Towards a true cashless economy
Image source: Twitter/ Sudarsan Pattnaik
It’s turning out that one of the most significant positive effects of the recent demonetization is the drive towards a digital economy. With necessity driving innovation, the volume of cashless transactions in India has increased dramatically—upto 1000% as per some estimates—since 8th November.
Is this enough? Could we do more? What enablers need to be put in place for a steady and faster move towards a digital economy? How do we mitigate the problems faced by the common man as the transition continues? The debate continues to rage, and has occupied centre-stage in most media for the whole month.
Though most of the discussion centres around the wisdom behind the step and its effects both at the macro and micro levels, one important point is hardly mentioned. And that could perhaps be the most important enabler of a digital economy, going forward.
A cashless and digital economy presupposes connectivity—for no transactions are possible unless the common man has ready and reliable access to the Internet. Yet, as we all know, this is far from the reality on the ground. As per ITU estimates, only 26% individuals had Internet access across India in 2015, a figure even lower than the Asia-Pacific average of 38%.
As we all know, averages hide variations among segments, so it is hardly any news that Internet access in rural India is far, far less. In fact, the Government estimates that despite its ambitious BharatNet program, that seeks to bring connectivity upto 250,000 Gram Panchayats (Block level villages) there will still be roughly 55,000 villages without connectivity. Considering that BharatNet’s performance is lagging far behind targets—so far less than 15,000 Gram Panchayats are up and running (as per Bharat Broadband Network Ltd’s website, 14,569 GPs on 6th Dec 2016)—it’s simple arithmetic to determine how far we need to go before we realize the dream of a Digital India.
In this context, is there a quicker way to bring digital connectivity to India’s rural and remote hinterland?
At VNL, we believe wireless technology offers a much quicker and cheaper way. Over the years, our work in connecting the unconnected across the world has led us to design an optimum solution for most rural and remote areas across the world. Accessing backhaul from available terrestrial or satellite sources, VNL sets up voice and data networks in villages with populations as small as a few hundred. Using solar power, our ‘Digital Villages’ are grid-independent, and enable mobile and data connectivity on any handset, including feature phones.
One such Digital Village is Karenda, a modest village in Rajasthan. Working with BSNL, VNL has provided mobile and wi-fi services here, using its award-winning, sustainable WorldGSM™ technology, and extended them to two neighbouring villages, Bahadri and Phalsa, to create a cluster of Digital Villages with a combined population of 3590 persons and 587 households (2011 Census).
Connectivity is changing lives in a quiet, yet fundamental way in this village cluster. Perhaps the most game-changing application is the smart class that VNL has setup in the Government School, Karenda, where e-learning is now helping students and teachers follow a new paradigm of education.
E-governance too, gets a boost through connectivity at an e-Mitra booth where citizens can access government-issued identity documents without having to travel long distances.
Communicating with family, friends, associates and the outside world is now easier. Entertainment is available with a keystroke. Information on agricultural inputs and markets is now available. Banking and other commercial activities are now accessible. And emergency and other health services are within reach.
That’s not all. VNL has also been instrumental in bringing connectivity to large swathes of Left-Wing Extremism affected regions of the country. Working with BSNL, we have helped set up the world’s largest green network — 2,199 solar-powered mobile communication towers in a record time of 18 months, altering the geographical and social landscape of a hostile and inaccessible area forever. Deprived citizens, living on the edge of poverty now have a window to the rest of the world, as they start using mobile phones to connect with families, employers, doctors, local bureaucrats and politicians.
To download the LWE case study, click here.
With such technology and expertise available, it is clear that the Digital India program can get a real push. But as often happens in India, political will often lags behind technological and business reality.
We hope that decision-makers in the right places appreciate VNL’s Digital Village solution soon and make the right moves with as much alacrity that was displayed during the demonetization move. It will be an investment well worth the effort, for only then will the digital divide really disappear, and a true cashless economy take actual shape.