Going digital: a bubbling revolution in rural India?

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Our writers, thinkers and politicians have always spoken of two Indias, one living in our cities and the other in our villages. The two are an integral part of the nation, but are deeply divided in terms of culture, income, technology and access to resources. The tech divide is slowly closing, however, thanks to a digital revolution bubbling at the heart of our nation. According to a 2022 study by Nielsen, rural India’s internet presence is 20% higher than that of urban India.

Smartphone penetration, UPI [Unified Payments Interface], and government programs such as Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, have brought internet access to remote areas of our country. As a result, untapped human potential finds room to realize itself. Many businesses, nonprofits, and educational startups are reaching rural India with job training, health and nutrition awareness, self-help group (SHG) empowerment programs, and more. leveraging video conferencing and other technology platforms.

I share some key sectors that offer rural people opportunities for a better future.

1) Education

The Indian edtech market is gaining a foothold. The touching story of Ranjitsinh Disale, a Maharashtra government teacher and winner of the $1 Million Global Teacher Prize, is particularly poignant. Disale has revolutionized the use of QR codes in textbooks by integrating them into audio poems, video lectures, homework, etc., giving students access to an interactive school environment, especially for girls, days they missed school. As a result, the Ministry of Education soon announced that all NCERT textbooks would incorporate QR codes. Similarly, the Indian government has also introduced free digital e-learning platforms such as Diksha and E-Pathshala. Diksha offers engaging learning materials relevant to the prescribed curriculum for teachers, students and parents. Similarly, E-Pathshala, developed by NCERT, hosts educational electronic resources including textbooks, audio, video, periodicals, and a variety of print and non-print materials through a website and mobile app. Collectively, the apps available offer explainer videos, e-books, interactive lessons, in 12-15 Indian languages. This is an important step towards better and more inclusive education.

2) Health

The health technology market is likely to reach $50 billion by 2033 (RBSA Advisors Report). It is a sector that utilizes the agency of NGOs, the private sector and government initiatives through a knowledgeable network of ASHA workers. The eSanjeevani app (a national browser-based app facilitating doctor-to-doctor and patient-to-doctor teleconsultations) has facilitated over five million teleconsultations and has been a boon during the pandemic, especially in rural areas. Through eSanjeevani OPD, one can seek medical advice as well as medication through audio and video. Since the pandemic, a few NGOs have built effective virtual clinics to respond to antenatal and pediatric care after hospitals were converted into Covid-19 care centers. Additionally, the startups’ digitization of one-stop medical stores enables patients in remote areas to access medicines outside their village boundaries.

3) Agriculture

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), around 70% of India’s rural households depend on agriculture. Therefore, agritech naturally attracts the interest of farmers, governments and private startups. One of them is the Government of Karnataka’s e-Sahamathi application. The e-governance department developed the e-Sahamati application with the help of the National Informatics Center (NIC). As part of this application, farmers must agree to share their crop information with the aggregator who will in turn share details such as a farmer’s name, crop, land ownership, etc. with the retailer. Essentially, allowing farmers to list their produce and sell it directly to retail chains, giving them the power to negotiate a fair price for their harvest. Several startups have created similar marketplaces. Bain & Company research shows that India’s agritech sector secured $1 billion in funding from 2017 to 2020. Many startups are developing AI-based technologies and applications to provide end-to-end solutions, including soil testing, microfinance, weather updates and Suite.

4) Economic empowerment

The Department of Labor and Employment’s e-Shram portal, a digital database of unorganized workers, is a good example of digital upgrading. For the first time, e-Shram enables construction workers and migrants to access employment opportunities in an organized way. In addition, according to the ministry, it must provide social security for workers, offering a pension after the age of 60 if you have a Shramik card as well as insurance benefits. The Union Labor Minister said the portal had received registrations for over 400 occupations. Given the unregulated nature of these markets, this is an excellent way to facilitate the process of finding and employing skilled labour. Apart from creating jobs, the digital revolution has created opportunities for economic activities in rural India by bringing them into the market value chain of products and services, both as suppliers and consumers. This has been facilitated by the Jan Dhan Account-Aadhaar-mobile connectivity or JAM trinity as it is popularly known which has brought millions into the banking system and transaction transparency.

5) Women empowerment

My experience with rural communities has convinced me that our women are a formidable force and can uplift their communities if given the opportunity. For example, Angrekond, a village in Raigad, created self-help groups of 30 women through digital and financial literacy programs. Formerly housewives, they are now self-taught. Many nonprofits are partnering with tech companies to empower rural communities, especially women. These networks introduce communities to online training through YouTube and social messaging apps, leading them to become entrepreneurs and run small businesses.

According to a McKinsey survey, the digital economy could create 60 million jobs by 2025, and many of these would require functional digital skills. Technology is key to leveling the playing field for both Indies and unlocking a treasure trove of opportunities for rural communities. As we move from 75 years to our next milestone as a nation – 100 years of independence, I hope to see a digitally advanced, enabled and inclusive India – where rural communities retain their distinct identities and are deeply connected to urban centers and the world.

The writer is the co-founder of the Swades Foundation and works full-time as a manager and director.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are those of the author.

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