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View from India: Tangible and intangible benefits of technology

Technology needs to percolate into every sector in order to achieve a digital economy. The Union Budget 2019-2020 distils the essence of this vision by announcing technology interventions across various verticals

Ever since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister for the first time in 2014, we have had several digital initiatives at the national level. Services have been digitised and many are available on the mobile in the form of apps.

To think of it, is there a further need for technology interventions? The answer is yes. Probing further, this Budget includes plans to bring non-tech people into the mainstream through technology intervention. By doing so, those without formal education will become digitally literate. The digital divide will be narrowed down.

Sectors that are not usually associated with technology will come into the gamut of technology. Thereby informal sectors will be formalised through technology.

For instance, bamboo and honey growers are a breed by themselves. They are far removed from happening buzzwords like big data and algorithms. Most consumers buy their end products without even thinking of the source. 

So, tech solutions for bamboo and honey growers may seem far-fetched, but the Budget has brought the two together. Under the Scheme of Fund for Upgradation and Regeneration of Traditional Industries' (SFURTI) Common Facility Centres (CFCs) are being set up to facilitate cluster-based development across traditional sectors. Some of the examples include bamboo, honey and village-cottage industries such as khadi (handspun, hand-woven natural fibre cloth), which are expected to be more productive, profitable and capable of generating sustained employment opportunities.

In order to improve the technology of such industries, the Scheme for Promotion of Innovation, Rural Industry and Entrepreneurship' (ASPIRE) has been consolidated for setting up of Livelihood Business Incubators (LBIs) and Technology Business Incubators (TBIs). Under this Scheme, 80 LBIs and 20 TBIs will come up in 2019-20 to develop 75,000 skilled entrepreneurs in agro-rural industry sectors.

A move in this direction means that entrepreneurial ideas can be put to use for better income and employment opportunities. It’s going to be disruptive.

Self-sufficient and self-reliant are ideals that will percolate into the villages. The Budget proposes to scale up the cities and villages by leveraging technology, for example by helping to strengthen infrastructure. With better infrastructure, rural regions will be more habitable and people will stop migrating to cities.

Moving beyond traditional sectors, one of the more obvious interventions of technology is in the field of education. Appropriately, tech integrations have been announced through educational initiatives. A New National Education Policy will soon be enforced. Its aim is to transform India's higher education system to one of the global best. Key takeaways include better governance systems and a sharper focus on research and innovation. Technology will be the enabler to fulfil this dream.

The SWAYAM initiative, already operational, is the massive online open course (MOOC) to bridge the digital divide for disadvantaged sections of the student community. The short form for Study Webs of Active–Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, SWAYAM offers an integrated platform for online courses on higher education and skill sets. Information, communication and technology (ICT) which includes e-learning and virtual labs is the channel through which courses are imparted.   

What is interesting is that India is among the handful of countries that has its own online interactive learning platform. Along with e-learning, those who enrol for the course will also give a chance to participate in quizzes.   

SWAYAM has been developed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras with the help of Google Inc. and Persistent Systems Ltd.

At another level, Budget 2019-2020 has allocated a sum of Rs 400 crore under the World Class Institutions category for FY 2019-20. This money will be used to position India as a hub of higher education, in a similar way to the Make in India programme for manufacturing. As of now, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and two of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) have made it to the top 200 institutions globally. This means that there will be greater need to upgrade the science and technology institutes in the country. Global collaborations will facilitate research and innovation.

On the one hand, technology will help India compete with other nations globally. On the other, technology will help improve the lives of the rural population. Technology interface will help narrow the gap between rural and urban citizens. Though it is a challenge, it will also unfold opportunities. Digitisation has a ripple effect. The tangible benefits can be understood as business opportunities in small scale and informal manufacturing and services. Less human fatigue, savings in cost and time are some of the intangible benefits of technology.

 

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