TECH TALK: My Mental Model: The Rural India Conundrum

Even as a shining India aims to reach China-like growth levels, there was one realisation which was clear to me: our growth will not happen unless something is done to bridge the digital divide. While we are now paying a lot of attention to the physical infrastructure of the country, not enough thought has been given to then digital infrastructure. It was this thinking that led me to put together some ideas on what a called India 3.0 a digitally bridged nation, not just in its urban locales but also in the rural areas, which is where 70% of the populace lives. My SME thinking had helped create a framework wherein one could also think of providing affordable computing and communications solutions for the other, languishing India.

My approach in solving problems has always been that of a technologist. I tend to put technology at the centre, and then see how it can be applied in different scenarios. For me, rural India offered yet another market opportunity for the ideas that I had been thinking about for the SME segment. But, I was making the same mistake that I did when I had started thinking about the solutions for SMEs. Technology could not be the end goal it was only a means to the end. This was made amply clear, thanks to a fortuitous connection made via my weblog.

As I was undertaking this journey of interlinked thought and action, I was introduced to Dr Atanu Dey by Reuben Abraham, who happened to be reading my weblog on some thoughts on transforming rural India. This series had come about as a precursor to a visit to Madhya Pradesh to see what role could technology play in rural development. My solution setting up TeleInfoCentres in every village seemed like a good way to sell a lot of computers! But I had missed out one key point: distributing the resources would make it very expensive (the cost of providing reliable power via battery packs could be as much as half the cost of the computers themselves), complex (providing support at the village level would be difficult), and at times, simply impractical (lack of connectivity would make it harder to provide updates).

This was the time when I read Atanus paper on RISC (Rural Infrastructure and Services Commons). [The paper can be downloaded from Vinod Khoslas web page.] Atanu had looked at the same problem of rural development but had a very different way to address it the solution lay not in providing computers at the village-level, but in concentrating resources and investment to create top quality infrastructure to service about 100 villages and a population base of 100,000 people within a bicycle-commute distance of about 15 kilometres from the centre. Essentially, it was about creating the equivalent of an operating system (the infrastructure of 24×7 power, broadband connectivity, air-conditioning, sanitation, water) so that various application developers (service providers) could use the standardized interface to offer their solutions (banking, insurance, agriculture extension, education, market making, healthcare, entertainment) to the rural population.

Tomorrow: Making Connections

TECH TALK My Mental Model+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.