Digitally starved

Rural Ladakh is struggling to meet digital India

Chhewang Dorje
Srinagar, Publish Date: Dec 13 2018 10:38PM | Updated Date: Dec 13 2018 10:38PM
Digitally starvedRepresentational pic

For many of my readers, the idea of having no access to the telecom/internet is simply unthinkable. In today's technology-driven world, the latest electronic gadgets are your constant companion but this is not so for many of the rural population of Ladakh, who lives on the other side of this technological divide. In spite of tall claims of Digital India by the government, people of Ladakh are still struggling with extremely poor Telecom/Internet connectivity. 

Extremely poor telecom/internet connectivity is one of the greatest obstacles in the holistic development of Rural Ladakh. Despite having good subscriber base for BSNL (Which is currently the only telecom service provider for rural Ladakh) in rural Ladakh, BSNL has failed to provide uninterrupted network connection in both rural and urban areas of Ladakh. This poor Telecom/internet network in the rural areas has deprived the people of rural Ladakh of the benefit of the knowledge-based economy, which Digital India promises to bring. Technology is the main enabler to access quality education and will also help to empower people in the rural area but the lack of stable digital connectivity has put Ladakhi on a disadvantaged position and that too in a world where we see a cut-throat competition. Inadequate infrastructure, poor management, overload on the cell phone towers is causing frequent disconnect in the mobile communication in the Ladakh region. This difficulty in conversation due to poor network is very frustrating and it causes lots of inconveniences to the people. This frequent disconnect of the telecom network and intermittent internet disruptions in both Leh and Kargil has forced many travel agents to move out of Ladakh to get better Telecom and Internet connectivity. Every winter many travel agents fly to Delhi for better Telecom and Internet connectivity so that they can get their online booking for the next summer season otherwise they might lose their valuable customers for the next very short summer season. 

The current union government in the span of 3 years has launched many schemes one of which is the Digital India Program. Digital India is a program of the government under which government aims to transform India into a digitally Empowered/Connected and a knowledge-based economy. While Digital India program looks very exciting and promising on paper but its implementation is far behind the aim of this project and the Digitally Disconnected Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir is the testimony of the hurdles for the success of the Digital India Program. In rural Ladakh, mobile handset penetration quite high, even than the Telecom/internet network is one of the worst on the planet. Without the basic telecom connectivity, leave alone Internet, the effectiveness of the program like Digital India is Zero. 

Unlike the top cities of India, the society of Ladakh is scattered on a vast area, there are about 270 villages, all of which lack the basic infrastructure required for digital connectivity. In rural Ladakh, many villages do not have access to electricity, which is the basic infrastructure required for the success of much acclaimed Digital India.  India, in general, may have crossed 1 billion mobile subscription marks in 2016, but the subaltern society of Ladakh is still struggling to get basic connectivity. Zanskar in the Ladakh region is the glaring example for this, where most of the time we do not have mobile connectivity, leave the alone Internet. Most of the people living in rural Ladakh have to travel more than 2 to 3 days to access simple telecom connectivity and other very simple digital services. For a single call which should cost them a maximum of INR 50, ends up costing them their whole day. If you are wondering how, understand this: the person has to skip a day’s work thus costing him his valuable time. He then has to pay another INR 300 for the transportation from his native village to the nearest facility center to avail his digital requirements, which again cost him more than the normal rates in the city for the same service. e.g. internet charges in Padum, Zanskar is INR 5 per minute. The people of Shun, Shadey, Kargyak, Hanamur, (All of these villages are yet to be connected with a motorable road) and many more villages of Zanskar have to travel for more than two days to reach to the nearest digital facility center from where they can talk to their beloved one’s who are studying outside Ladakh. More than 70% of the state’s population lives in rural areas and yet this large segment of the population has been facing huge problem due to the very poor/ lack of digital connectivity. 

Under the government’s ambitious National Optic Fiber Network or NOFN, (Which was renamed as BharatNet2015) aimed at providing broadband connectivity to Gram Panchayats of India. While the government claimed to have reached 61,000 Gram Panchayats, out of the total 2,50,000 gram Panchayats but all the 200 Panchayats of Ladakh and the villages attached to these are yet to get benefit of this scheme. There are about 200 Panchayats in the Ladakh region encompassing some around 270 villages and all of them are not connected to the Internet and most of them do not even have mobile tower and electricity required for telecommunication. There are thousands of people who are denied their rights and entitlements due to corrupt administrative, financial and governance system. Their illiteracy, lack of information and inability to question authority becomes the biggest enemy. In such scenario, knowledge of the computer and access to the Internet could help them come out of information darkness and access their rights without the role of middleman. 

Every sphere of life has experienced the importance of telecommunication/Internet. For example, students can avail this for their distance learning through Internet, patients can use this to connect with their specialist/ doctor and travel agents can use this to get connected with their valuable domestic or overseas customers.   

Keeping in view the importance of the telecom/ internet connectivity for the rural areas which would significantly ease their life and would also contribute in the Empowerment of the rural population and would also help boost knowledge economy, we expect the government and the telecom service providers to ensure interrupted telecom/ internet connectivity for the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir and take necessary action to resolve this problem of Digital black out as early as possible. 

(Chhewang Dorje is a Ph.D. Research Scholar from JNU, Delhi)

 

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