Reaching IT to Rural India

The past decade has witnessed a phenomenal growth in the Indian Economy primarily fuelled by the service sector (48% of the GDP). The main contributor to this service sector has been the Information Technology Industry that earns about US $8 billion from exports. Hence it comes as no surprise that India is being hailed as the new IT Powerhouse. Having said that, it becomes interesting to study the contribution of this growth engine in the lives of about 70% of the 1 billion Indians; the 700 million who live in the rural areas.

The primary agency involved with the framing of Indian IT Policy is the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MIT) in consultation with NASSCOM. Thus any effort towards utilizing IT for the rural Indians must originate from these bodies. We must also study the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD) initiatives towards reaching IT to rural India. In the initial stages of formulating the Indian IT policy, the MIT set up the National Task Force on IT and Software Development on May 22, 1998, under the Chairmanship of the Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission. This taskforce had a mandate to formulate the draft of a National Informatics Policy. This taskforce prepared a long term National IT Policy. Under MIT, a working group on IT for Masses was constituted in 2000. The working group recommended several projects for the centre and the states to be undertaken. Several schemes were mooted specifically targeted on rural India. For the purpose of spreading IT education, Modified Vidyarthi Computer Programme was designed and launched. The MRD also launched programmes like CRISP (Computerized Rural Information Systems Project) and CAPART (Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology).

There have been a few success stories in empowering the rural India with IT. Ministry of Rural development is implementing a countrywide programme for land record computerization in collaboration with states. Infrastructure for this project has been set up in 534 districts. In Karnataka, the Bhoomi project is a major scheme of the government to computerize 190 lakh land records concerning 60 lakh farmers. Gyandoot is a lead project of M.P. government under which 21 rural cyber cafes, called ‘Soochnalayas’, have been established in the district of Dhar. The services provided by these centres include commodity/ mandi marketing information, issues of copies of land records (khatauni and map), on-line registration for issue of income, caste, domicile certificates, Hindi email etc. In Rajasthan, An information System for ‘mandis’ connects 236 ‘mandis’ on-line providing daily rates of all the ‘mandis’ by 4 PM.

Apart from the government agencies, several other players have also encouraged IT in the villages. e-Choupal, the unique web based initiative of ITC\'s International Business Division, offers the farmers all the information, products and services they need to enhance farm productivity, improve farm-gate price realization and cut transaction costs. The Sustainable Access in Rural India project (SARI) seeks to show that viable markets exist for information and communication services in rural poor areas by inventing and deploying innovative technologies, assessments, and business models. M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, in an experiment in electronic knowledge delivery to the poor, have connected ten villages near Pondicherry in southern India by a hybrid wired and wireless network that facilitates both voice and data transfer, and have enabled the villagers to get information that they need. A few groups like TeNet have been developing low cost solution based Business Models for the rural Areas.

As is evident from the above facts, the effort thus far has been localized without the focus or backing of a central IT policy for the rural India. But what is the need of IT to reach the nook and corners of the country? What can be the problems of not implementing IT in rural India? Well the answer lies in the fact that IT or lack of it is not a problem by itself but its application is the solution of most of the problems faced by the villages of India. The conspicuous problems in Indian villages are lack of health services, lack of educational services, poor infrastructure, high unemployment and high dependence on natural resources (like monsoons etc.). An IT enabled policy backed with entrepreneurial spirit can help Rural India tackle