If Digital India delivers on its promise, rural Indians are likely to outnumber urban Indians online.
Most of my readers here are likely to be comfortably ensconced in the digital world, enjoying the convenience of myriad services at their fingertips, all made possible by the internet. But outside our electronic cocoons are vast swathes of rural India that lie disconnected. And the path to their empowerment lies in digitalisation. Digital connectivity is a basic amenity today. This is certainly the thought behind the government’s Digital India programme that aims to expand the digital infrastructure to connect the entire country and provide a digital platform for banking, governance, healthcare and educational services.
All indications are that rural India will welcome these digital inclusion efforts. Rural Indians have been getting online in increasing numbers, and are expected to catch up with urban India by 2020, when 48% of the online population will be from rural India (up from 36% in 2016). And if Digital India delivers on its promise, rural India will likely soon outnumber urban India online for a more real representation of the country.
Previously underserved rural areas will have the benefit of remote access to a range of digital services, including healthcare, education and banking. The recent demonetisation move saw a flurry of activity in the area of banking and finance. Rural citizens faced many hardships during the currency crunch, and had a crash course on the benefits of digital services. While not the ideal way, it did help illustrate the fact that services can be provided and accessed digitally even where no physical banks or branches exist.
The digital model improves efficiencies, reduces wastage and overhead, and allows for effective auditing. Digitalisation also empowers women in rural India, especially when concerted efforts are made to equip them to come online in larger numbers. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group in 2016, rural internet users are overwhelmingly male, with women a scant 2%. Initiatives to address this gender disparity in rural India have yielded results. Several corporations have social responsibility based initiatives to take technology to the villages, with a special focus on women.
The focus on rural India is not just about social responsibility and outreach. Corporations seeking to do business with rural Indians find it is mutually beneficial. The private sector has been actively engaging with rural consumers now that e-commerce has expanded their markets. Entrepreneurs, energised by social and financial innovations (like micro-finance based ventures), are actively engaging with the rural population—both as consumers and producers.
The ICT industry plays a crucial role in supporting rural India as they come online, and technology companies have a responsibility to use their talent to contribute to this effort. We are taking steps in the right direction, but the momentum needs to be sustained. The key to India’s success lies in moving towards rural India, and especially rural women. There is much work to be done, and technology can help provide the inclusion that has been missing for too long, so we can turn the liability of our billion-plus population into a national asset by empowering, educating and skilling them.
The writer Vijay Anand is senior VP & MD, IDC, Intuit India.