Getting connected in Rural India
Thursday, October 27, 2005
The tech market in Bangalore may be racing ahead, but it is a very different story for India’s 700 million farmers. Spencer Kelly has been to Northern India to see how plans to bring technology to rural areas are working.
A tranquil, green landscape, a people who live off the land, and village life built around ancient customs and traditions – this is most of India.
In a village meeting, known as a choupal, the adults of Sabalpur are given the weekly news and discuss the pressing issues of the day.
It is a far cry from the technology parks and campuses that are driving the Indian technology boom.
India has become well known for software industry – outsourcing, call centres, and using its knowledge of technology to help other countries.
What it has been slower to do is use technology to help its own people.
But, in places like Sabalpur, all that is changing.
We can also access other information online, such as the school exam results
Akash, e-Choupal administrator
On the outskirts of the village, a single computer sits in an empty room. The processor is not the fastest, the screen is an older style CRT monitor, but the sheer fact that it is here at all is enough.
The village is now online, and with the help of Akash, a local who has been trained to use the computer, villagers now have access to a wealth of information.
Just as the choupal is a place to meet and discuss with other villagers, this is a place to talk to other villages, and it is called e-Choupal.
Akash Pratab Singh Raghav, the administrator, says: “We use the e-Choupal for agricultural questions. For example if our crops are suffering from a disease, we can write to a central help desk, or discuss the problem with other farmers.
“We can also access other information online, such as the school exam results. We used to have to travel to a nearby village to get the results, but now the children can find out much quicker online.”
A major use for the e-Choupal is to make sure farmers get competitive rates for their produce.
There are many markets in neighbouring towns, and depending on the supply in each town, a crop’s price can vary widely.
The journey to any one market can take several hours, so by checking the current market rates, farmers can take their produce to the place offering the best price.
But there are many challenges to surviving rural life.
Everything in rural India needs to be “hard-wear”. The company that manufactured the rural computer claims it has a tougher build quality, says Shailesh Kumar, a rural computer engineer.
“The type of chips and technology we are using to manufacture this motherboard in our plant at Pondicherry is a very different style. The quality we are using for testing is a high temperature environment.”
But even if the equipment is up to the job, connecting up India’s hundreds of thousands of villages is an enormous task.
You cannot take it for granted that even a road will go all the way, so you cannot expect other connections to be reliable.
And do not be deceived by the sight of wires near towns and villages. Much of the time, they are not carrying anything.
Harlinder Singh-Heer, a technology analyst, says: “At the moment we have a situation where about 80% of villages in India have telephone access. But 20% still don’t have telephone access.
“That’s something the government and the fixed-line operators need to look at.
“Secondly there is the quality of those lines. In my experience, the quality of those services in many of the villages is still relatively poor. You often have line breakages, and also the additional problem of power cuts.”
Hope for solutions
The electricity in Sabalpur can be off for days at a time. So the rural PC we saw came with two solar panels.
Throughout daylight hours, these charge two car batteries, which kick in if the mains supply fails.
There are currently three practical options for connecting rural PCs to the net – satellite broadband, a wireless hotspot for each village, and the more expensive option of completely wiring up the village.
Ajai Chowdhry, chairman and CEO of the tech firm HCL Infosystems, sees a better solution on the horizon.
“A fourth option that is emerging today,” he says, “an emerging technology that we are deeply looking at, Wimax technology, which we believe will finally be able to solve the cost-to-performance situation extremely well.”
And there is also the mobile phone network. Even in villages which do not have access to a computer, the mobile phone network can be used to open more channels of communication with the rest of the country.
But in many villages you will not find even a single mobile phone. But SMS technology can be used in different ways.
For example, one village is hoping to replace its message board with, quite simply, an LED display connected to a SIM card.
It is placed in an area where most of the villagers will meet and discuss things, and is strapped to a tree.
But this is where delicate, city-built electronics failed to fulfil their tough rural roles.
Getting the message board to a useful place, but still keeping it near to an electricity supply, was a challenge. A few jolts during the journey to the village were enough to break the receiver.
So the village will not be receiving any messages at all until it can be repaired.
But one novel solution of providing a mobile connection stood out.
It involved strapping a GSM-enabled payphone to the back of a bike and transporting it from village to village, giving locals the opportunity to call friends and relatives in the cities.
Incoming calls, though, are still a bit of an issue.
There clearly are advantages to introducing technology into rural areas.
But the equipment has to be both hard-wearing and easy to maintain. Otherwise, the suppliers service reps could be in for some very long journeys.