According to Census 2011, 68.9 percent of the Indian population resides in rural areas. The graph is expected to bend in the coming years, however, it is still estimated that more than half of the population would be rural even in 2050.
According to a report titled Internet in India 2017, published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Kantar IMRB in February 2018, the number of internet users in India is expected to reach 500 million by June 2018.
In terms of numbers, Urban India with an estimated population of 455 million already has 295 million internet users. Rural India, with an estimated population of 918 million as per 2011 census, has only 186 million internet users; however, the internet penetration is picking up in rural areas.
Technology, more so Information and communication technology (ICT), has a major role to play in the socio-economic development in the country, particularly the move towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by enabling its citizens and narrowing down the rural-urban divide?
Maintaining efficient linkages between the rural and urban economy pre-requisite for sustainable growth and promoting convergence of living standards for all citizens. ICT can serve as a catalyst in the process, especially among the young generation who can access the new information networks easily.
Use of ICT is improving access to and delivery of basic services, increasing accountability, driving innovations and productivity gains, and improving competitiveness. Over the past few years, the ICT scenario has drastically changed, evolving from a simple transmission path for information into a seamless platform for a number of personal, professional and social uses.
Rural India's digital landscape
There has been a number of initiatives to capacitate the rural communities through IT-enabled tools. The smart village mission is to increase economic development and improve the quality of life of people by providing developmental and business opportunities. The idea of the smart village program is to transform the village into a digitally empowered community so that villagers can be connected around the world.
My Smart Village app, launched by AMP-SOFT IT SOLUTIONS, is aimed to improve public facilities in the village areas. Just as a smart city would use information and communication technologies to build and integrate smart services, in the same way, a Smart Village would use technology to provide smart solutions for local problems, though at a much smaller scale.
Yogesh Sahu, a young entrepreneur from Mumbai along with his friend Rajnish Bajpai, a software professional working abroad, had jointly contemplated the idea of transforming rural India, using mobile technology and Internet of Things. This vision further led to the development of a mobile-based application called Smartgaon.
The Mobile app has key features like the villagers' directory, news and events calendar, health center and information center. The app is Bilingual (available in English and Hindi).
After successfully turning around a rural village in UP into a rapidly growing Smartgaon, Yogesh and Rajnish have now laid the bricks of development in 6 more villages in Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, and Maharashtra.
e-Panchayat is an e-Governance initiative for rural India providing comprehensive software solution attempting automation of Gram Panchayat functions. It is a platform for panchayat representatives to connect with rest of the world, which aims to bring out the local voices by empowering the local communities to showcase and share local social, cultural and economic practices, stories and challenges.
Internet Saathi programme aims to facilitate and improve digital literacy among women in rural India. The programme is a joint initiative of Google India and Tata Trusts. It is supported by the Foundation for Rural Entrepreneurship Development (FREND) set up by Tata Trusts. The application is functional in regional languages and the Internet Saathis can easily collect information with minimum internet connectivity.
(Video Credit: Google)
The Wireless Women for Entrepreneurship & Empowerment (W2E2) program aims to create women driven ICT micro social enterprises and entrepreneurs supported by wireless internet in socially backward locations or districts of India and contribute to an enabling internet environment and internet for gender inclusion and women empowerment. The program is based on the strengths of the existing programme activities under the 'Wireless for Communities' (W4C) program, a joint initiative of Digital Empowerment Foundation and Internet Society. The W4C program provides low-cost high-quality Internet connectivity in remote unconnected and rural areas of India.
Technology can serve as a catalyst to tackle the challenges faced by the education sector in rural India. ICT has virtually revolutionized the effective teaching and learning process. It has also given rise to the development of smart/e-classroom, which is supposed to bring a big change in the field of education. India still lacks infrastructure in its conventional education system to serve its ever-growing population. Distance and e-learning programs have potential and seemingly obvious solutions to this problem. Many initiatives are now being taken for the spread of education to the rural and remote area of the country using ICT.
E-Learning is one of the thrust area identified by MeitY for imparting education using educational tools and communication media. It is the learning facilitated and supported by ICT initiatives such as virtual labs, national digital library, NPTEL, and E-Pathshala.
Agriculture, being the backbone of Indian economy, play a significant role in the overall socio-economic fabric of the country. Rural masses are highly dependent on agriculture as a primary source of their income. ICT initiatives and tools are enabling the farmers to improve farm practices and market reach.
AgriMarket app can be used to get the market price of crops in the markets within 50 km of the device's location. Crop Insurance app can be used to calculate the insurance premium for notified crops based on area, coverage amount and loan amount. It can also be used to get details of normal sum insured, extended sum insured, premium details and subsidy information of any notified crop in any notified area.
Farmer Portal is envisaged to make available relevant information and services to the farming community and private sector through the use of information and communication technologies. It is an endeavor in this direction to create a one-stop shop for meeting all informational needs for farmers relating to Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Fisheries sectors.
Kisan Suvidha is an omnibus mobile app developed to help farmers by providing relevant information to them quickly. With the click of a button, they can get the information on the weather of the current day and next 5 days, dealers, market prices, agro advisories, plant protection, IPM Practices etc. Unique features like extreme weather alerts and market prices of the commodity in the nearest area and the maximum price in the state as well as India have been added to empower farmers in the best possible manner.
ICT has the capability to deliver faster, customized healthcare to rural areas. It has been effectively used as a tool to improve the health systems in rural India with e-health initiatives such as Yolo Health and mSakhi.
Yolo Health, a digital health venture building Health ATM's to deliver high-quality, convenient and affordable healthcare services, provides quick preventive health check-up, and video-enabled consultations by reputed doctors.
MSakhi, funded by Qualcomm Wireless Reach and developed by IntraHealth International with Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is an interactive mobile phone application to enable frontline health workers (FLWs) through a mobile phone-based tool for Household Survey. It's is an all-in-one job aid and electronic medical record system that replaces multiple paper-based tools and helps health workers gain access to the most up-to-date training and information in easy-to-understand, convenient formats that work for them. With mSakhi, health workers such as ASHAs (accredited social health activists) can use their smartphones to update skills, stay in touch with supervisors, and track and report crucial data about health issues in their communities.
(Video Credit: IntraHealth International)
Meri Sadak is a mobile app to enable users to give their feedback regarding the pace of works, quality of works etc. of PMGSY roads to the Nodal Departments in the State Governments / National Rural Roads Development Agency (NRRDA). The user can take photographs at the site and submit along with feedback. After the submission of feedback, the user can monitor the redressal of his / her feedback through this app. The respective State Quality Coordinators (SQCs) of the Nodal Department implementing PMGSY provide an interim response to the user.
Despite a number of initiatives, the ICT services in rural India have been suffering from a number of issues such as lack of infrastructure, basic knowledge and awareness, high-cost connectivity, and lack of user-friendly technologies. Recent market trends making data and mobile telephony services cheaper in the country are the welcome phenomenon. ICT coupled with a vision and sustained efforts can surely catalyze the development of rural India.