The government of Kerala, in the budget this year, has said it will make access to the Internet a right of every citizen, and also unveiled a plan to implement this ambitious initiative throughout the state, so that even the poor can have Internet access. This is indeed a welcome move, and the entire country should embrace this, in one way or the other.
Kerala Budget proposal
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Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac proposed in the state budget – presented on Friday (March 3) – that Internet access will be made a right in the state. As part of the plan, around 20 lakh poor people across the state will get Internet access free of cost, while the rest can avail the state-sponsored connection by paying a minimal fee.
The project requires a large amount of optical fibre and electric cables being laid across the state, and will entail minimum expenditure of Rs 1,000 crore. The project is expected to be completed within 18 months of its start, and will provide people Internet access through which they can avail government and non-government services.
Why India needs to implement it
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India is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world – in terms of population, e-governance, economy and even the smartphone market. That should make the equation really simple. The central government is pushing for more people to get online so they can avail services. And contacting top leaders takes just one tweet – Sushma Swaraj is famous for helping Indians abroad after they contact her on Twitter, and ditto Suresh Prabhu, who helps people on trains.
And then there's the government's push for cashless transactions to ensure the black money is weeded out, for which the government's own BHIM app has been launched. None of this is possible on a truly countrywide scale if Internet access is not there!
We also have a lot of non-government services and activities on the Internet that can help people. Where the radio is the staple but limited source of information, the Internet can bring any news – on demand – to the fingertip of residents of even the remotest rural habitats in the country, letting them choose what they want to read.
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Of course, this has to be done in a manner that does not compromise net neutrality: In essence, people should have the right to visit any legal corner of the web they want, without the Internet Service Provider (ISP) deciding they can visit only specific sites. This was the big debate when Reliance and Facebook tried to tie up and provide limited-access Internet to all parts of India, in what was called Facebook Free Basics.
There is also the question of cyber security. Just because people are computer-literate does not mean they can be trusted with being safe on the Internet. Increase in access to the computer will also lead to a rise in attempts at cyber crimes – from stealing credentials to defrauding unsuspecting users into parting with their own money. The onus of not letting this happen will lie with not only the ISPs but also the central and state governments, which in turn will need to run continued awareness campaigns.