Breaching the digital divide

Information technology can become a good development tool for the rural India. But can our villages be logged on to the infotech highway with poor infrastructure in terms of power supply and connectivity. Can we provide information to the common man in his own language?

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Breaching the digital divide

-- There was a village in India, far away from the highway. It had become very poor. The land yielded very little. Water was either scarce or polluted. The forest had been razed. Village folk would migrate to town for employment. They'd heard of computers. It didn't mean a thing. They had heard that rich city folk send their children to 'America' to become software engineers. This, too, meant nothing. The village school taught children till fifth standard only.

One day came a government official in a jeep. He was treated like a king. They gave him tea prepared with only milk, and biscuits bought from the only shop that stocked them. He said the government was going to set up a kiosk with computers. Farmers would be able to 'access' land records and rates of agricultural produce from markets across the country in no time. Latest government schemes for development would become more accessible. Educating children would become easier. There was talk of villages where computers had changed lives. Could it be true? Information, the villagers knew, was always locked in the files of the patwari (keeper of the land records), and he always demanded money. The old-timers refused to give credence to all the compu-talk. They had seen many official visits and many gizmos. The electricity supply was as infrequent as the rains. And there wasn't a phone line in a radius of 10 km....

From here the story can go anywhere. Information technology (it) is at a stage where it is generating a lot of talk and, it must be said, hype. Every other day, you will read or hear politicians and bureaucrats announce new it schemes. They never fall short of promising a revolution; benefits for the poorest of the poor and bringing India's villages to the 'national mainstream'. There are two kinds of reactions to this hype. One is sceptical, typical of the old-timers in our little tale who see nothing in computers but another expression of the plastic age. The other reaction is stupefaction, more typical of the younger generation ever ready to embrace something new, even if it promises the moon and stars to boot.

The reality, fortunately, is not as stereotypical.

No, it will not usher in the dawn of a brave new world, transforming Indian villages into stuff that makes advertising brochures. But yes, it is a great tool, which, if properly used, could improve the life of millions. But some daunting problems need to be conquered first. Three of the most important ones are:

Power availability; a major worry in a power-starved country that can't adequately power its cities, forget villages.

Connectivity, through telephone cables or otherwise; would require some imaginative thinking.

Software in Indian languages; not difficult in a country that leads the software market.

There are numerous solutions. Experts have already come out with loads of good suggestions. They need to be heeded with urgency. Information is important. Market rates are crucial, as much for the stockbroker on Mumbai's Dalal Street as the farmer who looks for the market that offers the best price for the season's produce. Yet the benefits of India's it boom have been restricted to the urban elite. Experts in it point out that the trickle-down theory -- let us provide the best facilities in metros and they would eventually reach rural areas -- will not work. A new technology remains the property of a few till it is actively developed to serve the needs of the wider populace. Then, the economies of scale set in. Remember times when radio transistor was a status symbol and penicillin was a good idea. Moreover, technologies that do not evolve are simply cast aside.

Can IT evolve to serve rural India's needs? To get a fair idea of the potential and problems, we bring you lessons from some it experiments in rural areas. The dairy cooperatives of Anand in Gujarat are using it applications to streamline procedures, making a significant difference to the lives of milk producers in surrounding villages. There are several other positive examples. An important reason for their success is the fact that their it solutions service the rural market. People take to it only when they are convinced that it serves some purpose in their lives. If that happens, they don't wait for government assistance. Government it schemes, however, have done poorly. The e-governance scheme of Rajasthan state government has failed to deliver because of extremely centralised planning that did not take local infrastructure conditions into consideration. Despite the fact that the software is easy to use and the content is in Hindi, the scheme not only alienates villagers but also lends credence to the view that it in villages is hogwash. The state government agency that developed the software is disillusioned with the bureaucracy.

We also spoke to several it experts about the issue. Most agree that the hype about it is undermining efforts to find practical technological solutions. There is also good reason to believe that it will meet rural requirements only when small-scale operators are involved. A good example of how this can happen is the way cable television has spread through India. A pilot project is trying to utilise railroad cables to provide internet in Andhra Pradesh to areas that had no access to internet. This system can cut down costs by half. But the project lies in limbo with Indian Railways resorting to typical bureaucratic delays. One of the people involved in the project is a Chennai-based electrical engineer keen to combat the rural-urban digital divide through technological innovation. He has led the development of an encouraging model called cordect that can connect villages through wireless systems that are cost-effective. The greatest worry is electricity supply. But a project in Pondicherry is combining the power supply from the grid with battery backup and solar power. Draught power from livestock can be used to generate 40,000 megawatts of power in villages. In the pages to come, we provide a realistic view of an issue that is little more than speculation today but promises a lot for tomorrow.

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