Bridging Rural-Urban Divide in India Through ICT for Better Life in Rural Communities: World Telecommunications Day

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By R. Chandrashekhar
Secretary, Departments of Telecommunications & Information Technology, Government of India
(PIB Features)

New Delhi, May 17, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB-India) Today is World Telecommunications Day. The theme for this year is “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”. This theme is especially pertinent to a country like India, where 70% of the population resides in rural areas.  It is an acknowledged fact that in spite of best efforts by the Government, rural areas continue to lack adequate infrastructure in terms of roads, financial services, health and educational facilities, employment opportunities and government services etc.

India today stands at the threshold of great opportunities. A growing and robust economy, a young and increasingly literate population and wide technological base give it the opportunity of emerging as a major power. At the same time, it faces the challenges of reducing poverty and inequity. World over, it has been recognised that Information and Communication Technologies play a significant role in bridging the divide between the poor and the non-poor. In our country, while voice communication has, doubtless reduced isolation, the penetration of Internet and broadband has remained low, mainly due to a limited spread of wireline telephones and non availability, so far, of Broadband technologies. With the launch of 3G services, the stage is set for rapid spread of Broadband. At the same time, there is an urgent need for a nation-wide Broadband network to reach Education, healthcare, banking and other services to all the villages. Such a network would truly help in realising the objective of inclusive growth.

In the rural context, ICTs provide enhanced opportunities to generate income and combat poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy. ICTs and related e-applications are key instruments in improving governance and rural services, such as providing community health care, safe drinking water and sanitation, education, food and shelter; improving maternal health and reducing child mortality; empowering women and the more vulnerable members of society; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Millennium Development Goals

The UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), from 20-22 September 2010, concluded with the adoption of a global action plan to achieve the eight anti-poverty goals by the 2015. The eight goals agreed to by the members are to: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, Achieve universal primary education, Promote gender equality and empower women, Reduce child mortality, Improve maternal health, Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, Ensure environmental sustainability & Develop a global partnership for development.  Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are part of MDG and have an impact on other MDGs. Target 18 of goal 8 mentions the following: In cooperation with the private sector, make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications technologies. According to UN availability of broadband is important for making important applications available to the population. Examples below show as to how ICT can assist in achieving other MDGs.

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger- By increasing access to market information and reducing transaction costs for poor farmers and traders.

Achieve universal primary education- By increasing supply of trained teachers through ICT enhanced distance training.

Promote gender equality and empower women-By delivering educational and literacy programme specifically targeted towards poor women using appropriate technologies.

Reduce child mortality- By increasing access of rural care givers to specialist support and remote diagnosis.

Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases - By increasing monitoring and information sharing on disease and famine.

Ensure environmental sustainability- By remote sensing technologies and communications networks which ensure more effective monitoring, resource management, mitigation of environmental risks.

Effects of ICT on Growth

Experts are of the opinion that the impact of broadband on the GDP is much higher than any other ICT. According to World Bank a 10% increase in broadband penetration increases GDP of a developing country by 1.38%. It is therefore natural that countries are concerned about creating a robust broadband infrastructure that would sustain high growth of broadband services. The inclusive potential of ICT is evident at two levels: the benefits that it brings to poorer communities and the capacity of individuals within these communities to participate in new economic opportunities. ICT, particularly broadband, is, therefore, seen as a powerful tool for inclusive growth.

ICT has the unique capability of bridging the urban-rural infrastructural gap in access to such services and amenities. ICT can overcome even literacy and language barriers and provide a two-way communication channel between the government and rural citizens. It can empower rural Indians through information and market access. Connecting rural populations will ensure that they participate as equals in the social, economic and political life of the nation. There have been initiatives from both private and Government sectors for development of ICTs in rural areas.

Policy initiatives directed towards growth of ICT in rural areas

National Telecom Policy 1994 (NTP)- The Department of Telecommunications, Government of India right from the inception of National Telecom Policy-1994, has acknowledged the need of extending the communication and information technology services to rural and remote areas of the country. National Telecom Policy -1999 was framed with following objectives specific to the rural and remote areas of the country.

Strive to provide a balance between the provision of universal service to all uncovered areas, including the rural areas, and the provision of high-level services capable of meeting the needs of the country’s economy;

Encourage development of telecommunication facilities in remote, hilly and tribal areas of the country;

National Telecom Policy 1999-To meet the above objectives, NTP-1999 had following targets specific to the rural and remote areas of the country.

Encourage development of telecom in rural areas making it more affordable by suitable tariff structure and making rural communication mandatory for all fixed service providers.

Increase rural teledensity from the current level of 0.4 to 4 by the year 2010 and provide reliable transmission media in all rural areas.

Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF) -Keeping above objectives in mind, Government created the Universal Service Obligation Fund in 2002. The main objective of creation of the fund was to support the telecom service providers through subsidy in rolling out the telecom services in the non-remunerative rural and remote areas of the country.

Various Schemes under USOF

Starting from providing basic community service in the form of Village Public Telephones and Rural Community Phones to individual access in the form of Rural DELs support for creation of mobile infrastructure in the rural and remote areas of the country, and improvement of Optical fibre infrastructure in NE states by connecting unconnected blocks we have come a long way. We have provided Village Panchayat Telephones in more than 96 % villages of the country and achieved Rural Teledensity of more than 33%.

The journey is still far from over. Broadband still remains the area of concern. The broadband is different from voice as it requires different eco-system in terms of digital literacy, availability of local content and application apart from affordability. Government, through USOF, has launched the Rural Wireline Broadband scheme to provide Broadband connections in the rural and remote areas of the country. Till March 2011, more than 2.5 lakh connections have been provided in the scheme. Under Bharat Nirman II scheme, Government has planned to cover all the 2.5 lakh (approx.) Gram Panchayats of the country with Broadband service. Till March 2011, more than 1.1 lakh Gram Panchayats are covered with Broadband service.

Since all the rural and remote areas of the country are not possible to be covered by wireline broadband, Government is shortly going to launch a rural wireless broadband scheme which will provide wireless broadband coverage to around 5 lakh villages of the country.

The broadband service is a high bandwidth service which requires a high bandwidth backhaul network. To meet this, Government is planning to build a National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) to provide optical connectivity to all the 2.5 lakh Gram Panchayats.

Through all these measures, it is hoped that we shall be able to usher in a new era whereby rural Indians will be able to access to information, knowledge and all types of essential services through effective ICT connectivity and thus be able to contribute effectively to and reap the benefits of to the promising Indian growth story, and realise vision of Father of Nation Mahatma Gandhi.

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