Saturday, March 28, 2015

Digitally empowering the "Second sex" of the country #DigitalIndia

Digital India vision was launched by the Prime Minister of India with a mission to make essential services like medical care and education a reality, for people who don't have access to these basic facilities.
The mission has promised to transform India into a knowledge economy that will offer world-class services at the click of a mouse, through common service centres that will act as the delivery points for goods and services.
While I was beginning to write this post, a scene from the Bollywood movie "Three Idiots" was playing in my mind. Remember a heavily pregnant Mona Singh, Kareena Kapoor's elder sister seething in labour pain, and her father Prof.Sahastrabuddhi yelling at the ambulance service people for not reaching them on time. 
Enter our hero, who is a technology expert. Although the college director has thrown him and his friends out of the premises, he makes sure that he applies his technology expertise to help the Director's ailing daughter. What follows is a sequence that may have never been aired on the Indian movie screen ever. A group of three men helping a pregnant woman deliver a child.
On the other end and right on the edge is the heroine who can't reach her sister because of incessant rains and flooding. She is a doctor,and has an internet connection and a laptop and directs the hero and his friends to safely bring into this world her nephew. If not for the invention of the laptop or internet, our eyes would have never been treated to a scene that was until a few years ago, impossible to be presented to the Indian audience. I remember a lot of traditionally thwarted aunties who might have otherwise hushed and puffed, lauding the sequences by clapping and blowing kisses in the air. 
This is the story of a woman and her family, who could afford medical care, but couldn't get a reach to it, on time. If we were to replace a tee-shirt clad pregnant Mona Singh with a woman from one of the Indian villages battling the pains of labour, much like Mona she is not able to reach a hospital on time,  because the only hospital in her village is miles away from where she stays, then don't you think that this is a leaf from the real life diaries of real Indian women.
Digitizing our villages would cater to the needs of such women, who do not have provisions of basic health care in their village. 

No village in India has markets which are as good as the malls and supermarkets that serve us. For their supply of groceries and other items, they have to endure the distances on rickety buses and reach a small town, to make all the purchases. If all of our villages are digitized, as our visionary PM wants it to happen, then don't you think that their lives will become easier with the advent of e-commerce sites. Most e-commerce sites do not oblige a delivery to remote villages, and only if these e-commerce giants are supported by the government, then perhaps buying basic provisions and other items would become possible at the click of a mouse. E-commerce giants can tie-up with the the common service centres which can be a one-stop shop for all the goods ordered by a village. Perhaps, a service centre in every village shall gratify the need of an entire village.
Thirdly, despite making "Right to Education" a fundamental right, India still struggles to bring its children to schools spread in the hamlets, leading to poor quality of education and increasing the number of school dropouts. The subject modules prepared by boards like the CBSE and ICSE can be delivered by the service centres to such children who are wanting to receive education. This will also allow the girl students to get educated, who are made to stay inside homes and not permitted to go to school, especially in places like Haryana. Remember the Idea advertisement where in a group of middle aged women are sitting inside a mud house and staring into their smart phones, when one of them tells us about their plight. They were not allowed to step out of their houses but all thanks to the internet network, the school has come into their homes. They weren't merely gawking into their smartphones, they were infact studying. Digitization of villages will provide education to such women, who want to learn but aren't supposed to step out of their homes, all thanks to the rigid rules of patriarchal dominance.
E-Governance initiatives or E-Kranti will ensure the delivery of government services electronically to citizens ensuring efficiency and transparency at affordable costs. It will also lead to faster flow of funds from the centre to the states and then the village administration, that will help in rolling out development programs without the implicit interference of bureaucracy and the delays it causes. It will make the government officials answerable and efficient, if properly implemented.
Digitization will also bring the benefits of E-banking like net banking, mobile wallet service under the Jan Dhan yojna etc. under one roof, for villagers who do not have banks or ATMs near their homes and need to travel miles to avail the facilities. This will also aid the women to become better 'money managers', so that they can regulate the household expenses and other expenditure on their own, without having to rely on the men in the family.
These ambitious goals when pieced together form the Digital India campaign. 
All said and done, India has to address the problem of digital have-nots to turn this vision into a reality.
A global study by McKinsey and Facebook puts India 20th on the list of a study that was conducted to assess the obstacles to Internet access in 25 countries. The study found that most people who do not have a reach to the internet live in rural areas, in low income underdeveloped countries and are largely elderly and female.  The pressing issues foiling digitization attempts are illiteracy, poverty and poor infrastructure. 
Thirty seven percent of adult Indians are uneducated which is the major obstruction in the expansion of the reach of the internet. This has also led to low awareness about the internet and computer operation, adding to the worries.
Illiterate farmers are therefore unable to get the benefits of existing services that inform about weather forecasts and market prices of crops through digital means.
The good news is that the internet prices are among the cheapest in the world and the prices of smart phones is sharply declining. Even then, the cheapest data plans are atrociously expensive making internet an unreachable luxury for more than 900 million Indians. 
To make the benefits  of these services available to the villages and most importantly to the women, and especially to the elderly women, dedicated service centres with friendly and polite staff are the need of the hour. The younger generation can act as "helping hands" for the uneducated elderly who can learn to use the digital facilities and let the older generation avail of its good.
Digitally empowering the second sex in the country, will ensure that the children who are our tomorrow, will have a bright and better future than us.

The government has to work day and night to up the ante of the existing shoddy network infrastructure while working on imparting digital education and lowering the rates of data plans, to make broadband available in every village in the country. 
Until then, Digital India shall only stay a vision that is looking upon making India digitally empowered by delivering health, education and banking services, to every nook and corner in the country.

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