LET’S MAKE RU­RAL IN­DIA SMART, ONE APP AT A TIME

Mint ST - - TECHNOLOGY - Re­spond to this col­umn at feed­back@livemint.com

The other day I was scrolling through the govern­ment’s app store, which hosts 57 apps across 23 sec­tors. While there are a range of ap­pli­ca­tions that fo­cus on a smart man­age­ment in­for­ma­tion sys­tem (MIS) for var­i­ous de­part­ments and min­istries, there seemed to be not enough apps for the front­line work­ers to reach out to the govern­ment or the out­side world. In other words, there are a lot of apps with a top-down ap­proach but not enough with a bot­tom-up ap­proach.

With the govern­ment gung-ho about a Dig­i­tal In­dia and Smart In­dia, and with many ef­forts to en­cour­age Make in In­dia, I would like to sug­gest a few apps that it can de­velop to bring in more ac­count­abil­ity, trans­parency and ef­fi­ciency. How­ever, be­fore that can hap­pen, the govern­ment must also en­sure that all its front­line work­ers have a smart­phone. Let’s not ig­nore that in ru­ral In­dia cost is still a bar­rier to smart­phone own­er­ship; In­dia cur­rently has a smart­phone user base of a lit­tle over 300 mil­lion.

No, I am not go­ing to sug­gest any­thing unique or out-of-the­box. To me, th­ese ideas seem sim­ple, ba­sic and needed. It’s ac­tu­ally a sur­prise that they have not yet been de­vel­oped and dis­sem­i­nated at a wide scale al­ready.

Make pan­chay­ats smart: If the govern­ment gives a smart­phone to ev­ery pan­chayat mem­ber in In­dia, it will not only help bring 2.5 lakh pan­chay­ats on­line with a ded­i­cated mo­bile app page, it will also bring 3 mil­lion elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives on­line. The app can cre­ate a fo­rum for all pan­chay­ats to send daily up­dates about their work. [I say this from Dig­i­tal Em­pow­er­ment Foun­da­tion’s own ex­pe­ri­ence. When we first cre­ated a What­sapp group for our 200 Com­mu­nity In­for­ma­tion Re­source Cen­tres (CIRCS), ini­tially it was the usual ac­tive cen­tres that re­sponded with pic­tures and up­dates about their ac­tiv­i­ties but it soon in­spired even the oth­er­wise less ac­tive CIRCS to do more and do bet­ter so that they, too, can share up­dates with their peers, get ap­pre­ci­a­tion and feel en­cour­aged.] The app should in­cor­po­rate a fea­ture to record live videos of gram sab­has’ monthly meet­ings to main­tain ac­count­abil­ity and al­low ci­ti­zens to view. Fur­ther, the pan­chay­ats can use the app for pub­lic an­nounce­ments that can be re­ceived by the ci­ti­zens as alerts on their mo­bile phones. Ci­ti­zens should also be able to check sta­tus of their ser­vice de­liv­ery ap­pli­ca­tions; sub­mit griev­ances; and read about the ac­tiv­i­ties un­der­taken by their lo­cal elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Make ASHA work­ers smart: While there are al­ready a lot of apps for front­line health work­ers, their pen­e­tra­tion at a mass scale is low un­less man­dated by a district govern­ment or su­per­vised by the in­ter­ven­tion of an NGO. How about a na­tional-level app that lists the tasks of 8.6 lakh ac­cred­ited so­cial health ac­tivists work­ers (ASHA) and 1.8 mil­lion an­gan­wadi work­ers re­gion-wise? An app that man­ages their task log with geo-tag­ging for ac­count­abil­ity; helps them set re­minders for their vis­its/tasks; re­ceives govern­ment an­nounce­ments as alerts; ac­cess pre-loaded au­dio­vi­sual con­tent to bet­ter mo­bi­lize com­mu­nity mem­bers; and con­nect with the com­mu­nity health cen­tres for ex­pert ad­vice. At the ci­ti­zens’ end, users can re­quest an emer­gency visit by a front­line health worker; set re­minders for their child’s next vac­ci­na­tion date; watch au­dio-vis­ual con­tent on health and child­care; and sub­mit griev­ances to au­thor­i­ties against front­line health work­ers.

Make teach­ers smart: We’re talk­ing about smart classes but how can a class be­come smart if its teach­ers aren’t smart enough? For the close to 7 mil­lion govern­ment school teach­ers, I sug­gest an app that en­ables them to sub­mit their at­ten­dance on­line with geo-tagged lo­ca­tions. This will dras­ti­cally bring down ab­sence of govern­ment school teach­ers. The app should come built-in with on­line teach­ing re­sources and share reg­u­lar tips on ped­a­gogy. The app should al­low peer-to-peer in­ter­ac­tion between school teach­ers at the block/district level to share up­dates and dis­cuss ped­a­gogy. There should also be pro­vi­sions to sub­mit griev­ances to the block of­fi­cer and to mark a check­list of RTE com­pli­ances with geo-tagged pho­to­graphs from the school. At the par­ents’ end, it should en­gage them with teach­ers in a di­a­logue re­motely, thus bring­ing min­istry of hu­man re­source de­vel­op­ment’s school man­age­ment com­mit­tees on­line through a ground-up ap­proach.

Make self-help groups smart: There are a few govern­ment and pri­vate bodies that have al­ready cre­ated an app that al­lows farm­ers and fish­er­men to sell their pro­duce on­line, find out about mar­ket prices, and reach out to ex­perts. Sim­i­lar apps for SHGS are very few; and their pen­e­tra­tion is even lower. So I sug­gest one app that be­comes a mar­ket place for the more than 23 lakh SHGS that are pro­moted un­der Na­tional Ru­ral Liveli­hoods Mis­sion in In­dia. Here, they can sell their pro­duce on­line, ac­cess off­line re­tail links, get ad­vice from ex­perts, re­ceive alerts about govern­ment schemes or loans, and even en­gage in a peer-to-peer fo­rum with other SHGS in the sec­tor to share chal­lenges, best prac­tices and mar­ket in­for­ma­tion. At the buy­ers’ end, this app can al­low them to buy prod­ucts di­rectly from the SHGS or speak to one for bulk or­ders.

Here, I would again like to re­mind you that I did not claim to come out with unique ideas. Th­ese are sim­ple ideas, ver­sions of which are al­ready float­ing in the coun­try but in a dis­persed man­ner. My desk­top re­search tells me that Swachh Bharat Ab­hiyan, Mygov, Meain­dia, Postinfo App, On­line RTI and Meri Sadak are some of the best re­ceived govern­ment apps. But how many of them truly serve the ru­ral needs? The in­ten­tion should be to de­velop holis­tic and com­pre­hen­sive apps that are given to a sarpanch or an ASHA worker to down­load on their smart­phones (with train­ing) as soon as they take on their role. There is no deny­ing that in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, an app de­vel­oped by the govern­ment will gain higher trust and pen­e­tra­tion than a pri­vate app would—pri­vate apps also have the chal­lenges of reach­ing out on a mass scale due to bar­ri­ers of fund­ing, lan­guage, ge­og­ra­phy and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion). Take BHIM app, for ex­am­ple. The fi­nan­cial ser­vice app has been adopted ex­ten­sively across In­dia be­cause it is a well-de­vel­oped app that serves its pur­pose well. The govern­ment’s mar­ket­ing abil­i­ties and reach are strengths that must be lever­aged for de­vel­op­ing apps for those at the bot­tom of the pyra­mid.

Osama Man­zar is founder-di­rec­tor of Dig­i­tal Em­pow­er­ment Foun­da­tion and chair of Man­than and mbil­lionth awards. He is mem­ber, ad­vi­sory board, at Al­liance for Af­ford­able In­ter­net and has co-au­thored Netch@kra–15 Years of In­ter­net in In­dia and In­ter­net Econ­omy of In­dia. He tweets @osama­man­zar.

COL­UMN

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