This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on December 18, 2015.
There are 12 million people in rural India who are either on the rolls of the government or elected members of local bodies, and all of them have cell phones. They can change India for the better.
The country is on the cusp of an exponential increase in Internet penetration. According to several studies released by lobby group Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and consultancy firm KPMG, the number of Internet users in India is expected to grow from 200 million in 2013 to about 500 million in 2017. As cell phones become more common, we are expecting to see about 314 million mobile-based Internet users in the next two years.
Although most of the mobile-based Internet users are gradually going to use 3G and 4G services in urban areas, the use of the Internet through such devices in rural India is going to be largely a 2G phenomenon. In 2014, the active Internet user base in rural India was 6.7%. The number is minuscule considering that the population of rural India is more than 900 million. However, the good news is that 4.4% of Internet use in rural India is through mobile devices.
Let us focus on those mobile users in rural India who can make a difference to our lives. There are three major institutions that one cannot ignore if we look at the rural landscape. In education, it would be 1.4 million schools with about 7 million teachers; in governance, it would be the 250,000 panchayats with about 3 million elected members; and in health, it would be the aanganwadis (day care centres) and about 2 million frontline health workers (FLHWs) associated with various levels of rural health services.
From my experience of working in villages across 23 states, mobile penetration is almost complete in these three categories. However, the significant mobile penetration in rural India may not be all via smartphones, but they are getting there. Yet, I can claim with confidence that a majority of the teachers and panchayat members use a smartphone. Incidentally, in each of the discussed sectors, we have a serious problem of accountability and functioning, and in each of the three institutions, mobile apps can help track the functioning and accountability. Let’s discuss each of them separately.
Apps for school teachers: It is universally acknowledged that teacher absenteeism is endemic in government schools. Even when they are present, they do everything but teach, and if at all they are teaching, the impact of their teaching is hardly making us proud. What we need is an investment by the human resource development ministry to sanction smartphones to all teachers with compulsory use of an app to report their presence in the classroom. The app would record locational coordinates automatically. Additionally, other assigned teachers or principals will use the app to report on how school infrastructure and facilities—such as toilets, playgrounds, classrooms and mid-day meals—are functioning.
The inbuilt functionality of an app and the mobile to take images and capture locational coordinates can be used to track the proof of presence and can help in accountability and good governance, and at a fraction of the current cost of tracking these activities. Moreover, the app can be used by crowdsourcing the data. In fact, the Madhya Pradesh government has tried a similar experiment, and just last week, there was news that the Karnataka government has asked the state’s teachers to mark their presence on Facebook.
Panchayat app: India has 250,000 village councils and about 3 million elected members who are supposed to govern our villages across 28 subjects. But panchayats and their functionaries are the most non-functional and unaccountable lot we have. It has been observed that they all have mobile phones, mostly smartphones. We should have a mobile app for them that ensures the reporting of various meetings being held with locational coordinates and photos, and for reporting on the status of their responsibilities and tasks. Moreover, the app could be used to provide all the entitlements that panchayat members could provide villagers. And, for citizens, this app could be used to push and track their grievances.
App for FLHWs: We have about 2 million FLHWs who are all located at a village level and they are all women. Besides the fact that healthcare is an important issue and we are constantly reminded that the child and maternal mortality rates in several Indian states are even worse than those of sub-Saharan countries, we have not been able to find ways to ensure that our public health centres, including aanganwadis, are functional and doctors and health workers are present as scheduled and assigned.
While many states are experimenting on how to use various digital applications to capture the health data through FLHWs, there has been no universal solution on offer so far.
This could be solved by developing an app for FLHWs. It could have rich, media-enabled content that guides and helps the FLHWs execute their work better. Secondly, a dynamic location-tracking feature could help the FLHWs capture data pertaining to their tasks and assignments. The app could be used in three ways—capture data that can be fed into national-, state-, district- and even block-level management information system; as a grievance redressal for the FLHWs to push information, feedback, comments, queries and complaints to their line of reporting; as a learning and teaching tool for the FLHWs to the women and children whom they serve.
The other peripheral outcome of providing cell phones and a customized app to the FLHWs is that they would be completely digitally literate. The round-the-clock connectivity will provide several other activities to conduct like access to any information related to entitlements for the citizens of her area. In fact, the provision of smartphone, which must be provided to each FLHW by the respective state government, could transform these 2 million women into health entrepreneurs.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is the co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India.