Perspectives from ISB

In a technologically driven world, digital connectivity has become indispensable. More importantly, robust digital connectivity becomes imperative for a state like Meghalaya, where geographical barriers often hinder conventional forms of connectivity. Digital connectivity catalyses economic growth, social development, and access to essential services.  A solid digital infrastructure will compensate for the lack of physical connectivity, bring services and benefits to remote corners of the state.

In a world where digital connectivity is synonymous with progress, Meghalaya is yet to reap the full potential of the dividend from the technological wave. According to the latest License Service Areas (LSA) report on the extent of broadband coverage, as mentioned in an article in The Shillong Times, no district in Meghalaya has reached a 100 per cent broadband connectivity rate. Only three districts, Southwest Garo Hills, South Garo Hills and West Jaintia Hills have crossed the 90 % mark, while in some districts, like West Khasi and Southwest Khasi Hills, broadband connectivity rate is only 58.77% and 69. 30 %, respectively. Additionally, out of 6459 villages in Meghalaya, 772 villages do not have mobile coverage yet, i.e. almost 12% do not have mobile coverage. These villages constitute about 179228 citizen population.

Challenges in the Way of Connectivity

Various hurdles and challenges have marked the state’s journey towards digital inclusion. These include a lack of robust digital infrastructure, particularly in remote corners of the state, leaving the state’s digital economy still at a nascent stage. As a result, the state has a limited penetration of online services and thus, a much lower volume of digital transactions. Furthermore, this digital divide has worsened the disparities in access to quality education for all, hindering the youth population’s holistic development. Additionally, low Aadhaar registration rates have led to missed opportunities in availing government welfare schemes with Aadhaar being India’s foundational Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI).

Infrastructural Challenges

Meghalaya’s rugged terrain, mostly characterised by hilly landscapes, presents a formidable obstacle in establishing digital connectivity. The terrain hinders setting up the essential infrastructure for mobile and broadband connectivity. Building robust digital networks across such diverse landscapes requires innovative solutions as well as sustainable resources since expenditures are higher in the region than in other states where such physical hurdles are not present.

Societal Fears and Misconceptions

Concerns over societal decay due to the advancement of technology have contributed to the state’s slow growth of digital connectivity. Communities, especially in rural areas, are apprehensive about adapting and promoting digital technology due to the fear that exposure to global culture will deteriorate traditional values, particularly amongst the youth, which may lead to degraded morals in the society. This perspective, however, fails to see how technology can preserve and propagate traditional culture, values, and heritage through digital archives and social media platforms. Misfounded fears of radiation from technical devices causing diseases like cancer, particularly radiation from mobile network towers, are deterrents in certain localities and villages.

State of the Digital Economy

Given the lack of digital connectivity, the penetration of online services and transactions is consequently low. According to the latest State Level Banker’s Committee report of Meghalaya (up to 31st March 2023), some districts in the state, like North Garo Hills and South West Khasi Hills, have online transactions of only ₹715.96 lakhs and ₹716.6 lakhs respectively, with only 72778 and 42907 of Bhim/UPI Accounts during the Financial Year 2022-23.

Lack of Digital Infrastructure in the State’s Education Sector

According to the latest available  UDISE+ report (2021-22), out of the 14600 schools in Meghalaya, only 2,416 (16.5%) schools have internet facilities, while only 276 (1.8%) schools have functional computer systems. Additionally, only 3601 (24.7%) schools have functional electricity. This lack of digital connectivity and infrastructure gravely affects the quality of education. Without these resources, students in the state are deprived of the opportunity to learn and practice modern learning tools and are cut off from the vast information and knowledge available online and, most importantly, the chance to develop their digital literacy skills, which is a necessity in a technology-driven world.

Dismal Aadhaar Enrolment

According to the latest UIDAI data, almost 30% of the population in Meghalaya do not have Aadhaar cards. Aadhaar penetration in the state is at 71%, the second lowest in the country after Nagaland. This low registration can be attributed to several factors, including limited awareness; certain sections of the state population are as such not aware of the benefits of Aadhaar-based welfare schemes/public service goods of the government or may even lack the know-how to register for it. Additionally, the lack of enrolment centres in remote areas makes it difficult for residents to avail the registration facilities due to physical and digital connectivity barriers. Privacy is also a huge factor owing to the biometric nature of the Aadhaar. And a factor that is perhaps peculiar to Meghalaya is the religious factor wherein certain groups of people are apprehensive about registering for the card because there are certain passages in the Holy Bible (Revelation 13:16-17) where numbers and biometrics equate to the ‘Devil’s Number’ or the ‘Number of the Beast’. With Christians constituting about 74.59% of the state of Meghalaya, these kinds of speculations present a very real and grave deterrent to Aadhaar enrolment.

The Path Ahead

Addressing Meghalaya’s digital connectivity challenges requires a multifaceted approach, given that several factors impair its digital progress, while also ensuring that these approaches are rooted in innovation, collaboration, and inclusivity. Investing in infrastructural development, particularly in the remote areas of the state, by expanding broadband coverage, strengthening mobile connectivity, and leveraging new and existing technology in bridging the digital divide is the first imperative step. Furthermore, enhancing the growth of the digital economy through supportive policies and incentives can aid in promoting entrepreneurship and employment. Also, ensuring digital inclusion in education by enhancing access to online resources, improving digital literacy, and removing the urban-rural education gap can empower the youth of Meghalaya to thrive in an increasingly digital world. Additionally, targeted awareness campaigns are needed to address any fears and concerns regarding the negative perception of digital technology from an indigenous, societal, and religious point of view. Inversely, campaigns about the manifold benefits that technology can bring about will also aid in maximising the reach and impact of welfare initiatives and people’s participation in technology will greatly aid in data collection for policymaking as well.

Author Bio: Mebanialam is a Research Fellow of the Meghalaya Legislative Research Fellowship of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, ISB & the Meghalaya Institute of Governance). He holds a Master’s degree in Politics and International Relations. His areas of interest in public policy include education, technology, health, and politics.

DISCLAIMER : The views expressed in this blog/article are author’s personal.

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