Digital has not only enabled the availability of better services beyond large cities but also helped in creating local employment.
- Srinivas R Pingali
Open any business publication, and you will see many articles on how digital is transforming companies and disrupting industries. The examples quoted in these articles are usually well-known digital companies in the e-commerce, ride-sharing or payments space. Companies you and I know well, and deal with every day. However, digital is supposed to democratise products and services. Is this really happening? Also, digital transformation has been studied to have both positive and negative impacts. On the positive side, it increases customer convenience, enhances operational efficiencies and promotes transparency. On the negative side, it has been projected as a ‘job-killing monster’ with predictions on how it will create mass unemployment across the globe.
The author, as part of a research project, led a team of researchers that spoke to over fifty ‘undigital’ companies and their customers, in semi-urban and rural areas, trying to understand the impact of digital. We explored if digital had a different impact on employment, once we move out of urban settings? Will digital help in slowing the pace of urbanisation and allow for job creation in semi-urban and rural settings?
Our study found that the answers to these questions are still emerging. Digital is at the early stages of adoption in non-urban settings. However, there are some visible trends. As a leading garment manufacturer told us:
“I set up my factory in the NCR area as we belong to this region, and two decades ago, it was impossible for me to think beyond the NCR. Most of my workers are from Bihar and Jharkhand and struggled to live a decent life in the NCR. Digital has enabled me to shift my operations to their home states. The workers are happier, and I can also now effectively manage my operations remotely.” We found many examples from manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, education and handicrafts sectors, where digital has not only enabled the availability of better services beyond large cities but also helped in creating local employment.
We met a tea estate owner in a remote area of Assam who has enabled digital payments through
facial recognition in the two grocery shops in the area.
“I now pay my workers digitally and have enabled the two shops to accept digital payments as the local bank is fifty kilometres away. Most tea pickers have lost their fingerprints due to the nature of their job, so we had to put in facial recognition technology to accept payments”.
Use of drone technology for better mapping of fields, internet of things (IoT) based fertigation, artificial intelligence-based prediction for weather and pest attacks are some other examples of digital technologies being used to expand commercial farming.
Healthcare outside of cities has always been a challenge in India. According to studies, more than 60% of our hospitals are concentrated in a few urban areas. Companies and NGOs are addressing this gap through the innovative use of digital technologies. Virtual consultation and video-based triage between city-based doctors, local healthcare workers and patients are some of the examples our research team came across. This is leading to the availability of better healthcare services in these areas and easing the logistics and financial burden on the patient. At the same time, it is leading to a new genre of local healthcare workers. They are being trained to bridge the gaps between city doctors and rural patients with auxiliary services like sample collection and despatches, digitisation of health records and admissions related logistics.
Digital technologies are also being deployed to enhance the quality of education in rural areas. There is a focus on using digital technologies to provide teachers and students in rural areas better quality of primary education. Poor connectivity has prevented the proliferation of online teaching. However, offline teaching aids are finding their way into many schools. At the same time, some NGOs are using digital to provide vocational training to rural youth. Digital marketing and business process outsourcing related skills are some examples of vocational training being undertaken.
Communities involved in indigenous crafts have centuries of traditional learning and craftsmanship embedded within them. However, these crafts are dying due to a lack of access to markets, struggles with logistics and a lack of knowledge among artisans of market trends and customers preferences. Digital has started to bridge the gap between artisans and the ecosystem, including designers, marketers and buyers. Designers and marketing companies are using digital technologies to create designs based on customer preferences and making these available to artisans. Digital is also being used to manage supply chain activities from design to production and logistics. At the front end, the use of social media platforms to create awareness of these products and selling through e-commerce portals has led to a renewed interest in crafts. Even some states have got involved in creating bridges between artisans and digital platforms. The Telangana government, for example, has tied up with Amazon to market its Golkonda brand of handicrafts.
Most companies and organisations implement digital technologies with the intended consequences of business expansion and operational efficiencies. However, our study found that, in semi-urban and rural settings, these business transformations have had the unintended consequences of increased employment, social empowerment and access to of products and services that were previously not available.
- Srinivas R Pingali is Faculty, IIM Udaipur. Views expressed are the author’s own.