India’s remote and rural areas are in need of quality healthcare services and education than a digital impact. Last week, the Ministry of Finance said the Government of India, over the next five years, plans to turn up to 100,000 villages into digital villages. Reports say the government will transform the country into a hub for Smartphone and electric vehicle manufacturing via artificial intelligence (AI).
The Immediate Needs
While noting the need for technological infrastructure, the government has pushed aside essential needs such as healthcare and education. Remote and rural areas have higher levels of poverty, evince poorer educational results and suffer town and city-migration of their young population. The government should first address health workforce shortages in remote and rural health facilities throughout the country. Many primary health centres are without a doctor, qualified nurses, laboratory technicians and pharmacists. About 50 per cent of healthcare worker post remains vacant. In the past couple of years, there have been countless cases of villagers having to carry their deceased loved ones home by bicycle and bikes for funeral rituals because of lack of ambulance services. Healthcare problems cannot be solved through digital impact.
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Access to quality education that meets basic learning needs is another major problem in rural India. Children and young adults in remote and rural areas continue to experience exclusion within and from education. Digital connectivity can solve this problem through innovative ways and students can be connected to an ever-expanding information base. There are numerous e-learning platforms where students can easily connect with. But there should be equal access in its traditional form too. Students need actual teachers to guide them, raise questions and clarify doubts and ideas. Besides, children in remote and rural areas are also in need of hearty midday meals which digital impact cannot provide.
Impacting remote and rural areas with connectivity
The relevant authorities should keep in mind that the rate of adoption and usage of the internet is not the same as in urban areas. Research shows that mobile-internet connectivity or broadband availability, as a matter of fact, does not significantly impact income growth and employment in rural areas. Experts say economic resources and technological infrastructure is only the first step towards a complete digital inclusion process. The government should take into account factors like needs, social and cultural context. A social scientist says digital inequalities mirror structural social inequalities; isolated rural communities face specific contextual challenges such as lack of economic resources, geographic isolation and population migration. Moreover, studies highlight that digital technologies adoption in rural and remote communities or areas have mainly focused on people’s innovativeness, personality and motivations or interpersonal networks and community characteristics.
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Research shows that due to high investment costs derived from challenging terrain topographies, long distances from urban centres and low population densities, rural connectivity projects have faced economic, political and social challenges. India can follow examples like Mexico’s ‘E-Mexico’ which was the first program to offer rural connectivity through tele-centres in remote communities, through satellite links. Supplemented by Mexico Conectado, the program focused on offering public access from public buildings located in rural and remote communities. Peru is another good example – in 2018, the Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communications published a modification to the payment regime for the use of the radio spectrum which allows mobile operators to substitute a percentage of their payment in exchange for a commitment to expand service in rural areas that lack mobile coverage or migrate services from 2G to 4G.
For a successful policy implementation, India needs to be open to ideas as well as innovation.