There have been various initiatives to take IT to the masses in India Gyandoot, eSeva, Bhoomi, eChoupals are some examples. At best, these have been success stories limited in size, scale or scope. The digital divide is far from being bridged. Where is the problem? There certainly does not seem to be a lack of vision, ideas or even resources. And yet, what is missing is a solution that has been rolled out on a mass scale to make a difference to millions.
As I see it, the problems are the following:
Government as Financer: This is perhaps the single biggest issue which limits scalability. The government can fund 100 or even 1000 centres or kiosks costing Rs 100,000 (USD 2,000) each. But the need is for 50 times as many access points. That is where the government-funded model becomes impractical there simply isnt enough money to set up these across a state or a country. And so, without the scale, the costs of operation are high, the villagers have to walk many kilometers to get to the nearest centre and that is simply not going to happen.
Demo Mentality: The thinking when the plans are drawn up is to create pilots. The reasoning goes: let us do 10 or 50 or 100 such demonstration centres, or showcases. Once the proof-of-concept is proved, then we can look at scaling these up. This approach is one which is setting itself up only for a short-term success; it will not succeed in the long-term. This is because it is much easier to put in all that it takes to make a few centres work because the aim is not to prove commercial viability but to showcase a local success to funding agencies or key decision-makers. The approach is not geared to creating solutions that can be scaled out rapidly.
Silo Solutions: Many approaches think of the problem too narrowly. We think of solving a telemedicine problem or a land record problem or an email and Internet access problem or a literacyproblem or the voting machine problem. The computing infrastructure required for solving each of the problems is almost identical. And yet, we think of each in isolation trying to create economic models which will work in the silos.
Internet-driven: Many of the current solutions assume the existence of a Net connection, essentially functioning as Internet Kiosks. This is a big limitation, because connectivity is one of the biggest bugbears in the rural areas. Without connectivity, the computer is crippled, seriously limiting its usage. While transaction services like bill payments and railway bookings which need real-time Internet connectivity can offer immense benefits to the villagers, these services can be hobbled by the lack of connectivity.
Incrementalist, not Disruptive: The need of the hour is for disruptive solutions. Yet, the thinking that percolates is very incrementalist. That may be because there is an interest in keeping things nearly the same, or because we look at technology that exists today, and not at what the future is bringing. The solutions tend to be driven more by what may have worked in the developed world or in the urban areas, because they are the ones who are either funding the solutions or providing the technologies. The need is for a completely fresh and bottom-up analysis of the rural markets, keeping in mind the emergence of cold technologies.
Thus, the result is that the thinking and therefore the solution is flawed. We need to think in terms of millions of villages worldwide as the potential addressable market, and yet work on making each village commercially viable.
Tomorrow: Rethinking ICT Solutions