In March 2014, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government launched a digital literacy mission, which became the National Digital Literacy Mission when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power two months later. It tied in with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of a “Digital India”.

Under the mission, beneficiaries would undergo a 20-hour training programme in using computers and other digital devices, browsing the internet and sending and receiving emails. It started with a modest target of training 10 lakh people and a budget of Rs 89 crores.

Since then, the mission has expanded rapidly with the government targeting a larger audience and pouring in more money. It has also added a section on conducting digital transactions to the training programme.

The original deadline for the National Digital Literacy Mission was 18 months but it was extended to 27 months before it was scrapped in June 2016. While the programme was still running, the government introduced the Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, or Disha, in January 2015. Disha had a target of training 52.5 lakh citizens in four years at a cost of Rs 348 crores. The government claims to have met this target in half that time, by the end of 2016.

In the first half of 2017, the government launched the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan – an even bigger scheme with a target to train six crore people by March 31, 2019, and a budget of Rs 2,351 crores.

However, two impact assessment studies of the digital literacy mission commissioned by the government have reported poor results in meeting some targets as well as problems in the programme’s implementation. These reports coupled with the on-ground experience of agencies involved in implementing the first two phases of the mission suggest there is much to be done before the government can truly claim to have made India digitally literate.

Duplication of beneficiaries

The first impact assessment study, conducted by the research and advocacy group Council for Social Development, found that two-thirds of the beneficiaries of the scheme were not eligible for it. The eligibility criteria states that one member of a household where nobody between the ages of 14 years and 60 years is information technology literate can participate in the programme.

“The all-India picture reveals that 74.3% of the trained beneficiaries belong to families with one IT-literate member, and almost 12 states have crossed the national average,” said the report, which covered the first batch of candidates. It added that one in four candidates came from families where two to four members were digitally literate.

The study also found that 23.7% of families sent more than one member for training. The states that reported the highest duplication rates were Rajasthan (71%), Puducherry (49.5%) and Uttar Pradesh (28.8%).

The government said in its defence that family members of beneficiaries may have received digital training in the period after the training programme and before the survey.

“We never stopped anyone from taking the training and went by self-disclosure of trainees,” said Rishikesh Patankar, head of operations, CSC e-governance Services. CSC stands for Common Service Centres, which are set up by the government in the country’s rural districts to provide basic internet facilities and government e-services.

Patankar added that whenever it was found that multiple persons from the same family were participating in the training, they were not allowed to take the test and did not receive a certificate.

Students pose with their certificates after successfully completing the online test in Barnala, Punjab. (Credit: @PMGDISHA/Facebook)

SCs/STs not adequately covered?

Another area in which the scheme faced criticism was for not having adequate representation from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, as envisaged in its objectives. The report by the Council for Social Development stated that 44% of beneficiaries were from Other Backward Classes, 27% from the general category and 27% from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities.

Patankar’s response to this criticism was that the government intended to include all communities and not just Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. He added that implementation agencies did not bar anyone from the training and that it was impossible to limit the training to a single community because of the demographics of each area.

Social media over digital transactions

In July, the Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi published the findings of its impact assessment study of the second stage of the mission. It had some words of praise for the scheme, which it said had benefited the 25,000-plus trainees surveyed. It stated that 84.2% of the trainees had understood the content of the training and 84.8% had liked the teaching method.

But like the first report, it suggested there were problems with the implementation of the programme.

In the second phase too, the idea was to choose candidates from families without any digitally literate members. While the IIT survey did not provide details on this aspect, it found that 95.1% of respondents could read in English and 83.2% could write in English – which was taken as indication that they came from digitally-literate backgrounds.

The survey also found that while beneficiaries were now comfortable using social media, they were not as adept at browsing the internet for education opportunities and employment listings among others.

According to the report, social media use among respondents went up after training, with 14.5% using Facebook and Twitter daily and 16.6% saying they chatted on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger every day.

On the other hand, one in three respondents said they had never gone online to seek information on agricultural prices, weather, education or job opportunities.

The report also stated, “The percentage of people having knowledge about accessing government websites is slightly less [66.6%]. Similarly, about 66.8% have knowledge about booking travel tickets online, 66.2% about online bill payment and 65.2% for filling online application forms.”

The findings could point to a lack of access to internet and internet-enabled devices.

Patankar said that based on the feedback on the first two stages of the scheme, the government has made changes in its programme. He said beneficiaries are now required to set up social media accounts, do at least five cashless transactions and send an email among other things to make sure the objectives of the programme are achieved.

Now in its third phase, the programme seeks to make six crore Indians digitally literate by March 2019. (Credit: @PMGDISHA/Facebook)

‘Mission is on hold’

With the digital literacy mission now in its third stage with an ambitious target of educating six crore citizens, implementing agencies said there were still many hurdles to clear.

Ajay Mohan of Muskan, a non-governmental organisation that is a project partner for the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, said no work has happened since the scheme was rolled out. “The ministry has put the mission on hold,” he said. “Manpower is the main reason. We have spoken to them so many times but they cite manpower issues. The portal is open and you can register as partner. Everything indicates that work is happening but nothing has been happening on the ground.”

Rejecting this claim, Patankar said, “It is not true that work is not happening. The portal has [an] information system which is there for all to see. We are training students with 500 partners on a daily basis and the centres are only located in rural districts so it may appear that the project is not working but in reality, people are being trained regularly.”

The website claims that over 61 lakh people have completed training and 29 lakh of them have been certified after online tests.

Anita Gurumurthy, executive director of IT for Change, a Bengaluru-based non-profit that works with the government on digital education, said there were delays because the curriculum was yet to be finalised. “There was a meeting in May to review the content,” she said. “Nothing was actually shared with us in the form of curriculum basis which we could make suggestions.”

She added, “The infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. The project on digital literacy has been given a short shrift. The emphasis on digital literacy seems to be a little far removed from the objective of achieving digitisation of the country.”