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Monday, July 16, 2018

Despatches from a perfect, digital rural Indian village

What if we were a cashless economy, a digitised polity with everyone owning a smartphone and, more importantly, knowing how to use it.

Written by Radhika Iyengar | New Delhi | Updated: November 30, 2016 12:26:54 pm
A villager talks on his mobile phone at village Lank in Shamli (UP). *** Local Caption *** A villager talks on his mobile phone at village Lank in Shamli (UP). Express photo by RAVI KANOJIA. Uttar Pradesh Dec 15th-2010 What would a digital village in the post-demonetisation India look like? Express Photo/File/Ravi Kanojia

What if we were in a perfect India, a perfect rural India to be precise. A cashless economy, a digitised polity with everyone owning a smartphone and, more importantly, knowing how to use it. Let’s just imagine one such perfect, but unreal, village somewhere in western India in the not so distant post-demonetisation future.

It’s two in the afternoon and the sun looms overhead. We walk along a kaccha road flanked by thatched huts huddled together. The air is static, dry, unnatural. In a distance, children play cricket. This village, like the rest of rural India, has WiFi access all over. Everyone has smartphones too, thanks to the state-drive free distribution effort to tide over the painful cash crunch.

Ram Lal Manohar is a 40-year-old farmer whose livelihood was hit when he was was unable to buy seeds during the initial few months of demonetisation. Now things have changed. “The other day, my father was walking with my wife in the afternoon. It was terribly hot. Suddenly, my father fainted. Under usual circumstances, my wife would have panicked, but she immediately reached out for her phone and signed in on the radio taxi app. Within five minutes, she got the nearest bullock-cart available that was ready to take them to a doctor nearby. The service is great. She paid using an e-wallet.”

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The sun is about to set and Manohar introduces us to his neighbour Tulsi Munde, who is ecstatic that his village is now digitally sophisticated. We enter his hut, a small nine by nine feet room. In a corner is a wooden bed with a broken leg. An exposed bulb that hangs from the ceiling provides light to the entire room. Under it sits Munde’s eight-year-old daughter who quietly does her homework.

Munde feels his village is one-step closer to being at par with the modern cities in India. “We knew our world is going to change when we had the Prime Minister visit our village in 2014 during the elections. Did you know it was a computer image? He wasn’t really there! I remember getting up after his speech and going to the podium to see whether he had really been there, but he hadn’t. Right then, I knew that India is going to be totally modern. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”

Right then the lights go out. Munde’s daughter sighs and closes her book. “Hopefully, we’ll have proper electricity at our home too one day,” Munde says. “Half of the time we can’t charge our smartphones… without electricity, these phones are useless dabbas (empty boxes).”

We also spoke to an elderly man, Permanand Upadhyay, a 70-year-old farmer who lives with his widowed daughter-in-law. In the initial days of demonetisation, Upadhyay’s 50-year-old son was refused treatment because the family didn’t have new notes. Now, his daughter-in-law uses a smartphone. She can’t read though. “She’s still learning,” Upadhyay says. “This new technology is beyond me, so I can’t help her.”

However, Upadhyay is thankful of whoever taught her to download the e-wallet app which village stores are using for payments. She was even taught how to put in money in her e-wallet. “She had put Rs 200 in the phone. Now, we can’t see the money and we need to work more to recharge it,” he adds, ignorant that whoever helped put in the money also spent it on something of his choice.

E-pickpocketing of this kind is rampant in the village as a lot of people have helped others create accounts and know their passwords and other details. The digital police is seized of the matter. But then the village is truly cashless and fully digital. They are a happy bunch too, as the Panchayat’s latest Facebook status shows.

This is a satire, please don’t take it seriously.

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