Written by Jayesh Ranjan
On the foundation day of 20th year of Digital Empowerment Foundation, Principal Secretary of the Industries & Commerce (I&C) and Information Technology (IT) Departments, Government of Telangana delivered an intimate lecture sharing the digital journey of Telangana and how DEF’s journey makes so much sense.
What is the government’s perspective on digitization? I am sure all of you are aware that our national government has launched a flagship program called “Digital India”. This was done 6 and a half years ago. Earlier to this, Telangana had a complex framework of the similar kind called “Digital Telangana”. When the national government launched Digital India, we realized how audacious we were with Digital Telangana. Looking back on Digital Telangana, I want to recollect the changes done in the framework, how we decided to change goal posts. I hope that in the end you find some value in what we do, would like to join hands, contribute, or move towards any other collaboration.
So, Digital Telangana rests on two pillars.
First pillar is that we create digital infrastructure. I will quickly explain how we plan to create digital infrastructure and then move on to the other pillar around demand to use the infrastructure. So, this is the simplest way of understanding the large project of Digital Telangana. In the process of supplying infrastructure, one of the things we are proud of is that in another three months or so, say by the first quarter of 2022, we will be the first state in the country to have announced and offered to connect every house with optic fiber and provide broadband. With the population of the state being around 8 and half million, regardless of whether the houses are situated in remote jungles or hill tops, we are ensuring that the optic fibers reach every corner. The reason that we are doing this so confidently is that we are working on another flagship program. As you may be aware, in Telangana, drinking water is provided to every house unlike many other states where people have to visit a place to collect water and wait near the handpost along with the added social and gender dimensions around it.
This was the first flagship program where a grid was formed that channeled water from Godavari and Krishna river to each home. But what had happened is that, to set up these pipelines, trenches of 1150 kilometer had to be dug out and found that along with water pipelines, we can also put cable ducts in the same trench. So, 50 to 60 percent of the cost incurred in providing broadband attributed to digging and covering back the trenches was saved. Using the already dug trenches, optical fiber ducts were placed and some contribution from the national government is also included here under Digital India which connects till the Panchayat and we were able to take it further ahead from there by saving our costs this way. We were planning to finish the project by 2023, but after noticing the push towards digitization, we have fast tracked the process and we are expecting it to be completed within the next 8 months or by the end of 2022.
The other way that we are creating infrastructure is through telecoms. As we are all aware, the 4G and anticipated 5G plans are rolling out. But the challenges these telecom companies face in taking that 4G to remote locations are plenty. They have problems of approval for last mile connectivity like disrupting national transport. But the Telangana government has made the system very user friendly for these telecom companies. As a result, I would like to share that, if not for the delays due to Covid lockdown, Telangana would have been the first state to have 100% Jio connectivity which is the most aggressive telcos at the moment. Other two major telecoms have also contributed in connecting significant geographies of Telangana.
The third way of providing digital infrastructure is through WiFi. In our city of Hyderabad, for instance, we have identified 3,000 locations like railways stations, bus stops, schools, shopping malls etc. where WiFi hotspots are created. People can connect to the internet using these hotspots and we are now doing this in Warangal, Nizamabad, to start with.
As I mentioned earlier that every household is going to be connected which no other state has done and is a humongous task in itself, but our experience is, you might all agree with me, that even if broadband connects them, there are hundreds and thousands of people to whom it means nothing. It isn’t like before I went to sleep I had no connection and on waking up I would jump out of joy on being able to access the internet and buy a laptop or smartphone.
There are hundreds of people who wouldn’t understand what broadband means and many others whose priorities are very different from these interventions and they will not be able to invest in devices. So, we need to work on means to provide equal opportunities to everyone. So, in every Panchayat and other villages, we have planned to set up a Digital Telangana Center. These will be assisting people to access the infrastructure. They might not have laptops at their homes, but they will have kiosks that will help them and each center will have a woman entrepreneur assisting at the center which is again another interesting issue.
Because, we see that in rural areas, women did not attend higher education. At the most, they would finish 7th or 10th grade. But our experience shows that even if they don’t have higher qualifications, it is very easy to train them and we have more than 1,000 digital centers up and running and as more and more villages get connected we will have more Digital Telangana centers. The hardware is provided by the government, the entrepreneur is getting trained by the government with a small stream of revenue provided for the entrepreneur so that if some service is delivered for a person in the center, a small fee can be charged which serves as a financial incentive to run these centers where financial, banking, insurance services etc will be accessed.
These are the four pillars on which we are trying to set the supply chain of Digital Telangana; a door to door broadband connection, expanding 4G telecom services, ensuring public spaces to have wifi hotspots and ultimately creating this network of digital kiosks to run Digital Telangana assisted services. But more importantly, how do we create the demand? As for many people, the internet may not mean anything which is the truth. As we are connecting rural villages, we see this perspective that internet based activities are meant for the elite, urban population, english speaking communities or well educated communities. So the experience has been that the rural population thinks that only the educated or those familiar with English language can use internet services. But on the positive side, the counter experience is that if the most commoner is exposed to the use of technologies for their most pressing problems through demonstrations, they buy the idea instantly.
In fact, I would like to rephrase that it is not just the poor people who face problems. Everyone faces problems on a day to day basis. But in the villages, the impact of the problem is much higher. The capacity for a problem to sustain for a very long time is also very low. So, what we have tried is, if we show to the people that here is the technology and if you apply this to a situation, these are the benefits you get and it is so easy to do it. For instance, most of the people are dependent on farming and as you might be aware, more intuitively than practically, that there are more inefficiencies in farming. The time it takes to procure seeds, sow them, etc and the nature of the challenge is different for different farmers (small and big scale farmers). Like a Zamindaar is in a much better position to negotiate through these problems compared to a small farmer. So, we have curated a bunch of 80 technologies for different steps of agriculture and most of them are tailored to the specifications of small farmers. The extension mechanism, for instance, when a farmer cannot manage to till his own land on time, but is busy tilling someone else’s land, they can find a way in which 10 such farmers can aggregate their demands, get a customized order and do it online at the best price possible. The technologies help in finding the best ways to aggregate their produce and find the best price and buyer online. Successive governments in Delhi are talking about doubling farmer’s income. The UPA government had mentioned earlier that they will double the farmer’s income. But we are nowhere close to it and my personal belief and in general the view is that technology can be one solution in providing answers to some of the deficiencies at this agriculture framework which also involves increasing the income of the farmer by allowing more control at the farmer level than middlemen taking away most of it.
There are other livelihoods where these technologies are going to help. There are many such examples and a Hyderabad centric example is that during Covid, we had a national lockdown during the first phase starting from March 20th, 2020. After a few days, we realized that we really can’t cut off people from civic supplies and e-commerce services like Flipkart, BigBasket were permitted. But in Hyderabad, we also have thousands of small stores called “kirana stores” and many of them have been hereditary as their fathers or grandfathers have been running the stores. The neighborhood has a connection with the store. The store owner might have seen you grow as a child, so there was an affinity towards the community. During the lockdown, these had to be closed and many mentioned that everything is okay as Ecommerce is available but they couldn’t support the local stores who have had family bonds and affinity. So, we did something very interesting. We engaged a technology provider called Global Linker who offered to digitize 1,000 kirana stores to start with. So, 1,000 kirana stores are digitized with the items and inventory mentioned on the website, updating the content along with payment ways, online shopping and ordering facilities. Normally we associate the kirana store owners to be not so well educated or tech savvy, although many are very well educated and aware of recent technologies,but it was surprised to see that given the necessity, during the lockdown, 1,000 store owners could continue their service to their community online within a matter of 3-4 days. If the intent is there and an active means of engagement created, like with the example of kirana store owners, the mediation was done through a confederation called CAIT (Confederation of All India Traders). The confederation also came out to understand the technology and so on and so forth. Experience shows that if there is a strong connection, people will respond and for the last 5 years that I said, under Digital Telangana, we are also creating digital literacy and most importantly, convincing people that technology will work for you and help you solve common problems. If we fail to do that and if the focus is just to create the infrastructure, it will be suboptimally used. We talk about the digital divide every so often and this would just get exacerbated if we do not consider the fact that many people require assistance in using technology and some hand holding. So, a receiving mechanism should be there to take care of them.
The last point is that our country still doesn’t have a cent percent regular literacy rate either. Although the literacy rate is increasing, there is a 20 odd percent who do not know how to read and write. So, when we established digital literacy, we made sure to make at least one person in the family digitally literate. But we have encountered in some homes that no one was conventionally literate. Through experience we are also aware that conventional literacy is not essential to pick up digital literacy. People can be taught digital literacy and in the process pick up conventional literacy. When we set digital literacy programs, we set our standards very well. You would be surprised to know, as I have been part of government programs for decades, working on conventional literacy, usually the standards of those programs are low in a sense that if you know how to spell, read and write your name, you can call yourself a literate and you will be given a certificate. For example, my name is Jayesh and I come from a Hindi speaking background. So, if I know the ‘ja’, ‘ya’ and ‘sh’ alphabets, I can call myself literate. For digital literacy, our goal posts are quite high and what we have decided is that in order to be called digitally literate, you should be able to send and receive mail through an email Id. We follow a saturation model. Our volunteers go village after village spending some time teaching followed by a team visiting to conduct some quality auditing to check if those who claim to become literates are actually turning out to be. We spend crores of rupees on these programs and if it is not optimally utilized or used mainly by better-off people, then we would be adding on to the widening of the digital divide which is something that we are very conscious of. Altogether, in the last 18 months or so, we have established that we have to fast track the setting up of digital infrastructure which we are doing and by August we are hoping to cover the entire state. We are also focusing on finding solutions to the common problems on which common citizens waste a lot of time and effort trying to figure out what is working and what isn’t. For example, a person might neglect his ailments as he can’t afford to go to the hospital at the cost of missing out on his livelihood opportunities and in turn leads to more complications. Instead, a better way of capturing these minor ailments using technology would mean that he doesn’t have to waste his time and his entire day waiting for a bus, not knowing which doctor is going to see him and end up getting half the treatment. These are very commonplace things. We may not imagine that these things happen but these things are very much found. Technology has answers to everything so that people don’t have to waste their time on common and basic problems.
I would like you all to know that all these solutions that we are onboarding, many of them are being created by young entrepreneurs, start ups and some from IT companies too. This is our vision to create a mechanism that shows the people these solutions flow by creating the infrastructure and handhold them to see that digital solutions have value and create that confidence. I am also very appreciative of all the work DEF has done so far and I am pleasantly surprised to see that it is a 20 year old organization. I have been part of some webinars where experts from DEF have spoken and it is nice to see their nuanced and practical views on digital interventions. Congratulations and let’s hope that we find more ways of collaborating.