Changing rural India
Given that 70% of the Indian population lives in rural areas, economic growth must expand beyond city centers to include the entire country. In the modern world, connectivity is not just about roads. An opportunity exists today for villages to be connected to the national mainstream by broadband and internet telephony (also known as Voice over Internet Protocol – VoIP) and virtual markets. Though India is starting late in comparison to other countries, we can leapfrog ahead to implement cutting edge technologies. Companies that have recognized and tapped this opportunity have prospered in rural India.
Rural India today faces a severe technology deficit. While there are serious physical and social infrastructure shortages in power, water, health facilities, roads, etc., the role of technology in solving these problems is barely acknowledged. The actual availability of technology in rural areas is, at best, marginal. Science and technology are often hyphenated and spoken of in the same breath. One would, however, like to differentiate the two. Technology generally (though not always) derives and draws from science, and often manifests itself in physical form for example, as a piece of hardware. Science, on the other hand, is knowledge. In rural India, there is a dire inadequacy of both. Crop yields are therefore far lower than they are in demonstration farms where science and technology are more fully applied. The scope for applying technology to both farm and non-farm activities in rural areas is huge, as are the potential benefits.
Any introduction of technology in the rural space should address the following criteria, not only to be successful but to be widely used.
Four criteria for introducing technology-led interventions are:
- How is it useful for the community in which you are introducing it?
- How does it improve productivity?
- Does it enhance or undermine employment?
- Is the control of the technology and decision making process democratic?
That is, technology must be in the control of and answerable to the people it directly affects.
Post the first green revolution, there hasn’t been any steady break-through in changing production and productivity, and as a result, both have stagnated. Agriculture, once the backbone of rural economy, is losing its share in rural GDP. This is a pressing problem and an exciting challenge. It represents a unique three dimensional convergence of technological capability, economic opportunity and societal need for technology.
Here are some examples:
Irrigation & Water Technologies: Managing the release and distribution of water is critical for maximizing production. Sophisticated power transmission systems use information and communication technologies to optimize and monitor the distribution of electricity. Despite many similarities, there is hardly any use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in water distribution.
In rain-fed areas, the construction of check-dams is vital. Pilot projects have already demonstrated that choosing the right location for such water-harvesting structures can be greatly facilitated by using satellite remote sensing data. Where irrigation comes from wells, the simple technology for the pump to be automatically switched on when power is available (and timed to then switch-off) – so common in cities – is still rare in villages. As a result, the farmer has to manually switch on the pump (generally in the middle of the night) when power becomes available.
While many technologies exist for water-purification, there is need for developing context-specific technologies (ideally, low-cost, reliable and not power-dependent) for providing safe drinking water. Recently launched water purification systems that have taken such considerations into account have been successful in the rural space.
Transportation & Distribution: Cold storage and cold-chains for transportation to market is of great importance for many agricultural products particularly, fruits and vegetables, but they remain insufficient. These are clearly technologies with an immediate return on investment and benefits for all: the farmer, the end-consumer, the technology provider. However, regulatory and structural barriers are holding back investments.
Information: Commodity prices, agricultural practices, weather, etc. are crucial for the farmer. Technology can now provide this information easily and instantaneously either at a village computer kiosk or on a mobile handset. While such information is delivered and used “passively”, we need to look at making them transaction oriented. Transactions, including the purchase of agricultural inputs as well as other goods and services, can be handled on kiosks, wireless cable TV or a mobile phone. All these technologies are proven; the challenge now is to ensure connectivity and scale them for wider usage and application.
The growth of India’s technological base has made it possible to meet these needs. Further, economic growth, however skewed and iniquitous, has made rural India an attractive market. What’s now needed is to exploit this opportunity in socially relevant ways. Understanding the consumers’ needs from a socio-cultural standpoint is not easy but essential.
Technological Interventions in rural space: Many decades ago, India’s program for practical application of space technology had a large team of social scientists, dedicated to understanding the true needs of rural India and acting as a bridge between villagers and technologists. Such an effort is needed today for new and emerging technologies in fields such as communication, irrigation, energy, and others. This could be the next big thing for techno-entrepreneurs and enterprising corporates.
The following examples demonstrate the use of technology in the rural space and how it has impacted the life of farmers and non-farmers in our villages.
- Swabhiman is a nationwide program on financial inclusion in which five crore households will receive access to banking services in unbanked areas. The banking will be taken door to door through business correspondents who called ‘Bank Saathi’ in Hindi. The scheme will also promote the micro-insurance and micro-pension plans for the villagers. This is made possible by the same V-sat technology that has been powering the spread of ATM’s and other services for more than a decade in other parts of the country.
- SBI and Airtel have formed an alliance for financial inclusion for unbanked India using mobile telephony. Developers like Bangalore based Integra Micro Systems have created micro banking and branchless banking solutions based on these technologies, bringing banking to thousands of villages in India. More recently 3i InfoTech has launched a range of value-added services for rural India under the ISERV brand in over 12,000 locations.
Knowledge and Information Delivery:
- Hariyali Kisaan Bazaar (HKB), the rural retail venture of DCM Shriram Consolidated Limited (DSCL), is planning to tie up with mobile telephone companies to provide farm and commodity advisory services.
- Reuters Market Light (RML), a mobile phone-based service offers up-to-date local and customized commodity pricing information, news and weather updates.
- Nokia India and Tata DOCOMO partnered to offer Nokia Ovi Life Tools to plug information gaps in the areas of agriculture, education and entertainment.
- Infibeam’s 2,000 crore rural e-commerce platform in Gujarat will allow access to FMCG and other products currently not easily accessible to rural households at transparent prices.
These initiatives aim to pass the power of expert knowledge and information to individual farmers, increasing their negotiating power and enabling them to realize better prices.
Non-Conventional Energy and Telecom:
- Electronic solar rickshaws for postmen in India.
- Ashden award winner D. Light and UK based Christian Aid have joined forces to deliver a micro finance program designed to bring solar lighting to 4400 rural households in India.
- The Ericsson sponsored Gram Jyoti Project (which literally means ‘Village Light’ in Hindi), a pilot project, has brought the benefits of mobile broadband connectivity to a few selected villages and small towns in Tamil Nadu. It uses the Wireless CDMA/ HSPA (High Speed Packet Access) technology. This will enable a wide range of services like telemedicine, e-education, e-governance, online local information like local rates for agricultural products, video conferencing and live TV and entertainment.
- Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) and Near Field Communication (NFC) based smart cards, an evolving technology that is used for toll ticketing and goods tracking, enable traceability of farm produce and smart card based financial transactions. These technologies can mark something as small as a needle or as large as a missile. They have the precision to overcome issues like line of sight and and the memory to incorporate numerous product details and history.
We can also look at adopting ideas from other countries and continents:
- Australia: the Rural Transaction Centers (RTC) Program helped establish locally run units that introduce new services or brings back services into rural towns.
- Finland: Telemedicine services have allowed a specialist doctor in Helsinki to provide diagnosis on X-rays taken in sparsely populated regions thousands of kilometers away.
- Africa: The Solar Electrification Light Fund (SELF) uses solar arrays to power irrigation pumps for growing high-valued crops in the dry season (solar market gardens).
With such initiatives, quality of life as well as income growth can be vastly and quickly improved. Access through technology can provide a new momentum in our efforts to promote inclusive growth. The technology exists. It is up to us to evolve cost effective and socially relevant ways to bring it to and use it in rural settings.
This article was researched and written by Mahindra’s Center for Rural Information and Insights (CRI) team. The CRI conducts research on rural India in order to guide and strengthen Mahindra’s relationships with the Indian rural economy, markets, and consumers. The following article was part of the February edition of the CRI’s Rural Review, a bimonthly periodical circulated internally and among a small number of external subscribers, including several ministries within the Indian government.