As India moves along a relatively higher growth trajectory to the order of 8-9 per cent annual growth in the GDP, the sectoral and regional variations in this growth have raised serious concerns regarding the sustainability of these growth patterns.
The early development planning initiatives that began in the fifties were biased in favour of heavy industrialization and managed to register high growth rates. But these rates were unable to generate increase in demand, especially in rural India for mass consumption goods. The fact that demand for mass consumption goods depends on sustained increases in the purchasing power of rural populations forced development planners of the fifties and sixties to make direct interventions into rural economies through the introduction of new technologies in agriculture. The Green Revolution resulted in a secular annual growth of around 3 per cent in food grain production till mid 80s. Regardless of some claims about sectoral and inter-regional imbalances created by the introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) in India, it is a fact that, with sustained expansions into non-wheat growing areas, the country was able to claim self-sufficiency in food grains by mid-80s.
On the other hand, the industrial growth pattern of the past five decades indicates a clear trend of growth instability in the agricultural and non-farm rural sectors. This trend has time and again proven to be a binding constraint on sustained industrial growth rates. The last decade too reveals a similar pattern, when the relatively high industrial growth rates registered in the first half started decelerating by the mid-90s. This was followed by a loud talk of economic reforms having entered the second phase that required state level reforms. A significant point to be noted at this juncture is that even this debate failed to directly address the problems of the rural sectors.
It is clear that the current development paradigm in India needs to specifically focus on:
The needs of the rural population
Their livelihoods and employment
Information gaps that hinder economic and social empowerment
Their integration with global markets
Emergence of ICTs for Rural Employment and Livelihoods
The last decade of the twentieth century has seen an unprecedented growth in the Information and Technology (IT) sector. Not only was revenue generation boosted but employment opportunities in the sector also increased. The innovations in the IT sector did not happen in isolation. It has had a significant effect in other areas like health, education, governance, rural development, agriculture, etc. Several projects and programmes were initiated in different parts of the country with the aim of harnessing the benefits and advantages offered by information and communication technologies (ICTs). Some of the pioneering ICT for development efforts in India are the information villages of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, ITC’s e-Choupal, Drishtee’s Info kiosks, the Community Information Centres of National Informatics Centres, Tarakendras of Tarahaat, etc.
During the last decade, a major change at the global level has been the emergence of a knowledge or information society. The power and importance of knowledge and information came to be widely accepted by all countries in expanding livelihood and employment opportunities. The fact however is that rural areas have been in a relatively more disadvantaged position in this ‘information revolution’. Information is now considered key to the empowerment of rural population and sustainability of their livelihoods.
The capacity and potential of ICTs to make large amounts of relevant information quickly and easily available in remote areas has strengthened and increased its utility for rural development in India. The innovative and successful application of ICTs in the agricultural and rural development sector by corporate and civil society organizations has improved the possibility of the use of ICTs to enrich the livelihoods of the rural folks in the villages.
India’s increasing urban-rural disparity can be effectively dealt with through the provision of urban amenities in rural areas, as stressed by former President Dr Abdul Kalam. An ICT-triggered rural knowledge revolution can help to break the barriers that stand between localized rural economies and the globalized market. Using technology, an area in which India has expertise, rural India can be accorded its place in the world economy, while still maintaining its predominantly agrarian base.
BSNL and the Department of Telecommunication, Government of India (GoI) have already built up an infrastructure of optic fibre and towers up to almost Taluka headquarter towns; private operators like Reliance Infocom, Bharti Telecom and Vodafone have also started tapping the rural mobile market, thus, making wireless connectivity cheap and sustainable option. Business models like that of the Public Call Centre (PCOs) and of niche operators who work with government infrastructure are required to make the government of India’s National eGovernance Plan (NEGP) such as Common Services Centre (CSC) a sustainable and scalable enterprise for the rural areas.
Establishing connectivity is only half of the story. Content is the basis for the livelihood revolution. Content needs to cater to health, education, markets and other developmental requirements, but importantly it needs to cater to various aspects of rural economies. The fact that livelihood are generally localized implies that content needs to be locally generated and presented in user-friendly manner. The government, private sector and civil society organisations have important roles to play in sourcing and generating content. They can help facilitate ICT based supply chain management systems to sell rural economy to the extent that info kiosks and CSC centres can operate as micro enterprises that cater to the felt needs of the village.
Local institutions like Panchayats need to be involved in this enterprise and can provide a space in villages where village populations can access the info kiosks. The panchayat can be the last node in establishing accountable and transparent local e-governance. Government policies should encourage the outsourcing of economic activities from urban to rural India.
There is also a need for increased partnerships, the integrated use of the wired and wireless levels, the issuing of ‘entitlement pass-books’ making content relevant and dynamic by including like market prices, the increased involvement of India’s agricultural universities and rural banks like NABARD, the inclusion of the marginalized and women, etc. The approach is top-down in terms of technology, but bottom-up in terms of content. The key players to make such initiatives are the government, civil society, the private sector and the rural populations themselves.
Need for a Revolution in Rural India
Agriculture, comprising crop and animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, agro-processing and agri-business is the backbone of the livelihood security system of rural India. A considerable proportion of the rural population has no assets like land, livestock or any commercially viable skills. Majority of them are also illiterate and women.
Recent experiments in the area of fostering a revolution based micro-enterprises supported by Self-Help-Groups (SHGs) have been an excellent learning experience. The learnings from these efforts can help in initiating a community-owned and managed system of rural knowledge centres. Sustainable self-help-groups require reliable and remunerative market linkages. The knowledge centres and Common Services Centres (CSCs) under the government of India’s National E-governance Plan are perceived to be in a position to foster such producer-purchaser linkages.
India’s land economy is characterized by small land holdings. A small farm is ideal for sustainable intensification through eco-agriculture. A small farmer however suffers from many handicaps, including low access to technology, credit and remunerative markets. It is only by helping such farmers to overcome their handicaps that small farms can become instruments for an evergreen revolution characterized by the enhancement of productivity in perpetuity, without the associated environmental and ecological harm. The smaller the farm, the greater is the need for a marketable surplus to derive some cash income. Farm families exclusively dependent on small farm incomes can face the challenges of the new global trade regime only by achieving revolutionary progress in the areas of productivity, quality, diversity and value-addition. Small farmers have already demonstrated during the green revolution that they can provide the necessary momentum to a movement if empowered.
The current development paradigm in India therefore needs to specifically focus on the needs of the rural population, their livelihoods and information gaps that hinder their economic and social integration with global markets. The capacity and potential of ICTs to make available large amounts of relevant information quickly and easily in the remotest of the places has strengthened and increased its utility for rural development in India. The innovative and successful application of ICTs in the agriculture and rural development sector by corporate and civil society organizations has improved the possibility of the sustainable usage of ICTs to enrich the lives and livelihoods of the rural poor.
Major issues related to rural access
There are several challenges to bringing in knowledge revolution in rural India - issues such as of literacy, connectivity, electricity, content, resources, government policies, etc. Among the critical one are:
Connectivity – Connectivity is crucial to the envisaged information and knowledge revolution in India. Though the Government of India has rolled out State Wide Area Network (SWAN) under the National E-governance Plan, there are major hurdles still existing in the form of policy restrictions and the infrastructure problems of establishing last mile connectivity. Technological options need to be explored that is reliable, cost effective and viable to connect the remote areas. Satellite communication and earth observation could be used to transfer content (especially GIS information) to targeted groups. This is especially important for scalability in terms of reaching inaccessible locations.
TRAI’s recommendations on Unified Licencing also mention the concept of Rural Service Providers (RSPs) that has the potential for long-term sustainability of the rural knowledge enterprises. Coupled with tax rebates for promoting RSPs, the pace of connectivity in areas unconnected so far can be accelerated.
Establishing connectivity also requires extensive collaboration between the government, private sector, civil society organisations and the local communities.
Content – Content is the key for the success of knowledge enterprises. To make content user-friendly, institutionalization of content could be enabled through multi-media, audio-video interfaces and technologies that work on a touch screen system.
The digitization of content using a Content Management System (CMS) is essential to cataloguing and storing content. Such stored content needs to be easily accessible from most locations. Scalability essentially depends on the software being accessible at both local and remote levels.
The content needs to emerge from the local communities. The focus needs to be on basic and important information processed with the help of local communities. Rural entrepreneurship can be encouraged in several ways, like encouraging local entrepreneurs to research and develop content in local languages.
The government needs to make initial invests in taking technology to the villages. It needs to promote business models like public-private-partnerships. It also needs to promote Corporate Social Responsibility funding to be actively diverted towards rural development.