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Addressing challenges of digital divide, public awareness, inclusive development

How is digital awareness propelling rural development in India? A note by S M Sehgal Foundation:
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John Rawls in his path-breaking book titled, A Theory of Justice, proposed the two following principles that can easily be extended to empowerment and development of all citizens of a country, and in this context, the diverse population of India.
(1) Every citizen is entitled to equal rights along with basic liberties
(2) Social and economic inequalities are to be balanced in a way such as to:
(a) Provide the greatest benefit to the least advantaged,
(b) Provide equality of opportunity for all offices and positions.
Inclusive growth is a relevant policy goal for the people of India that will result in both growth and inclusion, and follow the Rawlsian “maximin” principle. The target should be to maximize the welfare of the poorest.
As we complete 75 years of independence, the diversity and divide in India is still stark and negatively skewed. With a large population still dependent on agriculture, underemployment is rampant; and a substantial part of the population is still afflicted with poverty.
Recent changes in Indian policy have undoubtedly delivered growth and inclusion; however, a sizable population in India is still below the poverty line, and a large marginal population is vulnerable to shocks like the COVID pandemic and droughts/ floods driven by climate change.
After all these years, we still await the catharsis of poverty and inequality. What has led to this situation? The crux of the problem has been political will. Someone aptly put it “Those who have (political) power do not have hunger; and those who have hunger, do not have power.”
Power is a multidimensional word. In this context, power is to have an effective say within forums. Thus empowerment and poverty eradication, to be successful, requires inclusive, small-sized, rural, disadvantaged forums to be in place. Empowering itself relates to providing education to people and creating conditions that would provide awareness, job creation, chances to learn from others, and an environment that allows them to earn a decent living to help them live a better life.
The way this positive change can be achieved is through empowerment. Empowerment can be achieved through education, information, and counseling. Access to information and communications technology has the potential to be a game changer to help rural and disadvantaged communities in India overcome poverty and lead to sustainable development.

Digital India and its impact on rural development

Digital India was launched in 2015 as a dream project of the Indian government. The vision was to transform rural India into a knowledge and digitally empowered society through dissemination of information and digital access to government services. The visionary step of the government was aimed at motivating and connecting rural India to a knowledge world through a backbone of a high-speed internet network.
The vision of digital India was threefold:
The Digital India Program was conceptualized on nine pillars and, in the rural context, besides creation of manufacturing infrastructure and manufacturing, the key areas were:
E-governance: Access to database, use of online repositories, integrate platforms through Aadhaar, public grievance redressal, etc.
E-Kranti: Electronic delivery of services like e-education, e-healthcare, information to farmers, financial inclusion, and justice, etc.
Impact for rural India has been slow but sure. In a large and diverse country, some impact areas have been:
Financial Inclusion: With the help of Digital India, financial inclusion has been accelerated through schemes such as Digital India, Direct benefit transfer, Rupay, UPI payments etc. The Jan Dhan–Aadhaar–Mobile has created a positive impact on the banking sector in the country. The benefits have percolated to the rural areas, and financial literacy has improved as the rural population gets integrated in the system. Direct benefit transfer (DBT) has created a major positive financial impact for rural communities by plugging leakages and speeding up distribution of subsidies, pensions, and other benefits under various schemes. All this has created a positive economic outlook in rural India.
E Governance: Projects such as Kisan Call Centres, Jagriti E-Sewa, e-District, Common Services Centres (CSCs), Mobile Seva, etc., have led to better service delivery, transparency and accountability, and improvement in government efficiency. The empowerment of people through information is slowly but surely spearheading rural India to contribute to the next phase of growth in the economy.
Education: Initiatives such as Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan PMGDISHA have been started with the target of making six crore people in rural India digitally literate. Reaching rural education in India is crucial for the next phase of growth, and projects like SWAYAM are spearheading e-education through an offering of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) for leveraging e-Education. Swayam provides a platform that facilitates hosting of all courses taught in classrooms from Class 9 till post-graduation with open access.

Helping inclusive development

While the government has been spearheading the inclusive development of rural areas with a slew of schemes, issues remain that need to be addressed. Areas such as lack of infrastructure, financial resources, public awareness, and most-importantly, the Digital Divide are challenges, need to be addressed. That is where a hybrid approach that builds public-private partnerships comes in to fill the gap.
S M Sehgal Foundation, a sustainable rural development NGO in India, has been working since 1999 to improve the quality of life of the rural communities. One of the main program areas of Sehgal Foundation is Transform Lives, which provides schoolchildren with access to a learning-conducive school environment and digital and life skills awareness. The foundation team under the Transform Lives program advocates Digital and Life Skills Awareness Trainings for schoolchildren and youth in alignment with the vision of National Digital Literacy Mission “to empower at least one person per household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020.” This focus on bridging the divide between rural and urban children helps to develop their social and emotional skills and increases children’s knowledge of good governance and their own role in the development of their village.
Citizen Service Centers: Trained by S M Sehgal Foundation in digital and life skills awareness in 2017, Inaam and Masnun from village Nawli decided to study further in this area and enrolled in a computer course in a nearby Industrial Training Institute. They each hoped that after learning the skill, they would be able to contribute to their family income, which was solely dependent on agriculture. The Citizen Service Centers (CSC) opened by Inaam and Masnun in their village are one-stop shops promoted under Digital India Mission for people to apply for government programs, seek redressal, and enable better access to the programs. Their initiative is much talked about in their village, and local youth consider them as role models. They now are acting as a link between villagers and government programs.

E-labour cards for family members

In the village of Barota, thirty-two students enrolled in the digital awareness center facilitated by S M Sehgal Foundation. Students learned about computers, life skills, government programs, and internet use. After learning about government programs, especially about labor cards, many students applied for e-labor cards for their family members at the Citizen Service Center.

Digital health resource centre

As part of the project “Swastha Aahaar–Swastha Parivar” supported by a CSR partner, which is implemented by S M Sehgal Foundation, a Digital Health Resource Centre (DHRC) has been established in the gram panchayat building of Kalyanpur block, Bihar. This center is the hub of information and training on health and nutrition for villagers. It has IEC materials such as informative posters, leaflets, booklets, and a computer system, which are the sources for generating awareness on particular subjects like health, hygiene and sanitation, nutrition, government schemes related to maternal and child healthcare, and scholarship opportunities for adolescent girls.

Conclusion

In the past few years, digital awareness has become vital to India’s economic growth and the promoting of social and economic equity among the diverse demographic landscape. It is fostering empowerment in rural India by enhancing inclusion and access to information and public services and overcoming the country’s infrastructure deficit. Digital awareness is the way forward to empower and help India realize the ambition of creating a just and equitable society. Leveraging the untapped strengths of the rural population, it has the potential to propel India to the next stage of inclusive development and growth. The vision of a new India can be realized through the “maximin” principle in letter and spirit.

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