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Empowering Citizens: E-services to benefit the rural population

July 21, 2016

The effective use of information and communication technology (ICT) has brought significant changes in the urban economy and helped enhance knowledge, improve productivity, and save time, energy and resources. The government now aims to replicate this success in the rural segment by ensuring greater ICT deployment in these areas. Technology can help connect these sections of society and bring in major socio-economic benefits.

The task of taking technology to rural areas has been made simpler by the roll-out of cellular networks and the proliferation of mobile devices. As per the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the rural teledensity in India stood at 51.37 per cent as of March 2016, up from 47.78 per cent in March 2015. With the rapid increase in telecom penetration in the hinterland, the government is considering this medium as a primary point of contact between the rural population and the government. Mobile phones are revolutionising the way critical services can be accessed.

Currently, the central and state governments, in partnership with private players, are delivering a number of e-services in rural India. These include agriculture, health care, education, banking and the public distribution system.

The most ambitious programme in this regard is Digital India, which aims to transform the entire ecosystem of public services through the use of ICT. While the programme includes wide-ranging services for both rural and urban India, it will have a greater impact on the rural sections of the population, given that the existing infrastructure is inadequate in these areas.

E-governance

A key component of the Digital India initiative is providing e-governance, which will be promoted through e-Kranti or electronic delivery of services. Under this, the central and state governments will leverage ICT to provide integrated services on an end-to-end basis. In fact, the rural e-governance applications implemented in the recent past have demonstrated the importance of ICT in the concerned areas of rural development. Some of the recent initiatives that have gone live and are expected to significantly affect rural areas are:

Digital lockers: The government will roll out a national depository that will hold  important certificates and identity proof records in a digitised format. Each private locker will store all the important documents of users, which are digitally verified by the government. This will allow people to access their documents as and when required.

Digital boost to MGNREGA: The government has decided to monitor the progress of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) through a mobile monitoring system. This will make relevant data from worksites available on a real-time basis.

Twitter Samvad: This will keep citizens updated about new government initiatives, actions and services through tweets and SMSs.

Cyclone warning system: The government has decided to create an SMS-based weather and disaster alert system that will provide information to fishermen, farmers and the general public as well as the administration.

e-Money: The government has rolled out an electronic money order service through the Department of Posts.

PRAGATI: This aims to monitor and review programmes and initiatives of both the central and state governments in order to address public grievances.

These steps are expected to improve service provisioning in rural areas and ensure that governance is more citizen-centric.

Health care

There is currently a huge demand-supply gap in the medicare segment and a shortage of 1.5 million-2 million doctors. In addition, as per estimates, around 65 per cent of people in rural India do not have access to essential medicines. However, technology can play an important role in  bridging this gap. The e-health initiatives envisaged under Digital India involve providing online medical consultation, integrating patients’ electronic health records in a digital locker, online medicine supply, and pan-Indian exchange of patient information. The government aims to provide e-healthcare coverage throughout the country by 2018. The most critical component of the initiative is the digital locker, which will store a person’s information for easy access by the government and private establishments. This broad database will not be limited to an individual’s health records; it will act as a dedicated cloud-based personal storage space linked to each resident’s Aadhaar card number. It will store the e-documents as well as the URLs of the e-documents issued by various departments, and will have an e-signature option.

Agriculture

In order to enable farmers to have access to reliable and timely information regarding weather conditions, crop and market prices, farming tips, etc., the government along with a few private telecom players is providing text-based and voice-based services. Among the most comprehensive of these services is the mKisan portal. Launched in July 2013, this portal allows all central and state government organisations involved in the agriculture and allied sectors to provide information, services and advisories to farmers through SMSs in their preferred language, based on their preference for agricultural practices and location.

Other successful initiatives in this regard are m-Krishi, e-Choupal and Kisan Mitra. M-Krishi, developed by Tata Consultancy Services, provides farmers with information regarding weather, fertilisers, pest control, and food prices in local markets. Similarly, e-Choupal is an initiative of ITC Limited, under which the company has provided access to computers and the internet in rural areas. This helps farmers to get information on mandi prices and good farming practices, and place orders for agricultural inputs. Kisan Mitra is an SMS-based service managed by Vodafone India that gives farmers access to basic agriculture- and market-related information. Farmers can also opt for personalised crop management, weather information, pesticide composition and market prices.

Education

ICT is an import aspect of the the Digital India initiative. The government aims to connect all schools with broadband. In addition, free Wi-Fi will be provided in all secondary and higher secondary schools and a programme on digital literacy will be implemented at the national level. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) will be developed and leveraged for e-education. These initiatives are likely to boost education facilities in rural areas, which otherwise lack proper infrastructure for imparting quality education. Further, many state governments have launched e-education programmes that use mobile and broadband technology to deliver primary as well as higher education in rural areas. The private sector has also taken several initiatives in e-education. Some of the successful initiatives in this regard are Microsoft India’s project Shiksha and SREI’s Sahaj e-Shiksha.

Challenges and the way forward

While a number of initiatives have been taken to deliver e-services in rural India in the past couple of years, there are certain challenges that continue to hamper service delivery using ICT. The foremost among them is the lack of required infrastructure facilities, such as reliable and quality power.

Moreover, illiteracy and the lack of ICT-based skills inhibit the uptake of e-services in rural areas. In addition, the content being delivered to the rural population is not relevant and user-interactive. The content is often not available in the local language. Many experts are of the view that capabilities are not adequately transferred to end-users, preventing them from using the applications independently.

These challenges notwithstanding, ICT adoption for delivering services to rural India is gradually increasing. It can help bridge the existing infrastructure gap and overcome other constraints that the rural areas continue to face. The government has already committed to enabling a digital India. What is important now is to ensure that the policies are acted upon and that all stakeholders are engaged in the technology transformation of rural India.

 
 

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