600,00 villages. 700 million people. A per capita income of less than USD 1 (Rs 50) a day. This is Rural India. One in 10 people on earth live in rural India. Much of this population is isolated in terms of access to information, materials and markets. How can technology transform rural India and what is the role that the Indian IT industry can play in this?
Atanu Dey outlines the context for the consideration of the problems of rural India:
The problem of the economic development of large underdeveloped economies present unique challenges that require innovative solutions. In an age of increasing specialization, there is a critical need for integration to supplement the specialization. Economies are complex, nonlinear systems and just as they cannot be adequately described by partitioning them into subsystems and analyzing them piecemeal, so also their problems cannot be addressed by partial interventions. This is because the subsystems of complex non-linear systems interact strongly with one another, and even the most carefully thought through partial solution often fails to achieve its intended goal.
Revolutions in the information and communications technologies (ICT) have the potential to remove the barriers to information asymmetries that were impeding the working of markets that are critical for economic growth. The forces of globalization have created opportunities for the integration of rural populations in a larger marketplace than was ever available to them before.
Two mutually reinforcing applications where technology can serve as a harbinger of change in rural India are in education and access to markets. The former addresses an important component of non-income poverty, while the latter is concerned with income poverty.
Education: Primary education is widely recognised as one of the most significant factors that promote economic growth and social well-being. Lack of basic education is widely recognised as an impediment to the ability to participate in economic growth. Education needs to be in three areas: for schoolchildren, basic literacy for adults, and vocational training. By using technology to create content in local languages with innovative interfaces, and deliver it to the rural population, a digitally bridged Generation Next will be created.
Access to Markets: Access to markets directly affects the realised money incomes of populations. Expanding market access for agricultural and non-agricultural output of rural areas is important for releasing the income poverty constraint. Tools such as the Internet and the Web are ideally suited to achieve this goal. The Net can help the rural population source their agricultural inputs in the most cost-effective manner. In addition, it can help find buyers for their handcrafted goods beyond the immediate neighbourhood, and thus reduce the role of middlemen who take away much of their profits.
Both, education and access to markets, are necessary for economic growth and consequently for the elimination of poverty. Both depend on the use of knowledge goods and services to a large extent. Technology companies in India can play a powerful role in creating solutions for these two challenges, and thereby open up a significant but as-yet invisible chunk of the Indian market.
Indian companies need to start looking inward for a change. Few industries in the world have achieved global scale without the benefit of a large domestic market. Indian IT companies have made a great beginning in both software engineering and business process outsourcing services for global organisations. The time has now come to look within and create the new, emerging, technologically-advanced India.
The use of new technology can make our industry more efficient. It can make our engineering colleges better producers of the human resource that is so critical for our continued long-term success. It can also enable our rural population to get out of the development trap that they find themselves in, and open up a huge new set of consumers. The time has come for a Discovery of India.