pleasant autumn’s evening. Four men can be seen sitting on plastic chairs in the alley of a quiet colony. They are in their mid-sixties, and have been friends for over forty years. They were all well respected in their respective fields of work once, but have since retired to quieter lives. They have retained one ritual from their younger days, though – their evening chat in this very alley, over tea and cigarettes.
It is Diwali today, and the lights truly present an effulgent façade of the colony, the city.
The four “old-timers” were engrossed in rather an animated conversation. The discussion, which had started with an evaluation of the pros and cons of modernisation and, by extension, globalisation, had now made its way to the relative ills and benefits of the advancements in information and communication technology.
One of them, who was once the principal of a renowned college in the city, seems to hold the opinion that modern IT tools, represented by the plethora of apps and crowded social media, have brought more harm than good. He seems to be inclined to believe that we have made these tools available to the youth much too quickly, without pausing to teach them the responsible way of using them that does not discomfort them as well as other co-dwellers of their extended social circle.
His friend, a retired banker, however seems to hold a more positive outlook on the subject.
“Is it not true that the internet has made the world a smaller place? Let me show you something … There! I clicked this photo of all four of us sitting together hardly five minutes ago … see! And, here, my son has already commented on it all the way from Canada! He sends us his regards, and says he misses us dearly! Isn’t that something? It’s so easy to stay in touch with everyone these days,” he says.
“But, that’s why it has become so easy to stay so far away, as well. Maybe, if it wasn’t so simple, we’d realise just how distant our lives have truly become. And, maybe, that realisation would have kept our children closer to home. May be we’d even get to hug them every once in a while…”
The elderly educationist trails off staring unseeingly in the distance at a group of young children trying to light a cracker.
This scene is actually taken from a Bengali movie called “Adda” released in 2019. The festival was not Diwali, but Durga Puja; the sentiment, however, remains untarnished. In fact, the sentiment mirrors the two opposing schools of thought, the disparate beliefs of two factions, which have been at war with each other for the better part of a decade. The most persistent debate of this millennium: has internet and communications technology made the world seem smaller, or are we more emotionally disconnected than ever before?
On March 24, after an address from the prime minister, the entire country of 135 crores went into what was called the biggest lockdown in history for an initial period of three weeks. The ideological discussions were stymied, and technology imperceptibly seeped into every crevice of our daily lives, for city-dwellers and the rural population alike, as we almost subconsciously beckoned it come and be our crutch in our abruptly curtailed mobility.
In the days after the lockdown announcement, the Zoom video app, hitherto used primarily for overseas video calls, saw its popularity soar. Not only were companies using the app to conduct daily meetings with their employees working from home, many found the social applications of the app more worthwhile, using it to stay connected with friends and family, host lockdown e-parties, etc.
Without question, video calling may be thought to be the “fad of the month” in the wake of the lockdown, and quite ‘deservedly’ so, seeing that it has not only helped stem the boredom of thousands, but also been instrumental in many organisations being able to put their business continuity plans in place.
For artists, stand-up comedians and visual art performers, the lockdown has meant that they find ways to redefine the way they connect to their audience. With social distancing as the norm, they have all resorted to social media as their choice of medium for delivery. In the process, they are modifying their content to maximise the influence of social media in the times of this crisis. Indian digital entertainment pioneer, The Viral Fever, has released several videos stressing on the importance of social distancing, with their usual quirky brand of humour, all of which were shot indoors.
Apart from entertainment, communications technology has also been put to more ‘serious’ usages, with WhatsApp emerging as the tool to spread information, advisory and alerts related to the crisis quickly and effectively to millions of users, if one learned how to root out the fake rumours from actual information.
Several apps have also been developed in a short period that provide useful, and often live, information regarding the outbreak, including live updates on the number of cases, information about red and buffer zones, etc.
Digital media and communication technology have create a revolution of sorts in how educational content is delivered. They have made things available to a much broader audience than ever before. The true application of online teaching platforms, however, have come to light since the commencement of the lockdown, with many education sector non-profits making use of such platforms to not only organise learning sessions with their own students, but also to make such material accessible to millions of parents who can administer it to their children at home to keep them engaged.
Shikhsharth, a Chhattisgarh-based non-profit, is using YouTube and Facebook as mediums to conduct a daily series called “Read Out Loud” for junior school students where they read out didactic stories from picture-books featuring well-known characters from popular lore.
Webinars have emerged as the new way to conduct seminars in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis, so much so that there have even been webinars on the advantages of webinars. On a more serious note, webinars have really proved to be extremely popular during the lockdown, with literally hundreds of webinars being conducted every week, on topics ranging from the impact of coronavirus on the global economy, to how organisations must formulate marketing strategies to stay afloat in the difficult times ahead, to simply staying sane and healthy during the lockdown. Webinars have provided the perfect platform for experts and industry aficionados to publicly exchange views and have engaging discussions on a subject, without violating social distancing protocols. Given that organisations are taking the conclusions drawn in many such webinars seriously, and adjusting their future strategy based on them, webinars might very well be responsible for how the global economy takes shape in the future.
In recent years, online payment of utility bills have emerged as a preferred alternative over over-the-counter payments and waiting in queues. However, there were many who still opted the old-fashioned route of bill payment for a variety of reasons. The lockdown has effectively made shift to online bill payment unavoidable. In fact, for the first time since the eventful demonetisation months three years previously, users are able to perceive the full scope of benefits of such cashless payments.
Online Grocery Shopping
It is safe to say that, compared with other e-commerce product portfolios, online grocery shopping in India, prior to the lockdown, was still very much a fledgling market used mostly by such customers who wanted to overcome the last mile availability problems when it came to their choice of tea, biscuits, etc., the urban population is still very much preferring to do their grocery shopping through their choice of megastores.
The lockdown and the protocol of limiting interpersonal contact to a bare minimum has helped unveil the true potential of online grocery shopping and home deliveries to keep households stocked with essential supplies so that they did not resort to mass hoarding.
Direct Benefit Transfer
When the lockdown was announced at 8:30 pm on March 24, the nation with a population of 135 crores had the whole of 3.5 hours to prepare for the lockdown. In a country where 81% of the workforce is employed in the informal sector, the toll on the economy was immediate and immense, with immediate loss of income for lakhs of workers, including migrant workers living in rented accommodations thousands of miles away from their homes. The worst hit were the marginalised sections – migrant workers, unbonded labourers, small-time farmers, and so on. Several relief packages were announced two days into the lockdown, which included a one-time payment Rs. 2000 to all farmers enrolled in PM Kisan Samman Yojana and having an active bank account, one-time payment of Rs. 1000 in two instalments to 3 crore senior citizens, widows and disabled citizens, and Rs. 1500 in three instalments of Rs. 500 over three months to 20 crore women holding Jan Dhan bank accounts, among others. The target beneficiaries began to experience the roll out of these social security payments within days of the announcement, often heralded by an SMS from their bankers informing them that a certain amount has been credited to their bank accounts while they were stuck indoors.
Much of these disbursement depended on direct transfer of benefits, in a scenario where cash hand-outs were not possible, since a higher incidence of interpersonal contact would imply creating bigger chances of contracting the disease. One must remember that direct benefit transfer is a fairly recent development in the banking industry, made possible by the advancements in communications technology and its applications in banking and finance.
When online payment gateways made their way to India a little under two decades ago, non-profits across India discovered the benefits of online fundraising over the traditional channels. It helped non-profits surpass geographical barriers, attract new supporters, and engage actively with donors. However, the majority of Indians were only disconnectedly aware of the existence of such online crowdfunding options, akin to being vaguely conscious of the flow of subterranean water-streams miles below the surface we sit on. The COVID-19 crisis, however, has made lakhs of citizens truly discover online fundraising platforms for the first time, the migrant worker movement across the country moving many to tears and inspiring them to support relief work. This newfound visibility bodes well for non-profits, especially in the wake of such news that non-profits have managed to feed more people than the government during the lockdown. It may be speculated that this could at least partially be attributed to the success of online fundraising initiatives which made the funds available to make such relief work possible.
We might harken back to the argument introduced at the outset of this abstract and conjecture that while lakhs of Indians received payment in their Jan Dhan accounts, there were also lakhs without a Jan Dhan account to their name who found themselves excluded not only from these benefits but also from the planning itself. One might argue that much of the blame of such patchy coverage may be laid on the technology involved, since it made the planners complacent in assuming that inclusion of some at the expense of others was at least better than inclusion of none. One might also argue that had the technology not been so commonly available, we might as well have seen a bigger effort from the administration in the delivery of these benefits, which could have led to a bigger number of recipients, and consequently better coverage.
Sadly, in a reality where counterfactuals are not possible, we would never know. What is undeniable is how deeply ingrained information technology has become in our daily lives during this lockdown, dramatically altering them – for better or worse, we are yet to see. The question of whether this would accelerate our ever-increasing technology dependency aside, it does open up exciting opportunities for companies providing IT-based services, and have surely laid the foundations for new innovations in the communications sector in the months to come.
(Authored by: Dr. Parimeeta Chanchani, Professor, Indore Institute of Science and Technology, Co-authored by: Dr. Samidha Saxena, Indore Institute of Science and Technology)