcome the issue completely.
An estimation of Internet usage costs, at the rural and urban levels respectively, by the author, with reasonable assumptions, has revealed the following:
- Compared to what an urban user pays, a rural user always pays a higher charge. The amounts rural and urban users pay for an hour of Internet usage decreases with time, but the two curves always maintain a gap roughly equal to Rs. 60 per hour. (Interestingly, this different is shown even in the charges applicable at urban and rural cyber cafes. While a cyber café in Colombo charges around Rs. 60 per an hour of Internet usage, a public library in a rural area, was observed to charge Rs. 125.)
- The cost of Internet access to a rural user varies from Rs. 295 (for 10 hour usage per month) to Rs. 225 (for 60 hour usage per month) per hour. This includes the cost of the computer equipment also. This amount is too high for a population of which 45% has to live by less than US$ 2 per day.
- For a rural user, the highest cost component is telecommunication charges, which varies from 40% to 50%, depending upon the usage. In comparison, the telecommunication cost component for an urban user varies only within the range of 25% to 35%.
To be fair, it should be mentioned that at least some initiatives to address this situation are already on the way. These include the steps to be taken under the recently introduced e-Sri Lanka programme as well as the attempts by the Ministry of Human Resources, Education Cultural Affairs to establish computer laboratories at 800 schools, including many in the rural areas. Under the e-Sri Lanka programme it is expected to establish multi-purpose Internet kiosks at village level, which will be used to address different needs of the rural community. However, this is more an exercise of introducing e-Government concept than an attempt to proliferate Internet at the rural level. On the other hand, the programme of installing computer laboratories aims at developing the Internet usage at school level, among other things.
Another commendable attempt towards meeting the same objective is taken by Sarvodaoya. Multi purpose experimental tele-centres have already been installed at several locations including Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Ratnapura. Sarvodaya intends to establish an information network consisting similar tele-centres throughout the island, at village level and to use these tele-centres to make Internet access available to the rural population at an affordable price. The theme of this programme has been declared as “Information Technology for community development”.
It is too early to comment on any of these programmes, as all of them are still at their infancy. Nevertheless, there is no doubt, that they should be given the maximum priority at every level, because the so-called ‘digital divide’ is now becoming increasingly wider. If this divide is not successfully bridged, as done in most of the developed countries, that will only be the beginning of a modified version of the above mentioned call as : ‘Kolombata Internet, gamata kekirinet’.