Information and communications technology (ICT) has the potential to improve the quality of life in remote and rural areas through improved access to health, education and other facilities, which will facilitate economic development, job creation and poverty alleviation. The government’s Digital India initiative aims to transform the entire public services ecosystem through the use of ICT. While the programme includes a wide range of services for both rural and urban populations, it will have a greater impact on the former, given that the existing infrastructure in rural areas is inadequate. In the Union Budget 2017-18, the government announced the DigiGaon initiative for rural areas with the aim to provide telemedicine, education and skills through the use of digital technologies.
tele.net takes a look at the key ICT applications launched in rural areas…
E-governance in rural areas can lead to better administration and improved interaction with citizens, thus increasing transparency and reducing corruption in operations.
The main thrust of the Digital India initiative is on e-governance, which is proposed to be achieved through the “e-Kranti – Electronic delivery of services” component. Under e-Kranti, the central and state governments are being encouraged to leverage ICT to provide integrated services on an end-to-end basis. As of January 2017, 44 mission-mode projects were under implementation to provide online services in various domains such as income tax, passport, immigration, core banking, pension grievance redressal, courts, police, right to information, utility payments, social welfare schemes, agricultural schemes, land records, vehicle registration, driving licence and the public distribution system. The projects are being undertaken by central and state governments.
The Indian healthcare system continues to suffer from underfunding and poor governance, leading to significant inequities in the provision of basic healthcare services in rural areas. An estimated 65 per cent of the country’s population does not have access to essential medicines, and ICT can play a key role in bridging this gap. Some of the areas where ICT can be adopted are hospital information systems, records digitisation, supply chain automation, hand held devices-based data collection and analytics-enabled real-time disease surveillance.
An important e-health application is telemedicine, which allows healthcare professionals to evaluate, diagnose and treat patients in remote locations using applications such as videoconferencing. Telemedicine includes efficient use of limited expert resources in multiple locations. In rural areas, telemedicine can be instrumental in offering basic, specialty and superspecialty consultations. In this regard, the government, in August 2015, launched a pan-Indian health initiative called “SEHAT” (Social Endeavour for Health and Telemedicine). The programme is being run in collaboration with Apollo Hospitals. It aims to connect 60,000 common service centres (CSCs) across the country and provide healthcare services to citizens irrespective of their geographical location. Meanwhile, RailTel is in talks with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to implement a telemedicine project to serve inaccessible rural areas in the country. RailTel will leverage its optical fibre cable network for the purpose, while investment in healthcare equipment will be mobilised through private and government participation.
The e-health initiatives under Digital India include online medical consultation, online medical records, online medicine supply and pan-Indian exchange of patient information. DigiLocker, the digital locker system launched by the government, will be used to store health records of patients for easy access by government and private organisations.
ICT solutions can help farmers gain a better view of prices across different markets, advanced crop production techniques, government schemes and weather-related updates. In an effort to consolidate the diverse and disparate ICT interventions in agriculture, the government has made e-agriculture as one of the key components of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). Under the NeGP, relevant information on weather, soil health, seeds, nutrients, pests, irrigation, crops, farm machinery, etc. is provided to farmers through multiple channels such as CSCs, internet kiosks and SMSs.
A major e-agriculture initiative taken by the government was the launch of a pan-Indian electronic trading portal for farmers, the electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM), in April 2016. The portal seeks to create a unified national market for agricultural commodities and all agricultural produce marketing committee-related information and services. These include commodity arrivals and prices, and trade offers. e-NAM removes information asymmetry between buyers and sellers, ensures real-time price discovery based on actual demand and supply, and brings transparency in the auction process. While material flow (agricultural produce) continues to take place through mandis, the presence of an online market reduces transaction costs and information asymmetry. So far, 417 mandis in 13 states have joined the e-NAM platform.
The m-Kisan portal launched in July 2013 allows all central and state government organisations involved in the agricultural 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 (developed by Tata Consultancy Services), e-Choupal (an initiative of ITC Limited) and Kisan Mitra (an SMS-based service offered by Vodafone India).
The current state of rural education has been a major point of concern for educational policymakers in India. A study conducted by the government in 2014 revealed that nearly 60 per cent of students in rural areas up to the age of 10, lack basic reading skills and the ability to solve simple mathematical problems. The high rate of dropouts by the age of 14, which is nearly 50 per cent, adds to this problem.
The main reasons behind the poor state of rural education are lack of schools, connectivity and teachers. Therefore, it is essential to implement ICT education tools in rural India. The introduction of such solutions tools will solve the problems of mass reach, quality and relevant education. Under ICT solutions, virtual classrooms can be created, thereby plugging the problem of unwillingness of trainers to work in rural areas.
Under Digital India, the government aims to provide free Wi-Fi in all secondary and higher secondary schools and launch soft skill courses on computer literacy and hardware software solutions at rural centres. The aim is to gradually train students to become future instructors, in a bid to enrich rural digital education through own human resources. In addition, massive open online courses have been planned to be developed, which will allow students to pursue any course of their choice from institutions all over the country and abroad as well. In these courses, the latest syllabus will be taught by eminent academicians and industry leaders through virtual classrooms.
While urban areas are gradually gravitating towards digital modes of payment, cash continues to be the predominant mode of transaction in rural areas. This is likely to act as a strong impediment achieving the goal of a “less-cash” society. The key reasons behind this are the lack of adequate banking infrastructure, poor internet connectivity in rural areas, low smartphone penetration, and lack of awareness and skills to use digital modes of payments.
However, the government’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes did provide a push to digital payments in rural areas, as transacting through these channels became a necessity rather than an option. Going forward, mobile wallet players will increase their focus on rural markets that have not been tapped by traditional banks.
The government is taking various measures to increase the use of non-cash channels in rural areas. The recently launched BHIM (Bharat Interface for Money) application is especially targeted at rural areas, with its simple user interface and direct linkage to bank accounts.
Further, in January 2017, the government launched the India Post Payments Bank (IPPB), which is expected to be a game changer, facilitating financial inclusion in the country, particularly in rural areas. As mandated by the Reserve Bank of India, the IPPB would focus on providing basic financial services such as all kinds of payments including social security payments and utility bill payments; person to person remittances (both domestic and cross-border); current and savings accounts up to a balance of Rs 100,000; and distribution of insurance, mutual funds, and pension products. The IPPB will also act as a business correspondent to other banks for credit products. All 155,000 post offices in the country including 139,000 rural post offices will be linked to the IPPB branch at the district headquarters and function as access points for the IPPB.
Going forward, ICT applications will be instrumental in changing the rural telecom landscape of the country