In spite of stories we hear about India’s economic boom, the statement “The soul of India lives in villages” is as true as it was over 100 years ago. For a country with a population of over a billion people, close to 70 percent of whom live in rural areas, it only makes sense to focus on the number of initiatives over the last decade that have shaped and will continue to shape the lives of rural Indians.
One these large Internet-based projects is e-Choupal, launched in June 2000 by ITC. Through e-Choupal today, farmers are empowered to determine the market prices of their produce using Internet kiosks set up by ITC in their villages. Prior to this initiative, farmers sold their produce through local middlemen in places called “Mandis” (major agricultural marketing centers in rural areas of India). Middlemen deprived farmers of the market price for their produce. Through e-Choupal, farmers sell produce at better prices while ITC gains by eliminating the middleman and improving its supply chain.
ITC’s e-Choupal network has expanded to reach more than 4 million farmers growing a range of crops, such as soybeans, coffee, wheat, and rice in over 40,000 villages through 6,500 kiosks across 10 states in India.
Similarly,many state governments have undertaken initiatives to reach their state populations via the Internet. Kiosks are planned in many states that will allow villages to fill out forms and send information for processing electronically to government processing centers. “Video doctors” are kiosks that connect villagers to doctors in urban cities via video conferencing.
Another unique effort is “United Villages,” by which WiFi-equipped buses and motorcycles provide Web content to computers without a constant Internet connection. The vehicles travel across rural India, bringing Web content to villages and updating it from time-to-time. Users can also request specific information as needed.
Although the Internet may not be as much a part of daily life in the villages as it is in the cities, it is not an unknown concept in rural areas, though it is in very nascent stages. Organizations like “Drishtee” have spread the use of kiosks for the economic development of the rural population in India.
Despite increased Internet penetration, reports suggest that India still has a long way to go in terms of rural Internet access. Even though the number of rural Internet users is said to have increased by over 30 percent since 2008, that number is pegged at an unimpressive 5.4 million. Poor PC penetration and low Internet penetration are also adding up as barriers for e-commerce growth in India.
None of these initiatives by themselves or collectively can achieve the aim of connecting all of rural India to the Internet. Infrastructure continues to be a challenge there. The lack of an efficient distribution network prevents wide disbursement of products and services. Setting up operations throws up different types of challenges in different states, ranging from political to local cultural factors.
Mobile Internet holds a lot of potential to achieve the objective of connecting rural India. According to a March 2009 report, there were about 117.82 million mobile Internet users out of 415 million mobile users in India, while there were only 6.4 million broadband PC Internet connections.
With the growth of cellphone use in India continuing unabated, a number of private companies are looking to reach out to their new potential customers in rural India via mobile marketing, text messaging, and even mobile videos. State governments are considering cellphone video documentary films that can be used to inform people in rural areas of health and education opportunities.
Although progress over the last decade has been promising, India seems to lack a comprehensive strategy backed by the federal government to accelerate the growth of Internet use in India. Without the central government playing a bigger role, Internet growth in India is likely to continue only in pockets and will be limited due to infrastructure hurdles.
— Pranay Mittal has been an IT/business management consultant for over 10 years.