Digital Literacy and IT Penetration in Kerala and Public Investments

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The spread of Information Technology has led to many dramatic changes in our economic, social and political life. It has created new challenges and opportunities for people. New structures and institutions have been created to manage these changes. In this context, it is important that people have the ability to control or modulate these changes, leverage on the new opportunities and manage the challenges. Therefore, in a society such as that of Kerala, where democratic values are cherished, it is important that digital literacy is universalized. A rough set of skills that a digitally literate person should have would be the ability to switch on and off a computing device, understanding operating systems, files, folders and drives, ability to use office applications and media applications, ability to use Internet for emailing, accessing websites and engage in social networking. It is only through achievement of a universalisation of this digital literacy that one can ensure that people have the necessary power to leverage on the unfolding IT revolution.

If we treat ownership of desktops as a proximate indicator of digital literacy, a tentative claim can be made that Kerala has a very low effective digital literacy. As per Census 2011, desktop ownership in households in Kerala stands at 9.5 percentage and Kerala comes 5th in India. While this is above the national average of 6.4 percentage, the figure is possibly much below optimal levels after accounting for affordability. According to the Planning Commission, in its March 2012 Press Note, it has quoted the number of people below poverty line in Kerala as a little over 12 percent of the population. The figure is contested by the Government of Kerala which puts the figure at approximately 25 percent using a different set of criteria. This indicates that even at the present levels of economic well being of households in Kerala, desktop ownership and thereby digital literacy can be significantly higher than the current levels. (It must be mentioned that ownership of desktops may not be a wholly reliable proximate indicator as factors like desire, affordability, presence of substitute products like smart phones, presence of cyber cafes etc can influence ownership of desktops.)

At the same time, Kerala meets some of the necessary conditions to be able to exploit Information Technology for betterment of society. This includes the high literacy rates, 100 percent electrification and high levels of broadband access. Therefore, enabling more and more people to use and benefit from Information Technology is a challenge that can be taken on by various actors from the public and private sectors.
The present barriers to deepening IT penetration in Kerala, apart from cost factors, include low levels of computer expertise, absence of sufficient IT Hardware sales outlets across the state, low English language proficiency, inadequate opportunity to gain economically from IT skills, low Internet penetration and inadequate local language content. This has also been one of the contributing factors for the low direct employment generation in IT sector in spite of the favorable conditions and the headstart that Kerala had. The software export from Kerala stands far below that of states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The government of Kerala has initiated a string of measures to improve upon this scenario, the results of which should be seen in the near future. Some of the key initiatives of the government in this direction include the Akshaya Project and the IT@School Project.

The Government of Kerala initiated Akshaya as a landmark ICT Project of Kerala State IT Mission. The Project has the mission of bridging the digital divide, addressing the issues of ICT access, providing training in basic skill sets and enabling availability of relevant content.The Akshaya Centres located across the length and breadth of the state of Kerala, which is the centre piece of the programme is run by independent entrepreneurs from the locality. It is in their role as evangelists of Information Technology that these entrepreneurs play a major role in bridging the digital divide in Kerala. Today, they have emerged as a major channel for government to citizen services and can be seen as the delivery mechanism for the e-governance system in Kerala. Additionally, they have also played an important role in enhancing e-literacy by organizing training programmes in association with Kerala State IT Mission and companies like Intel.

Another major initiative of the Government of Kerala is that of the IT@School Project which is aimed at computer aided learning in schools and reducing the digital inequality. The Project initiated in the year 2001, revolves around a Free Software distribution by the name IT@School. The distribution has a number of applications for learning of Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Social Sciences, English, Malayalam and other subjects etc. Apart from this, the basics of computing including computer hardware training and programming are provided to students under the programme. The project today covers approximately 50 lakh students and 2 lakh teachers in classes 5 to 12 in Kerala according to the data available on the IT@School Website.

These two investments by the Government of Kerala over the last one decade are beginning to yield its results. Today Kerala is one of the leading states in the country for e-governance and e-literacy. The state can potentially witness a dramatic emergence of IT enabled people and organizations in the state.

References, dated 10th of January, 2013, dated 10th of January, 2013
Planning Commission, Government of India, March 2012, Press Note on Poverty, Estimate of Poverty (2009-10), dated 10th of January, 2013