Helping India’s elderly cross the digital divide as the country ages

Bart Édes
5 min readDec 22, 2021
From “Thatha, we need to talk about privacy and digital literacy,” The Hindu, 25 January 2021.

India boasts more than 560 million internet users, making it the second largest online market in the world. Yet there are vast disparities in use, by age, socio-economic status, gender and areas where people reside. The penetration rate for smart phones is about 54%, but only around 5% for those 55 years and older.

Over the next 30 years, the elderly population in India will soar to more than 300 million. As services of all kinds increasingly gravitate to digital platforms, Indian policymakers need to give greater attention to the low level of connectivity among older seniors. Access to the internet and digital literacy are becoming vital to civic participation and the ability to access healthcare, social and economic services — which are increasingly computerized and digitalized. Greater familiarity with digital tools will also reduce dependency, increase autonomy and boost self-worth among India’s fast-growing elderly population.

Barriers to digital literacy

A 2017 survey in the National Capital Region (NCR) found that 86% of senior citizens did not know how to use digital technology or computers. This lack of knowledge — also common to other parts to India — can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of reliable internet access, cost of internet service subscription and devices, and the inability to read and write (less than one-third of the over-65 female population in India is literate). The lack of digital tools and services in local languages further exacerbates the situation.

There is a strong gender dimension to digital access in a country where nearly two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas. In these areas, male heads of household are often the only family member to possess a digital device. Women, including older women, rely on the head of household for internet connectivity. This limits what and for how long they may utilise these devices. Some villages even limit women’s use of mobile phones, further hindering their connectivity to social media and educational resources and information. This diminishes women’s overall digital empowerment and independence. By curtailing women’s access to the internet, these villages also restrict opportunities for individual growth.

Bart Édes

Author of Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Foresight to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption