'Mobility to drive ecommerce'

'Mobility to drive ecommerce'
As the train chugged in to Madhupur Station (in the State of Jharkand, India), I knew that it was the start of a long journey, engagement and first hand learning for me on rural India and their lives. Sprinkle in a hostile terrain and travel and stay in places that are connected less by roads and more by 3G networks.

One understands the true meaning of the revolution that telecommunications is bringing about in the lives of people, when one visits such places. The thrust of the government to bring in greater internet penetration is obvious. It will impact our lives significantly as more and more net users come from rural India. It is estimated that by 2020, there will be 730 million internet users in India and 75% of the new users will be from rural India. One needs to visit some of these places to see what a huge difference access to internet can drive in our country.

The biggest impact I see will be in education, and therefore, empowerment and governance in the immediate term. It will then move on to financial inclusion, rural BPOs, employment generation, impact on agriculture as more and more Internet of Things (IoTs) will get connected up virtually from the farms.

Rural empowerment

Two hours in to the drive and we are in Giridih, a small town that is the District Headquarters. From Giridih, we started visiting all the remote schools, in and around the area. The first school at Chengarbasa and the one close by were representative of all the schools in that region. Lack of teachers, infrastructure (read as no desks and sitting tables or chairs), are few of the problems that these children face — these are apart from the fact that naxals break into the schools at night and steal whatever is there including files, books, etc. Many come to school because one meal is free for them — provided by the government through schools in their mid-day meal scheme.

The only computer they have seen in their lives is the one that eVidyaloka, a not-for profit social enterprise has installed in one of their classrooms with a TV Monitor, a UPS (for uninterrupted power supply) and a video camera with microphone. Internet is enabling social enterprises to deliver live classes to children in rural India. It is bringing volunteers from cities across the world sitting in their homes or offices, to teach these children. The paradigm has shifted — there is no need for physical teachers in these locations thanks to the internet.

Common services centres

As I halted for a cup of tea and some freshly prepared hot roadside food, I saw people gathered around near a shop, enjoying a chat. I went across to listen to them and was pleasantly surprised to see that it was not a shop. It was like a small office with a computer, UPS, a very good quality printer/scanner and a really good web-camera.

The computer was connected to the internet. I asked one of them what this is and they told me that this is a centre that the government uses to reach out to citizens and provide services. So, a G2C centre – Government to Consumer or Government to Citizen centre.

The centre provided various services — on the governance front, this included PAN card application, Aadhaar Card enrollment and printing, passport application, electoral services, Apollo Telemedicine, pension and insurance services, postal services, opening of bank accounts, etc.

On the B2C side, I saw various services being provided — ecommerce for purchase of various items, railway and bus tickets, agriculture services, mobile and DTH recharge. I also saw e-learning courses — on English and there was an online cricket course too! There were many computer based skills development courses too under the Skill India schemes.

The skilling courses I really liked were ones that provided lessons in agriculture and how to become a motorcycle/scooter mechanic. These were absolutely relevant to the geography in which these centres operate. These centres were a brilliant way to communicate the government initiatives to the public.

These centres are owned by individual entrepreneurs who belong to that village, have a social bent of mind and are willing to provide services at reasonable costs. The centres not only provide local employment but also ensure profits for these entrepreneurs while providing a host of services to the village/town.

Agricultural Services

One of the most important aspects of internet penetration will be improvement in agriculture and agricultural productivity. Apart from the e-Chaupal kind of services such as weather forecast, price determination of crops, etc.,  I believe penetration of IoTs in agriculture will happen and modern methods of farming will come to life thanks to internet connections. Whilst we may not see robotisation on a large scale (unless there are land reforms), I foresee better use of fertilisers, nutrients, pesticides and water management through the use of IoT.

Ecommerce

Mobility will drive ecommerce in a significantly large way. As internet penetrates more areas in India, ecommerce will emerge in different ways. I see differing price points based on availability coming through.

So, not only will these online shops sell the expensive things but also those that are affordable. Internet will not just drive the typical shopping over websites like Amazon, Flipkart, etc., but we will see equivalent of Ola Shared Auto in villages and towns where they need it the most. We will see artisans able to sell their products over the net and get better prices than what we they get now.

Rural BPOs in local languages

Internet penetration will encourage companies to set up their local BPOs to support their efforts in providing a better end user experience. I see this helping out telecom majors like Airtel, Reliance and Vodafone, and also FMCG majors where they will need to handle complex logistics and supply chain aspects which will straddle both the cyber and the physical worlds.

Internet penetration will have much more uses in terms of governance, education, empowerment, commerce and rural employment.

Personally, I believe that this is what will drive employment in the long run from cities and push towards more equitable growth.

As I got on to the train to leave for Ranchi, I realised that the task on hand is huge but with concentrated effort in the right direction and with technology backing those efforts, we can move to become a much better India than we are today.

(The author is the Founder of Alive Consulting)

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