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First digital village

The Hindu, July 14, 2015

Samrat Chakrabarti

At Akodara, India’s first digital village

An hour outside Ahmedabad is a village where anganwadis have CCTVs and schools have audio-visual teaching aids. Can this working model of a Digital India really be replicated?

If you find yourself craving for biscuits in Akodara village, located a little over an hour away from Ahmedabad, in Sabarkantha district in Gujarat, walk past the village ATM and down to the little kirana shop opposite the CCTV-monitored anganwadi. Select your biscuit packet, but don’t reach for your wallet to pay for it. Instead, whip out your mobile phone to pay. Don’t worry, the grumpy old shopkeeper will give you instructions on how to do this; he is used to clueless city people! He will then look at you with mild suspicion until his mobile phone chimes and informs him in Gujarati that the amount has been transferred from your bank account to his. Congratulations. Your purchase is now complete. You may now sit in a cool spot under the big peepal tree and eat your biscuits while surfing Facebook using the village wifi.

A slice of Digital India

Welcome to Akodara, a fully digital village. If you wondered in January, during the high-profile launch of the Digital India initiative, what ‘digitising’ rural India meant or would really look like, little Akodara represents a slice of the vision. The village of 1,200 people has been adopted by ICICI Bank, helped by the local administration, so that it can be showcased as an example of the bank’s vision of the digital future that awaits India’s hinterland. From the merely cosmetic, like embellishing the archway at the village entrance with the ICICI logo, to the very practical improvement of providing access to modern banking to the villagers, the bankers at ICICI have gone all out to showcase their vision in Akodara. If some of the interventions, such as installing CCTV cameras in the village anganwadi and in schools, seem a bit gimmicky, many others are useful and potentially revolutionary when imagined on a large scale — across whole districts and regions in the country.

The first of such useful interventions is financial inclusion and access to modern banking. Almost every adult in Akodara now has a savings bank account with ICICI, which he or she can access through the local bank branch, or the village ATM, or through mobile phones via SMS. The villagers’ most important transactions — selling agri-produce at the local mandi or selling milk at the co-operative society — have been digitised and made cashless. The system has made them automatically less susceptible to corruption and fraud. Also, their accounts are linked to their Aadhar cards, which means that government benefits are now transferred directly into their savings accounts. For the widows of Akodara, who had to earlier spend Rs. 70 to travel to the district headquarters to receive their monthly pension of Rs. 800, this direct transfer and easy access to their accounts makes for real and significant savings.

The second advantage is in the area of education. “Earlier, teaching used to be between just the teacher and the student. Now we have a digital aid,” says Pranav Upadhyay, 32, high-school teacher in Akodara, before beginning his lecture on nanotechnology for Class 10 students. “Earlier when I used to talk about the universe to the students, it was just talk. Now they see it animated on the screen and it gets them interested and more engaged.” The digital aid that Mr. Upadhyay is referring to is an audio-visual device that integrates a projector and a computer. This brings to life lessons in science, chiefly through animation. In primary school, children use electronic tablets gifted by ICICI to learn Gujarati. Also, across all schools, a digital attendance system is being implemented that will inform parents, via SMS, whether their children have shown up at school or not. Apart from its practicality, this is also an important safety initiative.

A market for banks

Of course, Akodara is only a model village — an artificial model of rural India crossing the digital frontier rather than being an organic part of a real, larger digital ecology. But to understand its significance, one has to imagine it as a grand vision, replicated in thousands of villages across the country.

With a nearly saturated urban market and intense competition over a reducing pie, rural India is where the future of banks lies. And the key for this growth is technology, as it is only through mobile phones, the Internet, and tablet banking that banks can keep costs down and open up rural consumption. Akodara’s real symbolic appeal for Indian corporate entities lies in something beyond what ICICI has done. Hiteshbhai Patel, a resident in the village says, “Young men in our village regularly buy things from Flipkart and Snapdeal. It has become common for them to buy phones and shoes and clothes online. They don’t worry about getting a bad product because they know that they can return the goods if there is a problem.”

But before celebrations begin for the Digital India initiative, it is important to remember why ICICI chose Akodara. Before the village got digital connectivity, it already had physical connectivity. Flipkart products come to Akodara on a highway that connects the village to all the urban centres around it. The village had a high literacy rate long before it got digital, and its habitat and livelihood opportunities predate the computers. In other words, a digital future is possible only if other socio-economic indicators are good and the basic needs of the village are already met. A digital future can only be built on top of a physical one. This means that all the old issues still need to be confronted first.

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