In my travels through India, my curiosity helped me acquaint myself with life in smaller towns. You and I, sitting in a fairly comfortable environment with easy access to information, services and communication technology, can hardly relate to life beyond the bigger cities. The real rural significant chunk of our country is a land that you and I don’t want to find ourselves in.
Living in the metros we know for a simple fact that technology has truly transformed our lives, our future aspirations and even the means of achieving our goals. We know that if someone is harassing us, we can upload a post and draw attention to our plight, or reach out to the social media in case we need a certain type of blood for our family members, or post on twitter to draw a minister’s attention to something critical. A large number of Indians depend on technology for their livelihood. Even smaller merchants are taking advantage of E-commerce sites. But to most Indians even today, technology is a distant dream. All they know of is that a certain “computer” does a lot of fancy stuff.
Imagine if a farmer who was deep in debts but had the option of accessing more information on how to deal with the situation that otherwise makes him feel overly helpless. What if he could apply for another short term loan, could connect with someone to offer some services in return for some money, sell his cattle through a mobile app, use an app to locate the nearest mental health center, NGO or even ask the central or state government for help through social media channels? If the farmer was being terrorized by creditors, he could even alert agencies for help. The possibilities are numerous. It could probably save lives by solving problems or helping farmers reach out for more help and allow netizens and the government to reach them too. If technology is to be an enabler, it has to first reach the masses. Although the concept of a digital “mandi” or a digital farmers’ market has the right intentions what’s the point if most farmers have no access to the internet?
The spurt in technology applications and the digital India campaign needs to work in congruence with the needs of rural India. We need to think of how technology can help build better and economical houses in rural areas or difficult terrains and make use of alternate sources of energy, the practical scalable way. We need to find solutions to irrigation woes and to the Indian farmer’s dependency on the monsoons. We need a way to minimize spoilage of food and make use of better processing and transport technologies. We need to bring world affairs and better education tools to children across the landscape and we need to provide vocational training and employment opportunities to a vast expanse of our country starved of growth and opportunities.
Technology penetration will not only infuse a new lease of life into all other campaigns, which though were well intentioned lacked the propensity to make a big impact without the harness of technological innovation. Digital reach will give true meaning to financial inclusion. In a situation where most bank accounts opened through government schemes don’t have a single deposit, the idea of believing in the ability of digital wallets to transform the country seems silly. Income generation, savings, resource utilization, investment and growth all have to be positively influenced synchronously for transformation to actually come about.
There are apparent solutions. For example sea water could be converted to potable water for drinking or water for irrigation purposes. Solar powered street lamps could be installed in urban and rural motorways or even smaller roads, leading to better safety for all. Remote learning can facilitate quality school education without having to deal with lack of teachers. Information flow, awareness and access to banking channels can make it possible for the wealthy or well-meaning citizens to adopt poor families or provide emergency funding without having to rely on the NGO channel. Even a small village project could benefit from crowdfunding. These are by no means easy or economical solutions but it won’t be long before someone does come up with a reasonable and practical offering.
The possibilities to be explored are immense. London is experimenting with recycling of energy generated when its tube trains brake. With India’s fairly wide train network can that be replicated here? The use of a new porous concrete that absorbs large amounts of water, made by a company in the UK can be used to build roads and prevent loss of life and property in flood prone areas. People across the world are working to create the new generation of sanitation technologies for the developing economies. We need to make sure those technologies find their way to rural and peri-urban areas in India. We could create a crop that in itself provides sufficient nutrients to a large number of malnourished children living without the option of a healthy diet. Researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute are developing a miniature Gas Chromatograph to detect early crop diseases. If only the Indian farmer had access to such technology!
Social entrepreneurship needs an impetus. The new breed of young businessmen wanting to make big impact need to ask themselves how they will influence a huge market that doesn’t even get electricity for more than a few hours per day. They need to ask questions about whether there is an opportunity in catering to that unfulfilled need and how technology can help in doing so.
Social media is already helping us nab criminals, alert citizens and generate constructive dialogue. It makes a lot of sense to get as many nationals involved as possible. For that internet and its tools will have to reach the deprived lot soon.
We need to keep reminding the government through social media channels through groups/ forums that there are problems like safety of women, communal tensions, pollution, sewage disposal, civic issues, insufficient infrastructure, corruption that need to be addressed first. These issues need not be at war with technological growth. The two need to work together to see long term sustainable change. Devising business models around these issues is what we must undertake.