Ever since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015, governments, private enterprises and communities all over the globe have been engaged in making these SDGs a part of their mission. Telecommunications and associated technologies have a role to play in attaining a subset of these goals and efforts are under way by all stakeholders concerned to appropriately integrate such technologies in to their agenda.
Despite all efforts to promote financial inclusion, about 41% of the Indian households are not availing banking services in India, according to the census of 2011. However, start-ups in the digital finance space, including mobile wallet companies, have been able to garner better traction since demonetisation was announced in November last year. As per a recent survey by the State Bank of India, almost Rs 25,000 crore cash transactions have happened via digital sources post the note ban. The launch of Unified Payment Interface (UPI) and the associated Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) app aim to accelerate the growth of mobile payments, transfers and banking. Though there are regulatory challenges in dealing with closed payment systems provided by mobile wallet companies and those enabled through an open interface, the two can possibly co-exist and likely to enable the partial or full attainment of SDG 10: SDG on reduced inequalities.
Though India lags much behind countries in health and wellness (ranked 144 out of 182 in the Lancet Health ranking), the country is trying to improve penetration of health services. Enabled by technologies such as non-intrusive sensors, digital platforms for storing and sharing Electronic Health Records, and affordable tele-medicine facilities, along with the governments’ efforts to use ASHA health workers on the field, we have seen improvement in the access to health care in less attended areas of the country. Once considered as a government provided service, rural healthcare is being actively considered by private hospitals and healthcare institutions at affordable prices, thanks to telecommunication and associated healthcare devices.
Start-ups in this space are also enabling the improvement in delivery of healthcare services by providing appropriate platforms to reduce cost of searching doctors, hospitals and diagnostic centres; minimise information asymmetry between patients and doctors regarding their health parameters; and enable remote diagnostics and medicine prescriptions, thus helping us address SDG 3: Good health and well-being.
Next, is education where we again lag behind (130th out of 188 countries in the 2015 UNDP ranking). Though privatisation in higher education helped bridge the supply-demand gap, quality of education is still questionable in most of our institutes. According to NASSCOM estimates in 2011, only 25% of graduates have employable skills due to inadequate quality of education imparted. Except for a handful, our higher education institutes do not figure in the top ranking institutes in Asia. At primary and secondary level (aka K-12), drop-out rates of students, especially female ones are still a matter of grave concern. The Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to some bridge the lack of teaching expertise in higher education. Start-up platforms such as EkStep try to address the lack of quality teaching in K-12 by promoting collaborative sharing of content and teaching expertise across teachers, content creators, institutions and communities. Platforms that use communication technologies such as Web Real Time Communication (WebRTC) to provide peer-to-peer video based sessions amongst students, and between students and instructors are being deployed.
Another example is that of flipped classroom models where lectures are posted for asynchronous learning, while quizzes and sessions for clarifications take place synchronously assisted by technology and instructors. These trends illustrate how technologies might enable us to leapfrog in attaining SDG 4 on education, and helps us in providing good quality universal education.
Apart from the above, large private firms and consulting organisations are engaged in providing technology solutions to address socio-economic problems. For instance, Intel Capital and Grameen Trust have created Social Business Information Technology company to create technology solutions for specific social problems such as low agriculture output (SDG 12: Responsible consumption and production) or lack of pre-natal care (SDG 3). As per data presented in the Lok Sabha, India accounted for about 200,000 missing women and children in 2015. Child in Need Institute, using Accenture’s technology solutions, is tracking, proactively identifying and preventing such human trafficking trends, contributing to SDG 5 on gender inequality.
Though it might sound like hype, information and communication technologies have indeed started to have profound impact on all aspects of our life. What we need is an environment that nurtures initiatives like the above, including appropriate regulatory regime, government incentives, and a robust infrastructure.
Sanjay Podder & V Sridhar
Podder is managing director, Accenture Labs, Bangalore, and Sridhar is professor, IIIT Bangalore. Views are personal