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TECH TALK: Transforming Rural India: IT for the Masses

March 12th, 2003 · No Comments

My time and meetings in Madhya Pradesh set me thinking. We in India do not lack in ideas. What we lack is in the vision to think big. We think in terms of pilot programmes to cover tens or hundreds of villages, when the need is to do a roll-out in months or a few years across a nation. There are plenty of small-scale success stories in fact, I would argue that at a small scale, we can get anything to work. Whats missing is the ability to think of solutions which can be replicated across India between two elections (5 years) rather than two generations (25 years).

I am heavily biased towards technology and computers, perhaps to an extreme. I believe that by empowering people with access to computing and the Internet, we can create a bottom-up revolution across India. These connected computers themselves will not work wonders, but they will open up people, especially the young, to new ideas and new worlds. They will make people learn new skills, which could be harnessed in a myriad of different areas.

For example, farmers could use the connected computers to get commodity prices faster, or get information on new agricultural techniques. The youth would get details on job opportunities across the state. The district administration could get details of problems in near real-time. The eligible could search for matrimonial matches across adjacent villages. The voters would communicate their concerns to the politicians and bureaucrats electronically, with a trail of the communication. The village officials could share governance best practices faster among their counterparts elsewhere.

Many of these and other activities could doubtless be performed without computers. But there is a pain in those processes. That is where technology can make a difference. Computers have been the disruptive innovation of the past two decades. And yet, they have barely made a difference to the lives of people in most of the developing markets of the world.

I believe that the time has now come to take computers and allied technologies to every village of the world. Only through such a mass-scale deployment can we create a platform on which can be layered other programmes whose power can now be amplified dramatically. From primary education to adult literacy, from providing a two-way flow of information to enabling transactions, from increasing governance transparency to reducing corruption, from jobs to marriages, computers can indeed be the manna for the worlds villages.

By themselves, computers will do little. They need applications to make a difference. They need change in governments processes. But by making computing available to every citizen, they will force a seismic change through the lines of governance. They will become the platform which can be built upon to layer a whole range of different services.

Computing as a utility in every village is at the heart of my vision of transforming Rural India. As we shall see, a combination of innovative ideas can make this a reality in a commercially viable business model one where the government is not a funder, but an enabler.

[Id like to acknowledge the help of a few people who have helped stimulate my thinking in this direction. Prof. Ramesh Jain (for the invigorating discussions we have each time he visits India and his ideas on folk computing) and CK Prahalad (for his Bottom of the Pyramid ideas and writings, and his belief that India has to grow at 10% per annum) helped in getting me started. In addition, the discussions I had with R Gopalakrishnan (Secretary to the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, and who set me on the course by inviting me to make a presentation in MP), Rakesh Shrivastava (of MAPIT) and Anita Sharma (of MPsHeadstart programme) have helped refine many of the ideas I will be discussing here.]

Tomorrow: A Wider View


TECH TALK Transforming Rural India+T

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