Blog Past: Transforming Rural India

Given that elections are coming along soon, this paper I had co-authored in 2003 is worth a second read.

Poverty—income poverty as well as non-income poverty—is perhaps the most common characteristic that defines the populations living in the developing world today. Non-income poverty in terms of education, health-care, access to markets, etc., directly produce the income poverty that traps the average citizen of developing countries. The question of how to raise huge populations out of this poverty trap is a formidable challenge that governments, multilateral organizations and policy makers face.

Because income poverty is relatively easier to measure compared to non-income poverty, it is more commonly reported and emphasized. (For instance, about half the world’s population, or about 3 billion people, have an average income of less than $2 a day, and of that about 1.3 billion have a daily average income of $1 a day. For India, the figures are even more stark: about 60% of Indians, or 600 million people, live on less than $1 a day.) Income poverty and non-income poverty are closely related, of course. The problem appears almost intractable because the two kinds of poverty are mutually reinforcing. Any solution that does not address both kinds of poverty is unlikely to be successful in poverty alleviation.

In this paper we focus on two uses of information and communications technology (ICT) that hold the promise of immense benefit to the rural poor, specifically in India, and more generally in other parts of the developing world. We focus on the rural population because the incidence of poverty is higher there than in the urban population.

The first application is the use of ICT in providing education. Specifically, primary and secondary education, increasing literacy, and providing vocational education. The current system is unable to deliver due to number of reasons primary among which is its reliance on mostly individual content creation and delivery, essentially through the public sector. The economies of scope and scale attainable through the use of ICT tools would make education accessible and more affordable.

The second application relates to expanding market access for agricultural and non-agricultural products. This would increase rural incomes and thus alleviate income poverty. The internet can efficiently provide access to a vast market for traditional handcrafted goods which can be sold worldwide, for instance. This would be an effective way of integrating the rural population with the globalised marketplace.