Computerizing land records may not seem like much of an achievement; most developed countries did it years ago. But in rural India, where the majority of people are semi-literate and live in remote communities unconnected by road or phone, it’s almost a revolution.

“With equal access to information, a lower-caste person now has the same privileges as an upper-caste person,” says Rajiv Chawla, who oversaw the $3.7 million program, called Bhoomi — which means “land” in both Hindi and Kannada. In Karnataka alone, for instance, deed fraud once cost poor farmers $20 million a year; today, the problem has been virtually wiped out, according to the World Bank. With all the information digitized, land reform — which had slowed because limited access to records made it hard to prove ownership — could now be restarted. And the data can be mined for commercial information: A tractor maker, aiming to better target its marketing efforts, recently asked for the names of communities where most farms are larger than four hectares. Soon, says Chawla, the government will begin charging for that sort of information. Even now, though, the Bhoomi program earns $2.6 million a year from the 30 cents fees.



Such initiatives add up to a digital turning point for India. For the past decade, the country’s high-tech sector has boomed, with outsourcing companies and software shops popping up like mushrooms in tech capitals such as Bangalore and Hyderabad. But that growth has largely left India’s 700 million impoverished villagers, slum dwellers, and tenant farmers just as poor as their forefathers were for centuries. Jobs are scarce, cash is scarcer, and simply getting water is an immense daily challenge. This huge gulf between India’s thriving elite and its vast hinterland is one reason the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party lost the general election this spring. The victorious Congress Party has pledged to deliver prosperity to the masses — a stupendously difficult task in India. Although the BJP planned to shell out $3 billion over the next three years to computerize government services across the nation, it will now fall to Congress to implement the plan and see that it improves the lives of ordinary Indians. “The government’s challenge is to leverage India’s technological and manpower potential to solve our problems of poverty and actually deliver services to the masses,” says R. Chandrashekar, who oversees e-governance programs at India’s Information Technology Ministry.



In the fight against poverty, the policymakers of Congress may find natural allies among the more altruistic of India’s digital generation. Even before the BJP lost the election, many of the educated elite responsible for the success of India’s tech and software houses — or who have helped U.S. multinationals prosper — decided to turn their energies to helping India’s poor. Nasscom, the trade group for India’s software houses, estimates that there are hundreds of such programs across India, many of them private initiatives, connected by a common theme: to find cheap, digital solutions to the problems pressing on the poor. They range from a “smart chip” payment card for the working poor to a diagnostic kit for isolated health clinics to a successful e-commerce initiative that lets farmers buy supplies and get market information online. “it can act as a bridge between the rapidly growing new India and the lagging old India,” says Nasscom President Kiran Karnik. “We have to figure a way to take these sparks and turn them into a prairie fire.”



More here.

0