The socio-economic potential and impact of rolling out electronic governance software and mobile applications in rural India is much more than urban India
Ganesh Natarajan | October 13, 2014
The Digital India agenda has created opportunities for many ministries and departments of the government to come together and develop integrated solutions. But many technology providers, and indeed even some policy planners, have begun to consider Digital India opportunity as synonymous to the development of smart cities and the “Internet of Everything”.
In reality, the benefits of a truly Digital India for rural areas are even more significant than the more trendy applications that urban planners can envisage. This point was brought home to some of us at NASSCOM Foundation in a conversation with secretary (panchayat) and her team in Delhi a few weeks ago. During a discussion on the National Digital Literacy Mission (NDLM) and the excitement at making over two hundred million citizens and families access and disseminate information for building better livelihoods, it emerged that the vehicles that could drive the digital literacy agenda could be used to provide various other services to the rural population.
At the behest of the secretary and her team a visit to Hiwre Bazar, a village of just over a thousand people in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, served as an eye-opener to our team. The story of this village, which has moved from a drought prone state of penury twenty years ago to a stage where hardly three of its inhabitants qualify for below poverty line (BPL) status, is a story of leadership and commitment helped to some extent by technology.
The very erudite Popatrao Pawar who abandoned a flourishing cricket career to take on the reins of the village and invested in education and regular gram sabhas to rid the village of the twin scourges of alcoholism and illiteracy is fond of talking about the people movement inspired by him that led to this transformation. The e-Panchayat software installed in the village that helps keep track of all critical parameters of village health may not be core to the success of this remarkable village, but certainly is a catalyst for its ongoing progress.
The possibilities to deploy the next level of technology in Hiwre Bazar, the adjoining Ralegam Sidhi made famous by its lead occupant Anna Hazare and six hundred thousand villages with two hundred and fifty thousand panchayats that dot the country’s rural landscape are mind-boggling. The very well run primary school that has been the fountainhead of change in the Hiwre Bazar community could become the hub for digital literacy and digitally enabled skills – for agriculture, basic healthcare and repair and maintenance training. It could also train the elected members of the panchayat in the excellent software applications already developed and deployed by the ministry and enable self-help groups to flourish with access to information and sharing of knowledge enabled at their fingertips.
In some of the early centres set up through corporate funding as part of the NASSCOM Foundation’s role in the one million people first phase of NDLM, the training and certification of urban poor in cities like Pune and Hyderabad have demonstrated the power of the digital literacy platform. An enabled citizenry will put the power of e-government applications firmly in the hands of the people and it will need joint strategizing and implementation by government, associations like NASSCOM, CII, FICCI and the civil societies to ensure that training and applications are put in their hands to make the digital India dream a reality.
Beyond individual empowerment, an experiment we are starting in one of the manufacturing states is also worth mentioning here. Hosted at the state’s data centre, the project aims at creating a state manufacturing applications cloud. The project that will ride on the state wide area network will enable thousands of SMEs to access world class applications to automate their procurement, production and dispatch operations in a pay-per-use basis.
Software-as-a-service deployment and the engagement of all eco-system players through the cloud platform will make transactions between companies, as well as government transparent and friction free. This will substantially improve productivity and help reduce cost. This is an example of Digital India creating an inclusive culture rather than just catering to the urban elite.