ICT Policy and Rural Poor

India now has a population of over 1 billion of which its rural population is approximately 70%. About 40% of the population in India is below the poverty-line. Much of the rural population does not have access to common infrastructure like connectivity, electricity, health and drinking water. Many migrate to the cities.

Complex characteristics of rural India include inaccessible terrain and geographically dispersed hamlets/villages. Out of approximately 6,60,742 (Datanet India 2001) villages, 4,59,465 have populations of less than 1000, a total of 58,029 villages have populations between 1000-1500 and 1,43,248 villages have populations over 1500. Sub-optimal utilisation of natural resources, lack of extension of adequate privileges including governance compared to the urban has remained detrimental to the socio-economic environment in India. Imbalance in socio-economic development and urban-rural divide can only be arrested if the infrastructure in rural areas is made sustainable, qualitative and a growth oriented business environment is created. This in turn can provide/generate employment opportunities. While major initiatives in removing this imbalance are yet to take momentum, there exist certain deterministic steps towards achieving the goal. It is strongly believed that ICT can be a medium to address this imbalance.

ICT as an infrastructure
There have been debates on role of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in developing a connectivity backbone in rural India to address urban-rural divide. ICT has been recognised as an infrastructure in developed countries and its use has shown the path of rapid socio-economic development. However, in developing countries, especially in India, ICT interventions are still on concept stage. Many pilot projects are experimented in isolation and scaling up strategy is yet to be formulated. Like formal ways of connectivity in terms of Rail, Road, Air, Water, ICT can also be termed as a medium of connecting people and places beyond geographical boundaries. However, ICT as an infrastructure requires electricity, basic telephony and related networks.

Unlike other general purpose technology like agriculture, energy, transport, support for accepting ICT in rural India is needed from all stakeholders especially government. Mere provision of hardware and software components will not help the rural population draw benefits, but a systematic and convergent approach of policy makers, business drivers would be necessary for its use. Innovations are necessary for adoption of this technology since it can be viewed as a tool to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the process that exist for the development of rural population and economy. Such processes could be providing basic information to the public for good governance, creating an atmosphere of transparency in pricing, marketing products, providing education and addressing disaster mitigation issues etc. Reaching the rural population where the other infrastructure relating to connectivity like rail, road is limited can be made possible through ICT infrastructure.

ICT infrastructure in India
ICT is referred to as one of the major contributors to the infrastructure in many developed countries. As per the Global Information Technology Report (Dutta et al 2003a, 2003b, 2003c), ICT is fast emerging as a tool for making a society networked. The network readiness is believed to be one index that encompasses three important stakeholders i.e. the individual, business and the government, within the context of a nation’s economy and policy. Despite many initiatives taken up, India stands as per the report, 37th among 82 nations with network readiness index (NRI) as 3.89 (7 Point scale), 70th for ICT infrastructure. This indicates that a lot of improvement is needed in the national scenario. Finland has surprisingly been the best country that has the highest network readiness index. According to the report, India shows enormous geographic and demographic divides in ICT usage. In India it is possible that cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad are termed as Hi-Tech cities with high density of ICT use whereas there are places in India where basic telephone connectivity does not exist.

ICT Policy : Indian context
In order to make a technology general purpose, it has to be widely used, user should understand the benefits at large and it should be a way of life. This is only possible when scaling up the technology use is feasible. Policy makers should play an important role in popularising the technology use and its standardisation. Policy has an important role to play and the policies framed in India have a direct impact on the status of the ICT infrastructure we have today. Discussing policy issues with specific relation to ICT may skew the approach because ICT can be termed as an infrastructure which can grow independently and at the same time, it can not remain isolated for the reason that any process of service/business can be IT enabled. While studying the policies in India that are relevant to ICT, one can conveniently divide these in four areas viz.: “Indian telecommunication Policy”, “Indian IT policy”, “Indian Infrastructure Policy” and “Policy on Convergence”.

Telecommunication policy
Though NTP94, the first ever policy in India, could not achieve many of its targets, it was successful to set up a base for moving ahead. Therefore, another policy called NTP99 (DOT 2003 a) was framed in 1999 with an objective to increase tele-density of 7 per 100 by 2007 and 15 by 2010. A very important decision came up in this policy was Universal Service Obligation (USO). Under this policy it is aimed at ensuring universal access to every citizen at affordable prices. However, the irony is that many of the service providers are failing on the obligations under USO, and still trying to spread in the remunerative areas. Subsequently, Information , Communication and Entertainment Bill (ICE) is being proposed as a newer version of India Broadcasting Bill by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to have focus on private service providers in the areas of ISP, Paging, VSAT and public mobile trunk operators (GoI 2001a).

IT policy
With the wide and accelerated acceptance of internet services across the globe, convergence has become the slogan for many countries including India. IT is a part of convergence issues. In India it is looked after by Ministry of Information Technology and there is initiative to have an IT Act. This act mooted by the government broadly formulates policy issues relating to security and managing risks of IT enabled services especially in banking, E-commerce and business applications and obligation management under a contract (Planning Commission 2001a). However, in the sector of hardware, India Hardware initiative has formulated a road map as this a very weak area where India should pay attention to. As regards software, India is doing well and the export policy, providing related services through IT parks a re encouraging. Training and Development in IT area is encouraging. However, there is no policy to have a road map on manpower planning, resource planning etc. in IT area.

Infrastructure policy
India’s infrastructure is quite complex due to the diversity of the geographical, cultural and political structure. Its major infrastructures like power, railway, telecommunication, road, water and irrigation, transportation are dealt by different ministries and frame policies. Annual budgets with five year plans form the basis of development in this sector. With globalisation and private participation complexity is increasing to have a sustainable model to work. Since our study refers to ICT infrastructure, study on related infrastructure would be beneficial i.e. power, railways and ports while discussion on telecommunication is already held in telecommunication policy. Railways (Planning Commission 2001a) have in their agenda to cover all the stations with broadband services with 62,800 km of optical fibre cables layout in accordance with NTP99. The aim is to create a broadband telecommunication infrastructure, accelerating growth of internet services, ITES, value added services especially in rural areas. As regards roads, National highway policy is aggressively implementing connectivity across the country through “Prime Minister’s Quadrilateral Road Link”. However, rural roads are not prioritised in the same spirit. Ports do form a very vital segment and use extensive telecommunication network and wireless network (Garg and Madhav 2002). However, all these agencies do not meet the USO expectations.

Convergence policy
India is not lagging behind embracing technology and its upgraded versions. There is no dearth of technologies. However, as per the working group for e-governance and convergence, the convergence in India has been defined as “Convergence of Content” and “Convergence of Carriage”. Convergence of carriage calls for major changes in the structure of the computer industry and the telecommunication and networking industry as they are responsible for data communication and broadcasting of multi-media applications. National task force on IT and Software Development (1998) recommended addressing “last-mile connectivity” problems (GoI 2001b). Convergence of content calls for effort in E-government1 and E-governance.

Another issue that is considered in the tenth five year plan is to address “Convergence of Terminal” which should be based on the objective of providing multi-lingual services on multi-media applications “any where and anytime in India”. Tenth Plan recognises that in India, convergence is complex not merely because of the technology, but cultural barriers, different regional languages and legal issues involving content delivery play a vital role. It is acknowledged that convergence has been limited to communication, TV broadcasting and Internet services (planning commission 2001b). Other content delivery and convergence like business use is still to take off and gather momentum. In the perspective of convergence, the plan suggests that government should act as facilitator for growth of content applications and create conditions for content convergence. Development of technology should be done at public expense only where the investment is disproportionately high. Government should promote robust backbone with complete bandwidth. Care should be taken to promote content convergence that should tackle “digital-divide” (3iNetwork, 2003). It has been planned to setup Multifunctional Converged Applications Community Centres (MCACs) at panchayat level. This would facilitate telecom services, e-mail and internet, telemedicine, tele-education and e-governance, promote culture and tourism, information on e-government. Plan also envisages an “E-postal service” since post offices are dense in rural areas as well.

Infrastructure and initiative
Standards emerge out of a rigorous exercise that takes place through the participation of all stakeholders in the process ranging from technology innovators, policy makers through the users. Normal cycle for arriving at a standard is followed as shown in figure- 1. In India policy makers do have knowledge on the problems and availability of its abstracted models is abundant. There is no dearth of prototypes and pilot projects which can meet the purpose. Comments, reviews on these pilots are also meticulously documented globally as well as in India. But when it comes to standardisation, there is dismal disparity in planning and execution. Most of the projects though successful in its own merit, are restricted as model and policy makers have remained apathetic/unnerved in accepting them as a standard. This has allowed disparity in technology selection, large scale replication and also affected economy of scale for the technology adopted.

Standardisation challenges
Communication and connectivity plague the Indian scene with the problem of urban-rural divide. There is no dearth of technology that India has embraced in this sector. But most of the benefits have gone to the middle class and upper class households staying in urban and or semi-urban area. Cost prohibitive and monopolistic policies of India added to the problem of poor rural infrastructure. Recent developments in Indian telecommunication and IT policies have brought in private participation. But again, the facilities rendered by the service providers have cantered around the elite citizen. In the segment of land-line/ Terrestrial connectivity, India has all the technology ranging from Postal services, POTS, non-POTS through Wireless connectivity satellite and WLL connectivity in urban areas across the country. There is however, imbalance in rural connectivity because of the inherent geographical characteristics in India as well as policies evolved over the years. In urban areas as well, though technology is available, bandwidth availability poses a major threat to the connectivity. Multiple vendors with independent technology are flooding the market without a policy of convergence in India.

Challenges in deploying land-line connectivity in rural areas are:

  • Less sustainable and bad quality power
  • Limitations of copper cables laid for the last-mile connectivity to carry multi-media services
  • Dispersed locations of villages and prohibitive access
  • Less popularisation of broadband services such as DSL/ADSL on copper cable, Cable-TV and lack of policies to support these services
  • Challenges in deploying wireless and mobile Services
  • Complexity of technology base
  • Insufficient security and control
  • Remote management and support
  • Handheld device limitation
  • Limitations in wireless computing
    • Speed
    • Latency
    • Bandwidth
    • Content management
    • User interface
  • High cost of Ownership
  • Lack of concerted effort to use the infrastructure by government, business houses

ICT user had fewer roles to play in selecting / choosing technology provided nationally in India. In order to understand the user, an important stakeholder in the system of connectivity and infrastructure it would be prudent to define them in three broad categories i.e. urban, semi-urban and rural. As has been discussed earlier, this divide has been a critical factor for creating the imbalance. Connectivity has been identified as one of the reasons that is responsible for this divide. Connecting rural population in India is thwarted because of the intrinsic geographical conditions, low density of population in villages and un-clustered approach of the location of villages. The problem of infrastructural support in the bottom most layer called “rural population” in the form of electricity, medium and mode of transport, connectivity, water, education and above all the governance, which exist disproportionately when compared to the middle layer “semi-urban population” and top most layer “urban population”.

From the user’s point of view, ICT has become a “general purpose technology” for the semi-urban and urban population. All type of technologies related to connectivity are predominantly available in these two layers. ICT in these two upper layers is widely used starting from a STD booth through cable TV, mobile telephony and internet services, call centres and internet services. However, latency in bandwidth would not be a problem in the near future. But the connectivity interface between first two layers i.e. rural and semi-urban is the bottleneck across the entire infrastructure. In this layer lies the serious “last mile syndrome” which affects a major percentage of population deprived from basic services. ICT, if brought in with an organised approach with appropriately identified technology which would be cheaper, sustainable and growth oriented would certainly address the issue of “imbalance”. However, it is premature to say that ICT if brought in large scale in this layer would address all its issues. A more methodical approach would be to prioritise the issues that affect this population. Concurrently, a long term policy on ICT infrastructure with convergence should be formulated for India, so that ICT is identified as general purpose technology for this layer as well and no discrimination is made across all these layers.

Though technology is developing its link to the common user, its business value is very weak which therefore, is a hindrance in accepting ICT as general purpose technology. However, this approach has so far been able to accept ICT as a general purpose technology is through telephony, STD booth, and mobile telephony which have provided scope for income generation. Communication through this land line mode and mobile mode is no more a luxury, but has become a part of life. The biggest challenge from the user point of view is the absence of a framework to execute the policies for effective use of the ICT infrastructure. Another popular but very critical challenge is called “Last-Mile Connectivity”. Last-mile syndrome (at times it is also being termed as “first-mile”) refers to the limitation in providing services to a common end-user (household desktops/ LANS) with a speed that is normally available with inter city connectivity. This is similar to a condition where a village situated at distance of around 3-4 kms from the state highway with no roads connecting to the village and if at all it exists, with a fare weather road! This is being discussed very often by the media, policy-makers and the common man as well. In Indian context, geographical and demographic situations coupled with poverty, poor infrastructure and urban-centric development/economic activities are adding to this effect catastrophically.

Indian rural ICT initiatives largely depend on two modes; one is “PSTN network”, and the other is “wireless connectivity” (either through fixed & limited mobility (WLL) and the other is GSM, GPRS). But there could be a third mode with combination of both the options which depends on “convergence”. This convergence is possible through existing technology which would provide interfaces among PSTN, WLL, and GSM based services. Cost of convergence however, plays a crucial role that needs deliberation. Another option is the DSL/ADSL category of convergence on PSTN services with lower cost, but has a limitation in rural area because of physical connectivity issue. With the popularisation of broadband wireless connectivity through satellite communication that provides higher speeds up to 2Mbps, last mile connectivity can be addressed in abetter way because of the greater reach. However, cost of ownership would be high in terms of convergence in all the services through this option.

ICT initiatives and effects Some ICT initiatives have been taken up at the government and non-government level to combat rural development challenges. However, there is little attempt to formulate strategies for scaling it up. These projects remained as pilots and at times lost their purpose due to lack of support at the appropriate level. For example, Mahiti-Shakti in state of Gujarat was implemented with much publicity. But now, its status is limited to the district only. Utilisation of infrastructure is also low because of lack of support from the user and from service providers. In the case of e-choupals, it is limited to the area where ICT infrastructure is conducive to the effort. Scaling this effort probably requires concerted effort form the government, and other agencies alike.

There is no dearth of competence in providing technologies and services in India. Nor for that matter does India have any dearth of problems. But there is however, a lack of convergence in policies formulated with there beeing little to no effort in providing a path for standardisation of replicable initiatives. At the infrastructure level, USO is not being fully implemented. Commercialisation of rural development initiatives at grass root level should be aggressively taken up with delivery-oriented time frame. Therefore, responsibility lies with the policy makers to suitably choose replicable initiatives and scale these in the right direction by formulating a policy to bring in standardisation. ICT infrastructure dwells heavily on technology with hazards of obsolescence. Hence, a right combination of technologies should be picked up that can provide a longer life cycle and absorb growth. Without proper set-up of infrastructure, such pilot projects would remain in its pilot phase and would not benefit the larger section of society, especially those who need the most.

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