Change is the name of the game! The World is changing, India is changing, rural India is changing even at a faster pace and the rate of acceleration of this change is palpable and tangible. Only the degree to which the changing diversity is making an impact is a subject of data analytics. Government, through its multi-layered rural development schemes, has set the foundation for long term change and growth for rural India. Since the last two decades, rural demographics are undergoing rapid change, as is the breadth of mobile communication; internet connectivity; increasing education & awareness; the spread of healthcare and banking services; improving infrastructure, better roads & electricity; the availability and accessibility of a vast and growing range of products & services; the emergence of e-commerce and retail business; and the development of over 500 small towns into hubs of commerce.
If you were a traveller to rural India in the sixties and the seventies, and travel in the present, you can see and feel a complete metamorphosis, a huge change, in the scene you behold. The metalled roads, the maze of retail shops, stocking just about anything – from International brands to duplicate and spurious products, the milieu of cars and two wheelers on the road, the crowds of young boys and girls, reflecting current fashions and trends, each one glued to the screen of their smartphones – at what once was called by many “India – the bowl of poverty”, and is today a country with a 1.1 billion population (12 percent of world population), with a GDP of 6.2 percent CAGR and slated to reach spending of $ 100 billion in FMCG by 2025, expanding at CAGR of 13.2 percent during 2009-15 (Accenture Report). And this change has happened, when the focus and spending on rural development, both by Government and industry, was not as huge in the past as it is today. Just imagine then, the impending roar of the tiger, round the bend, which is bound to engulf the country in throes of economic multipliers!
What can provide an impetus to the many initiatives that are driving rural markets? What stimulus will accelerate the rate of change? The big stuff is happening, can small, unified bits and pieces help and catalyze this change in rural India? We charter Seven thoughts in this direction.
1) Upgrading product quality
Our first thought centres around the word ‘quality’. We, as a people, have forgotten to demand quality from the products that we buy, from the services that we receive and from the information that is thrust upon us. More so in rural India, where acute price sensitivity, always determines the value propositions albeit at the risk of downgrading quality. The farmer depends on rain Gods, who have failed to oblige him for last two years; he depends on the dealers, who sink him with credit for his requirement of agro-inputs, machinery and implements. He depends on his village leadership for a share of the spoils dished out by the Government schemes. Everyone is interested to lure him, illiterate that he is into buying substandard products.
Obviously, Indian agriculture suffers from poor crop yields and decreasing farm incomes. Few big and progressive farmers manage better, but only because they have the cash. So haats and melas, and the shanties stock and sell all kind of poor quality products, some of which actually may be harmful and unhealthy for consumers. The roads are poorly metalled, the power lines are dangerously laid, the local self-government functionaries are sharks in the village, the small towns have no development plan, the education imparted by schools and colleges merely skim the surface, the youth have no sense of identity and commitment, everyone wants to make a fast buck, quality, ethics and integrity be damned!
2) Teaching English
The second thought that can be put across is ‘English’. If a survey is done across the country among the rural youth, as to their most burning desire – it is to learn how to read, write and speak English! There is little doubt that knowing English makes life easy, helps to communicate across borders, assists in employability and opens up opportunities galore. Thus, programmes to intensify e-learning and in class learning of English will help immensely in empowering rural youth to face challenges of modern life. Public and Private Partnerships are the way to go.
3) Creating more employment
The third suggestion we have is to focus on creating more employment in the agribusiness space. The farmers of the older generation are giving way to youth. Technologies are changing the way we till, sow, manage and harvest crops. Major corporates including MNCs are actively engaged in agriculture sector. MNREGA benefits have displaced landless labour from being employed in farms. Agricultural productivity in cotton, paddy, wheat, etc is poor compared to international yields. Farm income is on decline. The mouths to feed are increasing by the day.
Agribusiness, modern cropping methods, crop rotation, use of quality inputs and post storage solutions offer effective business propositions to rural youth to learn and find gainful employment. Warehousing, cold chains, logistics, last mile delivery, National Agricultural Markets, farm to retail contract farming and many other initiatives can embrace local youth by creating employment. Rural BPO’s, cyber cafes, rural health care centres, banking representatives, courier services, catering and eateries – all form a hub in small towns that cater to nearby village clusters and offer opportunities to work.
4) Hygiene matters!
The fourth idea for making significant impact in rural India is hygiene. Villages and very small towns sadly lack basic hygiene amenities, such as toilets, sanitation facilities, drinking water, animal shelters, public conveniences at bus stands, rail stations and in bazaars. NGOs and SHGs together with Government in PP partnership are making efforts to install toilets and amenities, but much remains to be done. Swachh Bharat Campaign is helping to some extent, but may only have political overtones. Schools and colleges need to take up the responsibility in creating awareness about personal and public hygiene. HUL and other Corporates have taken many initiatives but these are drops in an ocean. Scaling up civic sense through media, local self-governments and all stakeholders is the key.
5) Digital learning
The fifth recommendation that could be considered is e-learning through increased digital skill building initiatives. The National Telecom Policy 2012 has set a target to achieve 175 million broadband connections by 2017 and 600 million by 2020 at minimum 2Mbps download speed and making available at least 100 Mbps on demand. Optic Fibre network is being rolled out to connect 2.5 lakh gram panchayats with high speed broadband by 2018. Software in local languages for mass communication and apps for local applications are on the anvil. India is already the world’s second largest smartphone market with approximately 220 million devices and 400 million internet users. The mobile phone is the vehicle for e-learning initiatives. Building skills of rural youth trough multimedia and vocational digital training are the need of the hour. Skills in crop management, machining, carpentry, painting, IT, basic financial and insurance product skills, masonic skills and other soft skills – can further help rural youth finding gainful self-employment opportunities and establishing start-ups in agro-businesses and other fields.
Formal education supported by job oriented skill development needs continuous impetus to cover the breadth of the country including tribal areas and regions dominated by backward classes. Crafts and rural tourism, handlooms, sports goods, footwear and apparel, bakeries and food, auto ancillary and localized transport – all offer scope for entrepreneurship to rural youth. The digitalization of retail payments front-end through mobile money has expanded financial services to rural folk. Content in local languages is available to 150 million users and growing 50 percent annually. 3G and 4G connectivity at cheap access rates will be a catalyst. New rural business models can emerge such as books in local languages through apps.
6) Women empowerment
The sixth thought is to increase women empowerment! Various Government schemes are aimed in this direction. HUL spearheaded women ‘Shaktiammas’, through ‘Shakti and E-Shakti’. Over 3 lakh villages are being touched by such projects. But women need to do more, they need education, skills, and an equal place in rural society itself a tall order in our caste ridden landscape. But the elders in the villages are reconciled to women going to schools, colleges and earning a livelihood. The scope of such social sanctions needs to be widened by all stakeholders. Banking and Insurance services, BPOs, IT hubs, travel, entertainment, retail and merchandising, teaching, healthcare, etc offer vast opportunity to women for employment. Women will be the drivers of tomorrow’s India, and every small & big effort to support women empowerment will help in social and economic nation building mission.
7) Inclusive growth
And finally, the last and Seventh goal that we can put out, for championing change in rural India, is Inclusive Growth. Corporates must not only sell to rural India. They must not think of the hinterland as only a one sided money making opportunity. Indeed, they must develop business models that boost inclusive growth by creating skills, outsourcing products and services from rural youth and then selling back products to channel partners to enrich the lives of rural people.
Live examples already exist from industry, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Roping in rural talent and integrating it with urban Industrial practice will be a great impact potential variable that will improve the quality of life of the sub-served while creating wealth for all participants along the way. This is real possibility today with increasing digitalization and communication network that is embracing and connecting rural India with the world. Lead – Adapt – Commit – Persevere – these are the key words for fostering inclusion. Then, indeed, India will actually shine brightly and in perpetuity!
Author: Prof CK Sabharwal, MD, Crop Health Products