The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the issue of the digital divide and recast the world's view of digital access as a critical component to an equitable society, according to Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, who underlined that technology is meant to be a great equaliser and not a source of division.
In 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world embraced digital transformation at a pace never witnessed before," Prasad said at the UN High-Level thematic debate on Digital Cooperation and Connectivity: Whole-of-Society Approaches to End the Digital Divide.'
"The pandemic has resulted in societies reimagining technology's critical role in how we work, learn and live, Prasad said.
Addressing the high-level event virtually on Tuesday, Prasad said the pandemic "has not only laid threadbare the issue of the digital divide but more importantly recast our view of digital access as a critical component to an equitable society.
Asserting that technology is meant to be a great equaliser, not a source of division, Prasad said almost half the world's population does not have access to high-speed broadband and is hence deprived of access to virtual platforms, tele-medicine, distance education and e-payments.
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Technology is neutral but its impact will depend on choices that we make today in its application, access and governance. Hence it becomes critical that we make the digital revolution inclusive by creating an environment where nobody is left behind, he said.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, speaking at the General Assembly high-level debate, said almost half the world's population, 3.7 billion people, the majority of them women, and most in developing countries, are still offline.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted this disparity. While confronting the pandemic, those without Internet access have been unable to benefit from remote education, remote work, or remote health services. Without decisive action, the digital divide will become the new face of inequality, she said.
Prasad said the COVID-19 pandemic has also brought to the forefront the critical need for cutting-edge technology tools and innovation in the areas of tele-education and tele-medicine.
The expedited development of contact and tracing application called AarogyaSetu' (Heath Bridge) and CoWINapp for the rollout of vaccines are outcomes of India's efforts, he said adding that in the spirit of South-South cooperation, India launched the Pan Africa E-Network which aims to provide free tele-education and tele-medicine services to developing countries.
Further, he underlined that digitalisation can support waves of change that could dramatically shift to a more efficient governance system. We need to make technology an enabler for sustainable development, economic growth, social inclusion and environment sustainability.
We need to develop a more equitable and effective digital ecosystem by continuous skill development, increased access and affordability of digital technology. This will enable us to correct the structural injustices and ensure that the digital revolution is inclusive and empowering, he added.
Prasad told the General Assembly event that India has taken a concerted decision to adopt a whole-of-society approach to digital technology and improved public services, citizen engagement and accountability.
In 2015, the government launched 'Digital India' with the aim to bring digital inclusion and empower ordinary citizens with technology-based solutions that are affordable and easy to use.
Today, India has the second-largest internet user base and is the second-largest mobile manufacturer, offering the cheapest internet data tariffs in the world.We aim to develop India as a USD 1 trillion digital economy by 2025, he said.