The metamorphosis in India’s villages, courtesy a digital drive

New Delhi: Mohammad Furkaan is today the very picture of confidence. Hailing from a traditional family of weavers in Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh, Furkaan is a designer of prints for the famous silk sarees and other dresses of Chanderi, whose life has been transformed by the advent of the digital era.

A few years ago, the weavers of Chanderi were facing bleak prospects. Their age-old skills were appreciated by discerning customers, but its remote location and the dominance of middlemen ensured the returns from their handcrafted products remained meagre, keeping most of them in poverty.

It changed when an initiative by the government saw the establishment of a community information resource centre that in a matter of months brought the world closer to some 40,000 people who worked on 4,000 handlooms.

When the Chanderiyaan project was launched three years ago by the Digital Empowerment Foundation, Chanderi’s products were earning an annual Rs.70 crore; weaver families were surviving on average income of less than Rs.3,000 a month.

Mint has a strategic partnership with the foundation.

As the project enabled and freed up the flow of information, the community in short order set up an e-commerce site and started using computers to design their products.

Today, annual revenue has risen to Rs.150 crore and average monthly household earnings has doubled to Rs.6,000. Young people like Furkaan, who were migrating to cities in search of work, are staying back home to practice their traditional craft.

India has made its presence felt in the digital era in recent times. The middle class in the cities is in the midst of a massive transformation; lives are changing rapidly with Internet banking, virtual supermarkets, taxi-hailing services, food and grocery deliveries, online healthcare and several other services undreamt of only few years ago.

What is less well-known is the bigger metamorphosis taking place in the country’s villages.

The advent of the Internet, the proliferation of mobile phones and the use of ICT (information and communication technology) tools are changing the way people in the countryside live, particularly in business, entertainment, health and education.

“Information and access to information are the most important factors to overcome poverty, exploitation and economic deprivation,” said Osama Manzar, founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and a Mint columnist. “Chanderi is a good instance of that.”

The textile sector, which is the second-largest employer in India after agriculture, is the most evident example. The success of Chanderi in reviving an ancient handicraft is easily replicable across the 400 textile-based clusters in the country which collectively generate revenue of Rs.60,000 crore, which can be increased manifold using digital tools.

Entertainment is another area that has already been transformed by the ubiquitous mobile phones that are not only used for making calls and sending messages, but also to listen to music and watch movies, particularly in the hinterland.

The widespread use of (admittedly pirated) media is recasting the culture and aspirations of the youth in the villages.

However, aspiring to a better life needs to be supplemented liberally with good healthcare and quality education to really make a difference to rural lives. India has been a laggard in both these aspects, but the use of digital tools has started making an impact for the better.

Numerous public and private initiatives are delivering better health outcomes to places other than the cities and towns.

The government, for instance, in August launched an initiative called Sehat that will be implemented in collaboration with Apollo Hospitals and connect 60,000 frontline health workers across the country to provide healthcare access. Sehat is short for Social Endeavour for Health and Telemedicine.

“Telemedicine can provide rural population access for basic, specialty and super specialty consultations. Since 80% of conditions do not require a doctor’s physical presence immediately, they can be dealt with through telemedicine,” Sangita Reddy, joint managing director, Apollo Hospitals, said at the launch, Mint reported on 25 August.

A pilot, already dubbed the biggest in the world, has started in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The pilot project will be used to monitor health records of 10 million beneficiaries spread across the districts of Sitapur, Kannauj, Bareilly, Mirzapur and Faizabad, The Times of India newspaper reported on 13 October.

In education, too, the digital age has started making an impact. Many state governments are using the power of the mobile phone and the Internet to monitor academic outcomes at the primary schools in the interiors. In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, a system of monitoring the attendance of teachers, a sore point in many government schools, have shown remarkable results.

One of the biggest disadvantages students in the villages face is the lack of proper information. There is an astonishing lack of awareness on the various scholarships that are available in the country.

To address this gap, Smiling Star Advisory Pvt. Ltd in 2011 started Buddy4study.com, a one-stop shop for scholarships.

“Being first movers in this field, we didn’t have a ready database to work on. We collected and polished all the information on our own,” founder and director Ashutosh Burnwal said in a Mint report on 20 October 2014. The company has enabled hundreds of students secure scholarships, according to information available on its site. While the numbers are not large, a start has been made.

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