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A year after lockdown: Technology making life better in rural India

A year after lockdown: Technology making life better in rural India
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By CNBCTV18.com Contributor Mar 26, 2021 5:24:30 PM IST (Published)

It seemed like a clash of civilisations marked by the haves and have-nots of the digital age.

When the nationwide pandemic-induced lockdown was introduced on March 24, 2020, millions of migrant workers were forced to give up their livelihood in cities and return home, to their towns and villages on foot over days and weeks. With the economy coming to a near standstill, these unskilled workers struggled the most to sustain themselves and their families. On one hand, they lost their jobs in the city, and on the other hand, they had no recourse to any employment opportunity in their own villages.

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Their plight was in stark contrast to the white-collar counterparts in Urban India. Enabled by the internet and digital technologies, salaried and self-employed workers were immediately accustomed to their new work-from-home routine. While many of them faced hindrances in their jobs, they were still in a better position than migrant workers and labourers who depended on daily wages for their survival.
Almost overnight, people in urban areas switched effortlessly to teleworking to accomplish both personal and professional tasks. Besides, they had easy access to digital payments and platforms as well as doorstep delivery of services.
It seemed like a clash of civilisations marked by the haves and have-nots of the digital age.
Indeed, since Covid-19, the rural working class has been struggling to make ends meet. The rural cash economy came to a standstill due to a shortage of cash-disbursing centres and a scarcity of daily wage jobs. Daily wage workers and rural entrepreneurs, who were still using cash as a mode of transaction, were unable to meet even their basic needs. The lack of digital and financial literacy coupled with their inability to start an online business posed an additional online challenge.
This unprecedented situation, while underscoring the digital divide between rural and urban India, acted as a wake-up call. Government agencies, private companies and NGOs sprang into action and took measures to introduce technology to the rural workforce comprising farmers, labourers and small scale shop owners. This involved providing small towns and villages with access to skills training and job portals as well as tech-based healthcare and digital payments solutions, among other benefits.
On its part, the government strengthened the rural banking infrastructure, achieved higher levels of financial inclusion and expanded the scope of various relief schemes, including Jan Dhan Yojana, Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), old-age pension scheme and LPG connections to women from BPL families. The DBT programme, in particular, leverages technology to make cash transfers easier under various welfare schemes. Its linkage with Aadhaar has proved to be a boon for rural people who had to stay indoors due to restricted movement. Alongside, rural fintechs and banking correspondents played an important role in the financial empowerment of these underserved communities.
During the lockdown months, Kirana stores emerged as one-stop providers of financial services backed by digital and technology processes and platforms. These stores have been offering a range of services including banking, utility and e-commerce services. In addition, kiranas are also acting as travel agents and distribution centres across the retail segment.
In spite of the initial hiccups with imparting digital and other technology skills training, internet access and creating self-employment opportunities, rural people, especially the youth, are now in a better position to find employment without having to travel to urban centres to earn their livelihood. Rural Fintech companies have especially empowered rural people to start their own business with zero to minimal investment. These in a way have started changing the rural economy landscape in India.
Technology has also benefited the farming community in a big way. It has enabled farmers to establish agri-tech startups and use internet-linked smartphones to sell their products through digital mandis and attend knowledge-based webinars with other farmers.
However, Rural India has a long way to go before it fully adopts emerging technologies and reaps their benefits. For example, despite having access to digital banking and financial services, people in villages and small towns still prefer personal interactions primarily because of a lack of trust. Both government and private players will have to convince them of the safety and security of using digital products, and at the same time create a collaborative model that combines the physical and digital worlds.
As we prepare for a post-pandemic world, greater technology adoption and financial inclusion should be our collective vision for Rural India and its all-around economic development.
The author, Dilip Modi, is Founder at Spice Money. The views expressed are personal
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