Rural India: Mobile phone is the Great Equalizer

BY RAJ PAREEK  Communication is the key to empowerment and mobile phone is the great equalizer. In just about a decade, Indians have made the country, the fastest growing market for mobile phones — in size, second only to China. In mid 2015, cell phone subscriptions crossed a billion and TRAI and AIMAI had forecasted in November 2015 itself that by December 31, 2015, India will overtake US in the number of Internet connections. Here is a quick look on the rural development impact.

TV White Spaces: Admittedly less than 40% of Internet connections in India are mobile Internet connections, but that is a gap that will close fast, as new technologies like TV White Spaces – the spare and unlicensed bandwidth left over as TV moves from analogue to digital transmission – are used by the Indian government working with companies like Microsoft to bring Internet to some 50,000 villages. IIT Bombay has done a study to establish the feasibility of bringing “Digital India” to Rural Areas. A pilot is already underway in Andhra Pradesh linking four educational institutions in Srikalulam district.

Project Loon: India has also approved trials by Google to bring its Project Loon here – a scheme to provide Internet access to vast rural stretches of the land by floating balloons at around 30 km above the earth. Together these two projects are expected to reach some level of maturity in 2016 – and ensure that the mobile phone in the hands of an Indian rural user is an Internet-connected device.

This is important because a phone by itself is just a voice call and texting tool — it is its umbilical to the Internet that transforms it into a power information provider.

Stakeholders Team Up: The task of Internet-enabling rural Indians remains formidable. There is a need for all stakeholders – the three departments Railways, Postal Department and the Cooperative Sector with proximity to the rural population, and people to believe and trust in these departments. The majority of over 7,000 railway stations, and 1.5 lakh post offices are in India’s interior – so are branches of thousands of microfinance institutions. Together, they form a powerful team to leverage rural connectivity by rolling out farmer and small trader services.

e-Krishi: Services related to agriculture are among the most promising of rural outreaches. The e-krishi programs rolled out by many states providing, cropping, soil and weather advice can vastly increase their reach by morphing into mobile phone apps. The Mobile One app of the Karnataka government includes an interesting element – Reuters Market Light (RML). With coverage of more than 450 crop varieties and 1,300 markets, RML has use for over 1.4 million farmers in 50,000 villages across 17 states in India. Granted this is unlike many government krishi sercices, a paid option – but the challenge is availability of timely information not necessarily its cost.

One of the most innovative uses of multimedia married to mobile internet is the Kissan Kerala You Tube portal of the Kerala agricultural department and the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management – Kerala ( IIITM-K) with nearly 300 videos of farming and animal husbandry advice.

The schemes under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) have been pioneers in financial services in Rural India – and many of their technologies –like  mobile phone-based biometric identification and payments to beneficiaries have been adopted in other emerging economies, just as India has learned from the experience of Grameen Bank in Bangla Desh and the mPesa micropayment models in many African states.

Field to factory: It is important in all such programs to take all help available. For long government has been a monopoly provider of rural services, excluding the private sector even if it made little commercial sense. Today, a meaningful public private partnership rather than ‘me only’ officialdom is the mantra and rightly so. Which is why ITC’s e-choupal initiative – designed to tackle the challenges posed by the unique features of Indian agriculture, characterized by fragmented farms, weak infrastructure and the involvement of numerous intermediaries, is something we can build upon to create a farm to factory ecosystem. As a February 2014 study sponsored by Qualcomm and titled ‘Transforming women’s lives through mobile Broadband’ shows, women are particularly affected by such transformational technologies.

A rural area shopkeeper empowered by mobile broadband

A rural area shopkeeper empowered by mobile broadband

Education and health remain two major challenges in rural India –and it seems likely that technology is slowly coming to the rescue. E-Medicine and Tele-medicine is now a practical reality albeit in small pockets.

Telemedicine: Tele-ICU is a service jointly provided by Wipro GE Healthcare and Columbia Asia Hospitals in consultation with the GE Healthcare and Government of Karnataka. Core to this is the Centricity Tele ICU remote patient monitoring IT solution to help expand “reach” of quality care to rural areas where qualified Intensivists and skilled nursing staff is scarce. Leading government and private hospitals from Apollo Hospitals, Chennai to the Sree Chithra Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences, Thiruvananthapuram to the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad to Escorts Heart Institute & Research Centre, Delhi, are putting in place their own telemedicine systems. The challenge is to scale up and integrate these initiatives to form a single rural telemedicine backbone. Admittedly, the mobile phone may provide only a ‘last mile’ tool in such schemas – but it is the one in the hands of the end user.

Promise of MOOC: On the education front to the sweeping revolution of Massively Open and Online Classes (MOOC) is only just happening — and much of its potential to fill the gap in skill building institutes outside the major cities  is only now being understood.

India’s rural population has aspirations that are not fundamentally different from those of the city dweller. To be healthy, wealthy and wise is a universal longing. And it remains to be seen, how far a thousand rupee mobile phone can help India’s teeming millions achieve their modest ambitions for health, prosperity and education, in a manner that is both doable and dignified.

 

Raj Photo

(The author Raj Pareek is a graduate from IIM Kolkata, and a seasoned telecom professional, currently employed with Tata Teleservices.)

 

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