More than 90% of the India’s total workforce is dependent on the informal sectors, like agriculture, small, micro and household enterprises etc for their employment and incomes. While the majority of this population is employed in agriculture, the non-farm sector comprising mostly artisans form the second largest livelihood group in rural India. This sector is primarily a home based cottage industry, operating in product specific clusters and the workforce includes the members of the family and the use of existing indigenous skills which are passed from generation to generation. Largely unorganized and fragmented in character they often originate and exist in areas where unemployment and under-employment are widespread.
Many such occupations are the sole domain of the women in the household helping them to achieve social and financial independence without having to leave their homes. Several factors constrain the preservation and promotion of these traditional livelihood streams the biggest among them being their inability to understand and link with markets. Being fragmented, unorganized and often isolated, these artisans are unable to connect and leverage mainstream markets.
Rural Indian society can be regarded as truly collectivist with all lives intertwined. Dr Kabita Kumari Sahu (2012) says that “a rural entrepreneur is someone who is prepared to stay in the rural area and contribute to the creation of local wealth. To such degree, the economic goals of an entrepreneur and the social goals of rural development are more strongly interlinked than in urban areas. For this reason entrepreneurship in rural areas is usually community based, has strong extended family linkages and a relatively large impact on rural communities”.
This fact has been amply demonstrated by several NGOs and civil society organizations who since the early seventies have been organizing rural women into cooperatives/collectives, helping them build skills and capacities, providing them much needed credit and taking their products beyond the local markets.
Role of technology
Across the world Information Technology (IT) has come to be recognized as a powerful enabler for advancing economic and social development through the creation of new types of economic activity, employment opportunities and the enhancement of networking and participation and a potent force in reducing marginalization. Michael L. Best and Sylvia G. Maier (2007) observed that “ICTs have been identified as one of the most effective tools to bring about gender and economic development almost simultaneously” thus espousing the role ICTs can play in the social and economic inclusion of rural women.
In reality, however, this great promise IT holds for growth and development has remained far out of the reach of most rural women and the advantages it has so far bestowed on the urban Indian woman have not been seen by her rural sister on the other side of the digital divide. Using and benefiting from IT requires education, training, affordable access to the technology, information relevant to the user and the building of an enabling environment most of which the rural women still do not have. Existence in a fast evolving knowledge driven universe has caught most rural women “offline” and the rapid control that IT deployment in an increasingly market driven economy is exercising in their lives is only exacerbating this information darkness and causing further marginalization.
With respect to mobile technology, however, the story has been remarkably different with high levels of acceptance across society at large. With newer, smarter technologies converging IT with communications (C ) and voice, video and web becoming available on personal phones, one sees the possibility of ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) overcoming the deficiencies inherent in conventional IT and consequently its acceptance and use by rural women. Mobile applications on such smart phones have gone a step further in fashioning this technology for specific use by this group. Applications can be developed so that they can address a specific purpose, with a pertinent user interface and with local vernacular content thus making them technologically easier to navigate and operate compared to traditional internet sites. While IT requires these women to adapt to the technology, mobile applications can be adapted to effectively address the unique socio-cultural, political and economic needs/sensitivities of this constituency making it a potential game changer vis-à-vis the empowerment of rural women.
Is Adoption happening?
This ongoing research study of rural women entrepreneurs and their collectives was designed to study the adoption of ICT by individual entrepreneurs and the collectives as a whole and the factors that influence such adoption and the constraints that keep ICT from becoming a livelihood enabler for these women.
The study has so far found that ICT in its many avatars from the now ubiquitous mobile voice telephony to the more sophisticated mobile a apps and social media platforms rendering ICT a General Purpose Technology like electricity with the potential to drastically change society through its impact on existing economic and social structures. In creating addressability for these women, it has proved to be both a social leveller and an economic enabler. With newer smarter handsets making the full ICT spectrum available, accessible, affordable, applicable and hence acceptable and advantageous for these women entrepreneurs, they are in a position leap frog making traditional IT passé and mobile applications the new game changer vis-à-vis women’s digital inclusion and empowerment. It is, therefore, no wonder that the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says that by 2020 50% of India’s internet users will be rural & 40% will be women. Internet penetration in urban India was 64.84% in December 2017 as compared to 60.6% last December. In comparison, rural internet penetration has grown from 18% last December to 20.26% in December 2017″, says Internet and Mobile Association of India.
Rural women have been quick to realize the power of ICT and the benefits it can bring them. So despite the usual constraints of frequent power cuts, poor signal strengths, costs associated with handsets and connectivity, language and literacy issues and lack of training, women have taken to using ICT especially social media wherever and however they can. They have come to recognize that ICT saves them time, effort, travel and energy. Whether under peer pressure or influenced by their children, they are happy to be part of the new digital economy and being able to access wider markets without leaving the security of their home villages or flouting socio-cultural norms.
While ICT has piqued the curiosity of the rural citizen and more particularly rural women, their demand for service is far from being met. Even with private service providers, the coverage is still woefully inadequate in the interiors leaving even vanilla mobile voice telephony a distant dream for many villagers. The Government’s efforts to extend Broadband access to 2.5 lakh gram panchayats is behind schedule and its efficacy and effectiveness will further be tested when service roll out begins. Even so Bharat Net covers only the middle mile and the onus for delivering last mile access it is hoped will be taken up by private players. With sparse populations in many of the these remote locations, the concept of market driven demand ever becoming enticing enough for private players to invest seems incongruous thus leaving broad band access no more than a pipe dream for rural India. In an increasingly e/m driven economy, such “digital darkness” in large pockets of rural India will only add to the steady flood of migrants into our cities.
There are several steps that policy makers and local governments can take to address this deficiency:
- Technology solutions within the larger community wireless space can be considered for the digital inclusion of these remote entrepreneurs and the communities they live in. The use of unlicensed spectrum for such solutions would improve the affordability
- The role that civil society organizations can play in building absorptive capacity vis-a-vis broadband has not been fully explored. There are examples of NGOs in remote rural areas who have invested in generating solar power and when sold back to the grid the power becomes available not only o the members associated with them and to the larger community in their area of operation. A similar model can be looked at for broadband deployment, maintenance and utilization by such NGOs.
- A bouquet of basic ICT based services should be made obligatory for every village. Here again if private players are uninterested, the support of local NGOs can be enlisted by the government in building the necessary convergence between the many stake holders in the geography in order to optimize bandwidth demand and utilization
- The appropriateness of the solution and the technology especially that of the hand sets is important for user acceptance. In some states like Jharkhand the government has started giving smart phones to the heads of SHGs and providing them some level of training for its use and this has been a welcome move.
- While most of the women’s collectives are keen to deploy such ICT solutions for use by their members and perhaps by the larger communities as well, the paucity of funds is proving to be a major issue. Making fund available for ICT deployments through banks, foundations and CSR initiatives would need to be encouraged
Thus, even after many decades of the “IT boom” in India, its applicability for and in rural India is still in doubt and its acceptance and use will continue to remain marginal unless pertinent extensions and dissemination strategies are planned with the intervention. It is hoped that this study will shed light on the actions necessary to promote and encourage ICT adoption and usage by rural women entrepreneurs as a livelihood enabler.
In the words of Klaus Schwab, the founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum said – “Only those economies, which have full access to all their talent, will remain competitive and will prosper”. Achieving gender equality through digital inclusion, therefore, is perhaps an imperative for national growth.