New Delhi: For the first time ever, a government survey in India asked its people if they have ever used the internet. The question was part of the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS), the data for which were recently released. The survey was conducted last year.

Bihar reported the lowest percentage of women who said they had (20.6%), Sikkim the highest (76.7%). Among men, Meghalaya had the lowest (42.1%) and Goa (82.9%) had the highest.

The new NFHS data are partial – they contain results from 22 states only, with big states such as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan missing. Thus it is not possible to fully decode the survey data just yet. The results discussed in this story are from this first phase alone, and show wide variations in internet access among men and women, between states, and in urban and rural areas.

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic steamrolled through the world, large chunks of work, education and medical consultation have all moved online for millions and this trend might continue. The Indian government, for its part, has its own digital ambition to get more Indians online. In this light, the data for this particular survey question are important. Access to the internet is also important for the government’s own schemes and public delivery of services such as the government’s app for farmers to hire tractors and get information on the weather.

As of 2019, there were 718.75 million internet or broadband users in India, up 19% from 2018, according to data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

Have you ever used the internet?

This question is helpful in two ways,” said Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, which works on freedom of expression on the internet. The first is that it gives an indication of the spread of awareness about the internet. The second is that it is a useful baseline: in future surveys, these numbers should go up, indicating further spread of that awareness.”

However, just finding out if people have ever” used the internet, even once, is not sufficient information to really understand India’s engagement with the internet, she added.

The NFHS also had a couple more questions related to the internet:

[Have you] Seen anything about family planning on the internet?”

From which sources of information have you learned about HIV/AIDS?” for which the internet was among the answer options.

These figures do not say anything about regular use, which is what really matters, but only about who has ever used the internet,” added Kovacs. They are not conclusive on this matter and further investigation would be required. In fact, ideally, the question Whether you have ever used the internet?’ should have been followed by another one that tried to get a sense of how regular or recent this use was. Having used the internet ever is a good indication of awareness but not necessarily of actual use.”

The lack of more internet usage data has not surprised some experts. I did not expect to see more internet usage in the data,” said Anita Gurumurthy, executive director at IT for Change, which works on leveraging digital technology for social equity. Private internet infrastructure is not the only way to think about internet use. Public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, in rural areas need steady broadband. Mobile-based internet access is only part of the story. Without adequate investments in electricity and broadband, digital enablement is not possible. Individual use culture must go hand-in-hand with such infrastructural enablement.”

The disparities in urban versus rural use of the internet and among men and women are already well known, said Apar Gupta, lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, which works on online freedom. Mere creation of broadband infrastructure does not automatically result in higher internet usage in rural populations or among women,” he said, adding that a richer set of interventions” would be needed, such as working with local communities and nonprofits to ensure that offline inequalities do not carry over online.

Women versus men on the internet

Women fared poorer than men by a big margin on the question whether they had ever used the internet. The least number of women to have ever used the internet was in Bihar with only 20.6% saying they had while 79.4% women in the state said they had never been online. On the opposite end of the spectrum was Sikkim where 76.7% women said they had used the internet.

The state where the fewest men had ever accessed the internet was Meghalaya, where 42.1% men said they had. Goa, meanwhile, was the state with the highest percentage of men who said they had used the internet, at 82.9%.

To explain the disparity among men and women’s access to the internet, Gurumurthy pointed to how offline gender disparities in education, employment and income also determine gender disparities online. Gender-based harassment, trolling and policing online creates negative consequences in the form of self-disciplining even though young women may seek to build their personhood and identity through online social interaction,” said Gurumurthy.

Women’s empowerment, via mobile phones

While the latest NFHS introduced the question on internet usage for both men and women, the previous survey had introduced a question specifically for women: Whether they had a mobile phone and whether they could read an SMS on it. This question was repeated in the recent survey.

The question was included in the women’s empowerment” category along with other questions such as whether the women were a part of household decisions, had a bank account, owned land and how they got paid.

According to the fourth NFHS of 2015 – 16, 61.85% women in urban areas, 36.9% in rural areas, and overall 45.9% women pan-India had said they had a mobile phone that they themselves use”. Two-thirds of those who said they had a phone had also said they could read messages on it.

This year’s NFHS data from 22 states show an improvement as far as women’s mobile phone usage is concerned. In Andhra Pradesh, in 2015 – 16, only 36.2% women had said that they used mobile phones, the lowest in the country. In the latest data, the lowest recorded percentage of women using mobile phones is 48.8%, in Gujarat. The highest usage of mobile phones by women in India in the previous NFHS was recorded in Kerala with 81.2% answering in the affirmative. This year, Goa has the highest percentage of women cellphone users with 91.2%.

The fourth NFHS had recorded mobile phone ownership going up with age: it was 25% for women aged 15 – 19, 56% for women aged 25 – 29. However, the ability to read messages decreased with age: 88% for women aged 15 – 19 and 48% for women aged 40 – 49. The ownership and use of one’s own mobile phone was higher in urban than rural areas, and increased with wealth.

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About the author — Anoo Bhuyan reports on healthcare at IndiaSpend. She has also reported on issues of law and justice, technology and society and gender. Before IndiaSpend, she worked at The Wire, Outlook Magazine, BBC News and National Public Radio. In 2018, she won Bournemouth University’s Journalist of Change’ award for her reporting on extra judicial killings in Manipur. She also received a scholarship for her postgraduate degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She can be reached on Twitter at www​.twit​ter​.com/​A​n​ooBhu.

Originally published in Indiaspend.