Technology and Rural Development
Technological up-gradation and inclusive growth have been focal development points in rural India. Higher and better productivity, socio-economic equality, harmonizing modern technology, and sustainable growth can be considered the pillars for a nation's progress. The Government of India has rolled out schemes from education to financial literacy and agritech to skill development that caters to nearly 900 mn people living in rural regions. It is admirable to see that the central and state governments are united with a vision for the betterment of rural India. Digital literacy and connectivity have strengthened the labour market and provided a platform to educate and become financially independent. Enhanced innovation has helped the rural areas improve their growth prospects, and the policymakers support reforms beyond subsidies and sector-specific approaches.
Rural India is home to 65% of the total population of our country. Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data from the consumer pyramid household survey shows the share of agriculture in total employment has gone up from 35.3% in 2017-18 to 36.1% in the year 2018-19 and further to 38% in 2019-20. The Center has promised to work shoulder-to-shoulder to implement specific schemes and technological advancements in agriculture.
In April 2016, the Government of India launched e-NAM (National Agriculture Market), an online platform for farmers that integrates agricultural markets pan-India with a theme of one nation, one market. The platform aids farmers and traders to view all Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) related information, commodity arrivals, and buy and sell trade offers, thus helping farmers bid for the best prices across markets. The objective was to promote uniformity in agricultural marketing and remove the information asymmetry between the buyers and sellers. The number of registered farmers has risen to 1.66 crores, while 1.28 lakh traders transact on this platform. More than 1000 Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) have also been enrolled on this platform.
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The government is also investing in mapping all of India’s aquifers. The National Program on Aquifer Mapping and Management (NAQUIM) aims at 3D mapping the aquifers and characterising them in terms of quantity, quality, and spatial and temporal distribution of water level and resources. The Jal Shakti Abhiyan primarily focuses on saving and conserving rainwater for creating appropriate rainwater harvesting structures in urban and rural areas of all the districts in the country.
The union budget of 2022 has also pushed for an array of digital technologies and drones to propel growth in the farm sector. The promotion of drones to monitor the produce and spray insecticides will help scale up precision farming massively.
Alternate sources and sustainable livelihoods
To effectively realise the positive impact of the fourth industrial revolution, it is essential to use technology to bridge the gap between skilled and unskilled labour. Nearly three-quarters of the Indian population is employed in low-productivity agriculture, making growth and advancements critical in these areas. The use of technology to increase productivity in these sectors would be an essential public policy endeavour in the future. As more and more men from rural areas start to migrate to urban areas in search of employment opportunities, the brunt of agriculture is being borne by women who now have to perform highly labour-intensive roles on their own, resulting in lower productivity levels. They further face a lack of access to land, irrigation, credit, inputs, and markets. The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana was also launched to improve water-use efficiency and expand irrigation on every Indian farm.
Digitalisation will go a long way in reducing traditional bottlenecks such as shrinking markets and low density that have been roadblocks in building long-term and sustainable rural economies. Often, issues like these can lead to economies of scale, wherein skilled individuals from rural areas cannot find the right employment opportunities, and small businesses lose out on opportunities to grow. Digitalisation can provide new growth opportunities and opportunities for better and more diverse occupations in rural areas. Reduced trade times and prices, the exchange of unique sorts of products and services, and disruptive ways to work and join the labour market are some of the benefits of the digital era that might be beneficial for rural communities.
Technological advancements can lower trade expenses, allowing rural areas to tap into new markets. Rural goods and services are likely to reach more distant markets at a lesser cost and faster than they are now, thanks to new technologies. Driverless vehicles, for example, can operate 24 hours a day and travel far further distances than traditional trucks, lowering transportation costs and shipment times. Drone-based deliveries are also expected to be deployed in their initial phase in rural areas, where regulations are less stringent, and roads are not populated by high rise buildings, making it easier for drones to maneuver. This type of delivery system can help rural regions overcome geography and infrastructure challenges.
In rural economies, new technology can help to improve the entrepreneurial business environment. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in rural areas benefit from technological advancements. Cross-border e-commerce, or commerce through digital platforms, has proven critical in lowering entry barriers for enterprises and SMEs looking to sell in worldwide markets. Similarly, new technologies such as additive manufacturing, for example, 3D printers, have the potential to lessen the need for economies of scale by making small-scale production more cost-effective. Small businesses can use 3D printers to create items and standard parts according to local demand without importing or storing vast quantities of materials from elsewhere, reducing their dependency on imports.
The economic development of a country relies heavily on the accessibility of the citizens to various financial goods and services. This has been a significant focus area for the government. Over the last few years, on account of the persisting covid-19 pandemic, the financial inclusivity in the country has gained pace. Technological efforts and innovations have played a significant role in this regard. Modern information and communication technology (ICT) has acted as a catalyst in establishing a platform that extends financial goods and services, even to remote and marginalised regions and individuals. These efforts have also helped commercial banks reduce their cost, increasing customer reachability and efficient management of risk in businesses.
There exist several efforts of the Government of India to utilise a technology's potential to harness financial inclusion in rural areas. For instance, the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) programme, launched by the Government of India, aims at initiating a direct transfer of benefits across the country. This platform, accompanied by the unique Aadhaar ID programme, has eliminated duplications and frauds. The platform has further been instrumental in increasing transparency and accountability in financial transactions, including benefit transfers to pension owners and other beneficiaries of various schemes. The PM Jan Dhan Yojana scheme (PMJDY) has made significant strides in channelling all government benefits from the centre, state and local bodies to the beneficiary accounts and furthering the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) scheme of the government. For instance, overall, around INR 21 lakh crore has been disbursed via DBT to the underprivileged.
Additionally, under PM Garib Kalyan Yojana, around 8 crore of PMJDY account holders have received direct benefit transfer (DBT) from the government under various welfare schemes across the several waves of the pandemic. Evidence suggests an established link between the DBTs and a reduction in women's financial dependence. Ensuring that women have control over their bank accounts, can transform women’s labour force participation, financial independence, bargaining power and overall economic decisions. Through DBT their wages, benefits and remittances can be transferred directly to their accounts, rather than into a joint account or into the accounts of their male family members.
Secondly, the initiation of the Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) app has aimed at facilitating the growth of the cashless economy in the country. The app merely requires the consumers to link their bank accounts with the mobile application and exploit direct transactions to their vendors or merchants. The BHIM users can also use QR codes, mobile numbers, and Virtual Payment Addresses (VPA) to facilitate the payment. For opening up a BHIM account, customers are required to have a smartphone, a cell number registered to a bank account, and a RuPay, Visa or Maestro card. This helps to ensure that citizens in tier 2 and 3 cities, along with rural areas, can opt for UPI-based transactions. Moreover, the BHIM app also functions efficiently offline, addressing the challenges of poor internet connections and the inaccessibility of smart mobile phones.
These initiatives leveraging technological interferences with the existing financial inclusion and other welfare schemes contributed extensively in increasing access to banking facilities for those in isolated, rural regions and have further made it possible to adopt a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach, helped check leakages or wastage in welfare schemes, eradicated mediators in the transactional processes and reduced scope of fraud and corruption.
As part of the Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan, a comprehensive initiative called PM e-VIDYA was launched, which combines all-digital, online, and on-air education to offer multi-mode access to education. The initiative entails the following:
- DIKSHA (Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing and Sharing) is a one-nation, one-digital-platform initiative. In states and union territories (UTs), the nation's digital infrastructure delivers high-quality e-content for education.
- SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) is a government of India initiative to achieve the three cardinal principles of education policy: access, equity, and quality. This initiative aims to make the best teaching-learning tools available to everyone, particularly the most disadvantaged. For students who have been disadvantaged by the digital revolution and are unable to participate in the knowledge economy fully, SWAYAM aims to bridge the digital divide. It is a platform that allows anyone, anywhere, at any time, to access all the courses taught in classrooms from grade 9 through post-graduation. All of the courses are interactive, designed by some of the finest teachers in the country, and are entirely free.
Government Schemes for Technology Enabled Rural Development
- Technological Advancement for Rural Areas (TARA): This scheme under the Skill Enhancement Education & Development Program (SEED) is critical in providing long-term core support to science-based voluntary organisations and field institutions in rural and other disadvantaged areas to promote and nurture them as "S&T Incubators" and "Active Field Laboratories" to work and provide technological solutions and effective delivery of technologies for livelihood generation and societal benefits.
- Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission: The Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM) aims to develop the infrastructure necessary to support India's integrated digital healthcare infrastructure. It will use digital highways to bridge the distance between diverse players in the healthcare industry.
- Ayushman Bharat Health Account (ABHA): Achieving safer and more efficient digital health records originates with ABHA. A digitally secure ABHA permits health data access and sharing with participating healthcare providers and payers. Anyone who wants to join ABDM and has digital health records must first create ABHA. People are identified authenticated, and their health records are threaded across many systems and stakeholders (with their informed consent).
- E-Shram: e-Shram is a platform designed by the Ministry of Labor and Employment to benefit unorganised workers who are not Employees' State Insurance (EPFO) or Employees' State Insurance (ESIC) members. Signing up for the Shramik Yojana and acquiring an e-Shram card entitles many benefits. The government's acceptance of social security measures will also assist workers.
- National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN): All state capitals, districts, and headquarters have OFC connectivity down to the block level. The country's 2,50,000-gram panchayats would be linked. This will be done by using existing Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) fibres (BSNL, Railtel, and Power Grid) and laying new fibre to connect to gram panchayats when needed. The gram panchayats will benefit from the increased bandwidth created by the dark fibre network. This will be called the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN). Thus, the connectivity gap between gram panchayats and blocks will be filled.
- Common Service Centres (CSC): The CSC programme is one of the Digital India Programme's mission mode projects. CSCs serve as the access points for essential public utility services, social welfare programmes, healthcare, finance, education, agriculture services, and a variety of business-to-consumer (B2C) services to citizens living in rural and distant areas of the country. It is a pan-India network that caters to its regional, geographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity, enabling the government to fulfil its mandate of a socially, fiscally, and technologically inclusive society.
- Digital India Programme: Digital India is India's flagship initiative to transform the country into a knowledge-based economy and a digitally empowered society. Digital India covers three essential areas: digital infrastructure as a utility for all citizens, governance and on-demand services, and citizen empowerment through digital technology.
- Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (DILRMP): A central sector scheme aims to leverage existing commonalities in land records to develop an appropriate Integrated Land Information Management System (ILIMS). Individual states can also add state-specific requirements as deemed necessary and proper.
In a country like India, where a majority of population still lives in rural hinterland, rural development is synonymous with India’s growth story. While development of our rural regions has always been a priority, the onset of digitisation has accelerated the pace of rural development. What is especially notable about the development that the Indian rural regions are witnessing currently is the inclusivity and sustainability of this development. With schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana being tremendously successful in rural India and agriculture activity being pushed towards modern, greener methods, inclusivity and sustainability of this development goes without saying. This article is an effort at highlighting that technology is driving rural development and if we keep up with this trajectory, rural India will be driving new technology initiatives in the country very soon.
This has been co-authored by Ishita Sirsikar and Bhakti Jain.
This article was originally published in the Kurukshetra Magazine.