Going digital: A bubbling revolution in rural India 

Technology is key to making a level playing field for the two Indias - rural and urban - and opening a treasure trove of opportunities for communities in villages

Zarina Screwvala
Updated: Oct 4, 2022 10:19:39 AM UTC
A-bubbling-revolution-in-rural-India -Go-digital
Image: Shutterstock

Our writers, thinkers and politicians have always spoken about two Indias— one that lives in our cities and the other in our villages. Both are integral to the nation yet are deeply divided in culture, income, technology, and access to resources. The technological gap, however, is gradually fading thanks to a digital revolution bubbling at the heart of our nation. According to a 2022 study by Nielsen, rural India's internet presence is 20 percent higher than urban India.

The penetration of smartphones, UPI [Unified Payments Interface], and government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan, have enabled Internet access in remote parts of our country. As a result, untapped human potential is finding space to realise itself. Numerous corporates, non-profits, and educational startups are reaching rural India with skill training, health and nutrition awareness, self-help group (SHG) empowerment programs, and more, by leveraging video conferencing and other technological platforms.

I share a few key sectors that are enabling rural populations with opportunities for a better tomorrow.

1) Education

The Indian edtech market is gaining a strong foothold. The heart-warming story of Ranjitsinh Disale, a government schoolteacher in Maharashtra and winner of the $1 million Global Teacher Prize, is particularly poignant. Disale revolutionised the use of QR codes in textbooks by embedding them with audio poems, video lectures, assignments, and more, allowing students to access an interactive school environment, especially for girls, on days they missed school. As a result, the Ministry of Education soon announced that all NCERT textbooks would embed QR codes. Similarly, the Indian government has also introduced free digital e-learning platforms such as Diksha and E-Pathshala. Diksha offers engaging learning material, relevant to the prescribed school curriculum, to teachers, students and parents. Similarly, E-Pathshala, developed by NCERT hosts educational e-resources including textbooks, audio, video, periodicals and a variety of print and non-print materials through website and mobile app. Collectively the available apps offer host explanation videos, e-books, interactive lessons, in 12 to 15 Indian languages. This is a significant step towards better and more inclusive education.

2) Health 

The healthtech market will likely be worth $50 billion by 2033 (RBSA Advisors Report). It is a sector that uses the agency of NGOs, the private sector and government initiatives through a competent network of ASHA workers. The eSanjeevani app (a national browser-based application facilitating doctor-to-doctor and patient-to-doctor tele-consultations) has facilitated over five million tele-consultations and was a boon during the pandemic, especially in rural areas. Through eSanjeevani OPD, one can seek medical advice as well as medication through audio and video. The Since the pandemic, a few NGOs have built effective virtual clinics to cater to antenatal and pediatric care after hospitals were converted to Covid-19 care centers. In addition, startups' digitisation of single medical stores enables patients in remote areas to access medicines outside their village limits.

3) Agriculture

Around 70 percent of India's rural households depend on agriculture according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Therefore, agritech is naturally drawing interest from farmers, governments, and private startups. One such is the Karnataka government's e-Sahamathi app. The e-governance department has developed the e-Sahamati app with the help of National Informatics Centre (NIC). Under this app, farmers must agree to share their crop information with the aggregator which will in turn share details such as a farmer’s name, his crop, landholding etc. with the retailer. In essence, allowing the farmers to list their produce and directly sell it to retail chains—giving them the power to negotiate a fair price for their harvest. Multiple startups have created similar marketplaces. Bain & Company's research shows that the Indian agritech sector got $1 billion in funding from 2017 to 2020. Many startups are developing AI-enabled technology and apps to provide end-to-end solutions, which include soil testing, microfinance, weather updates, and more.

4) Economic empowerment

The Ministry of Labor and Employment's e-Shram portal, a digital database of unorganised workers, is a fine example of a digital upgrade. For the first time e-Shram allows construction and migrant workers to access job opportunities in an organised fashion. Additionally, as per the ministry, it is to provide social security to workers, offering a pension after the age of 60 Years if you have a Shramik Card along with insurance benefits. The Union Labour Minister has shared that the portal has received registrations for over 400 occupations. Given the unregulated nature of these markets, this is a great way to ease the process of seeking and employing skilled labor. Besides employment creation, the digital revolution has created opportunities for economic activities in rural India by making them an integral part of the market value chain for products and services—both as suppliers and consumers. This was further aided by the Jan Dhan Account-Aadhaar-mobile connectivity or JAM trinity as it is popularly called, which brought crores of people into the banking system and transparency in transactions.

5) Women empowerment

My experience with rural communities has convinced me that our women are a formidable force and can uplift their communities if given an opportunity. For example, Angrekond, a village in Raigad, has raised self-help groups comprising 30 women thanks to digital and financial literacy programs. Once homemakers, they are now self-made entrepreneurs. Many non-profits are partnering with tech companies to empower rural communities, especially women. These networks are introducing communities to online skill training via YouTube and social messaging apps, leading them to become entrepreneurs and manage small businesses.

According to a survey by McKinsey, the digital economy could create 60 million jobs by 2025, and many of these would require functional digital skills. Technology is key to making a level playing field for the two Indias and opening a treasure trove of opportunities for rural communities. As we walk from 75 years, towards our next milestone as a nation—100 years of independence, I hope to see a digitally forward, enabled, and inclusive India—where the rural communities retain their distinct identities and are deeply connected with urban centers and the world.

The writer is the co-founder of the Swades Foundation & works full time as its Managing Trustee & Director.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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