By DR. SRIPARNA PATHAK
In any discussion on how the 21st century is visibly different from the preceding ones, a mention of the Internet is a constant feature. The various stakeholders in society have their own perspectives to the impact of the Internet on human lives. While young parents constantly fear the negatives of the Internet as impacts on children who are increasingly hooked to the Internet, taxi service providers for example would look forward to an expansion of Internet connectivity. The government also looks at the positives as having immense potential on bridging the physical connectivity. The e-NAM (national agricultural market) initiative of the Government of India for example looks at creating a national market based on the prowess of the Internet to connect farmers and consumers for direct transactions and to eliminate middlemen (women) in the sale and procurement of food grains. As evident from these examples, Internet has penetrated every level of the society — from the state to the market to the individual.
The Internet has also meant increasing disconnect between people, and frequent memes or jokes on social media regarding people not talking to each other at the dinner table, but talking to unknown strangers on the Internet via the smart phone is a reality. This increasing alienation — a reality of the Internet generation also is symbolic of the increasing gap between parents and children per se otherwise as we see busier lives and inadequate time and/or affection for ageing parents, which results in the fast growing business of old age homes.
However, it is also this very Internet which means something completely different for Mr Swapan Pathak — my 67-year-old Baba. Having lost his wife two years ago and the children having gone away to metropolises for employment, Mr. Pathak lives with his absolutely wonderful son-in-law in this sleepy district called Chirang in Assam. Assam is not ‘home’ per se to Mr. Pathak. His domicile and definitely his favourite place on Earth remains Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. However, old age and sickness just meant that his children shifted him to Assam, which is now home to his daughter by the virtue of marriage. During his youth, Mr. Pathak beyond his employment at TATA also was an active participant in social work and Karate and organising Durga Pujas and Kali Pujas; going out with the Police as part of the Peace Committee in the city was something he looked forward to every year. However, old age — the cruel monster just changed everything!
However, it was Internet that came to the rescue! Empowered with a smart phone and quick grasping capabilities, he quickly mastered social media usage and even Internet calling. Through the aid of the Internet, he jumps over every morning from Assam to Jharkhand and connects with the friends he grew up with and worked with in Jamshedpur. Through the use of the Internet, he quickly Googles meanings of things he sees around him. Exploring facets of the culture he is now surrounded with in Assam becomes easy for him. Communication through applications like Whatsapp with his children located thousands of kilometres away is also no longer alien to him, and hearing him say, “Phone na lagle ki hobe, whatsapp toh ache” (Does not matter if the phone is out of coverage, I have Whatsapp) is an absolute joy. Daily ‘gyaan’ on his Facebook profile on the different cultures of India is a pleasing sight — not just because he has found something to engage with, but also because the Internet has ensured that learning as a process in life never stops and he is constantly grappling with new ideas and concepts.
While old age remains a sad reality of life and the increasing gap between parents and children an even more bitter one, the fact remains that Internet remains a rescuer. In April 2012 the Pew Research Center found for the first time that more than half of older adults (defined as those ages 65 or older) were internet users. Today, 59 per cent of seniors report they go online—a six-percentage point increase in the course of a year—and 47 per cent say they have a high-speed broadband connection at home. In addition, 77 per cent of older adults have a cell phone, up from 69 per cent per cent in April 2012. However, these statistics are for the U.S. and it is difficult to have such kind of aggregated statistics for the old in India.
The fact remains that the Internet has been an enabler not just for the developed world, but also for the developing world — as I see in my Baba’s case. From forming quick whatsapp groups with their peers to discuss common challenges faced by the old, to coming up with ideas on how to make the city friendlier for the old, to quick searches on their medical conditions has been a great enabler. Internet connectivity therefore needs to be rapidly increased, because after all the old are also extremely an important part of our society and any force that enables them is more than welcome.
(The author is a Consultant at the Policy Planning and Research Division, Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect those of the Division or of the Ministry)