Step up on e-villages
By Dhurjati Mukherjee
It is generally accepted that digital inclusion leads to economic development and in the process weeds out corruption and other malpractices. After demonetisation, the emphasis on the country turning digital has been reinforced by the Prime Minister. There can be no denying that digital technology has helped to improve customer service, business processes and effective operation of devices. It goes without saying that making digitalisation a reality is all the more necessary through education and awareness programmes.
Digital inclusion must comprise three A’s – access, adaptation and application. Experts are of the opinion that the basic step of inclusion is access followed by application which must cater to the needs of the people. A platform must be built in such a way that it can be customised according to clients’ requirements. Technologies that are used must be standardised, useful and simple so that people can easily adapt to these.
As is well known, digital inclusion in the learning system can be very helpful – there are online courses which one can take from any place. Moreover, class lectures and references from books of foreign countries, which are very costly and also difficult to procure, can be easily downloaded, thereby saving money of the student. More and more educational institutes are slowly trying to adapt this but wi-fi has to spread all across the country, specially in rural areas.
In the endeavour to move towards digitisation, one may refer to a study by McKinsey & Co which has found that over 90 per cent of the transactions in India are still conducted in cash as people in the country still fear of financial security. But educating the masses right from the grassroots is imperative to generate all-round digital literacy.
A recent World Bank report states: “A 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration increases the per capita GDP by 1.38 per cent in developing countries.” The internet has become an enabler of growth and it needs to be promoted with as much enthusiasm as other physical infrastructure such as transportation and power.
Obviously, there is need to allocate a portion of the budget to create infrastructure for internet connectivity across India. In addition, a targeted plan for implementing the objective of internet connectivity across India through identified bodies has to be in place. It may be worthwhile to develop a road map for public private participation with telecom operators.
But a recent study revealed that broadband penetration in India is below par and needs to be given a boost to make the Government’s ‘Digital India’ a success. Serious efforts are required to thus increase its connectivity beyond the current level of 7 per cent, according telecom regulator to RS Sharma. As per a white paper, Thailand’s broadband reach is estimated at 36 per cent, Singapore at 98 per cent and that of Malaysia at around 3536 per cent.
India has been ranked behind Sri Lanka and Vietnam in broadband penetration. Thus, the country has to make special efforts to ride on the present infrastructure and develop better facilities towards taking the country into a knowledge economy. Broadband through cable TV that reaches millions of homes would only require tweaking of the policy and TRAI has already given its recommendation to the government in this regard.
The demonetisation has once again brought up the need for moving towards a cashless society. The benefits for turning towards digitalisation is expected to greatly help the rural people – like farmers getting the right price for their produce or those working in different welfare programmes such as MGNRES, and not being cheated. There are various reports of cheating and exploitation which can be tackled to a large extent if transactions are totally through cash transfer in banks.
There are expectations that the systemic check of demonetisation would accelerate the digitalisation of the economy. According the Reserve Bank of India, total debit cards in the country went up from 623.67 million in September 2015 to 867.35 million in September 2016 – a 39 per cent jump. This is expected to witness a jump in the coming year as people are realising of usefulness of such cards. Experts believe that though one may not have a smart phone, the Aadhar can be the key for cashless payments.
It needs to be mentioned here that in a country of over 1.2 billion people, there are only 2.12 ATM machines and 1.3 million point-of-sale card machines. Paying through phones can develop but these have to be connected to the internet. Therefore, internet charges need to be reduced considerably to make it available to people from the economically weaker sections as presently only 13 out of 100 Indians in rural areas actually have such access.
The HRD ministry has started registering around 18,000 volunteers to help families turn cashless by launching the Vittiya Saksharta Abhiyan (VISAKS) and even plans to involve Members of Parliament. Student volunteers will be trained this month in digital transactions. Each student is expected to help his/her own family members as well as 10 more families go digital.
The MPs have been asked to visit colleges and other higher educational institutions in their constituency encouraging registration of youths as volunteers and facilitate digital financial literacy. Added to this, the Ministry has also asked NSS and NCC units to select a market place in the nearest locality and train shop owners in digital payments.
The recent measures announced by the Government to promote cashless payments for petrol, diesel, insurance, toll and rail travel are no doubt positive measures in the process of digitalisation. According to Finance Minister Jaitley, the incentive scheme has the potential of shifting at least 30 per cent more customers to digital means which would “further reduce the cash requirement of nearly Rs 2 lakh crores per year at petrol pumps”.
Digitalisation is the key to remove exploitation and remove cheating and manipulation. But to achieve this, more ATMs have to be opened in rural areas and internet connections have to become affordable. Moreover, digital literacy has to be generated among the people residing in the rural and semi-urban areas about the need to dispense with cash as much as possible.
The Jan Dhan Yojana initiated last year was the first step taken by the Government to ensure that every person has a bank account where his wages and/or other payments could be transferred. Though this had not become quite effective it is expected that in the coming years, these accounts could help in the process of digitalisation.
The Government is aware of the challenges in moving towards digitisation and the need for creation of the necessary infrastructure to make it a reality. To start with, the BSNL should fix different rates for different customers, keeping in mind their income position and special rates for students, specially those from EWS and lower income groups. The process is indeed long and the Government’s active intervention and fiscal incentives is needed to achieve the goal of a cashless economy. — INFA