India’s digital drive is gradually boosting financial inclusion and empowering women across villages, says Upasana Taku
If recent projections by the Boston Consulting Group are anything to go by, then half of India’s internet users will be rural, 40 per cent of which will be women, by 2020.
The digital gender divide is a hard reality and bridging the gender gap in mobile ownership and digital literacy will help empower women across the country. Interestingly, cheaper and easier availability of mobile handsets, the spread of wireless data networks beyond towns and cities, and the evolving consumer behaviours and preferences will all drive rural penetration and usage. They will transform the way rural consumers, a sizeable chunk of which is women, interact with companies.
Appreciating the direct link between telecom penetration and rural uplift, the Centre has sought to augment financial inclusion, including that of women, via its Digital India mission. Financial inclusion received a big fillip with the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana(PMJDY) in 2014, triggering the opening of millions of zero-balance bank accounts in rural areas. Of the 310 million-plus PMJDY bank accounts opened till date, around 53 per cent belong to women.
Additionally, in tandem with the Centre's National Rural Livelihood Mission, more than 1,500 Banking Correspondents (BCs) were enrolled in the villages of 13 financially-strapped states, under the World Bank’s National Rural Livelihood Project. Since less than 10 per cent of the nation’s 6,50,000-plus villages have bank branches, a digitally-enabled channel is the best mode of promoting greater financial inclusion. Taking all these factors into consideration, female BCs in villages need to be lauded for overcoming their early, inherent fears of digital technology while gaining familiarity with the financial ecosystem. Significantly, female BCs are better placed for acting as role models and encouraging village women to open bank accounts.
Fortunately, the rise of internet penetration in villages has generated greater awareness about the benefits of mobile technology. Rural women owning mobile phones are not only connecting with relatives in various places but also using them to undertake financial transactions and managing bank accounts. Undoubtedly, the digital revolution has fostered a sense of confidence among rural women and is playing a huge role in empowering them. The number of women with access to the internet, mobile phones and manageable bank accounts has risen over the last few years, primarily because of the Modi government’s initiatives around Digital India and Women Empowerment. The tone has been set but there is still a long way to go.
Driving Digital Initiatives
To facilitate nationwide communications, the Centre’s Bharat Net project plans to provide broadband connectivity to all gram panchayats in India. Till February this year, more than 1,10,000 gram panchayats were provided optical fibre connectivity in the first phase. The remaining 1,50,000 gram panchayats will receive connectivity in phase two which is scheduled for completion by March 2019.
Furthermore, private entities are also active in advancing digital penetration.
Consider the Internet Saathi scheme, meant to empower rural women, including their communities, by enabling them to use the Internet and enjoy its benefits daily. Launched in partnership, by Google India and Tata Trusts, the scheme has covered more than 1,40,000 villages. A digital literacy initiative, it is seeking to plug the male-female, rural-urban divide even as it imparts information on milk processing, better farming means, entrepreneurship and so on. Apart from Internet usage training, the women are trained in acting as local agents offering services via digital devices. This includes acting as local distributors for selling mobiles, SIMs or data packs; even becoming agents for financial services and helping villagers in accessing government schemes and benefits through Internet-based devices.
Using the Internet has helped rural women entrepreneurs in eliminating middlemen and reaching customers directly. Numerous new and renowned e-commerce platforms are helping such women sell high-quality handmade products at robust prices, facilitating financial independence and augmenting their skills too.
Meanwhile, as broadband penetration grows across India, digital transactions are on the rise. But cash still continues to remain the main medium of transaction in villages. As more women become first-time bread winners in rural families, being part of the formal banking system is imperative to safeguard their earnings. During this process, the benefits of digital transactions versus cash gradually become apparent.
Yet, replacing the centuries-old tradition of cash dealings with digital deals requires the assurance of secure digital transactions. Therefore, rural digital infrastructure needs upgrading to support secure cashless transactions, thereby encouraging more people to transact on non-cash online platforms. Once these conditions are fulfilled, digital payments will emerge as the new game-changer in 2018, where intense competition between national and international players may emerge as the new norm.
Digital revolution can empower women and ensure increased financial independence and respect for women in the rural areas. A study on mobile phone ownership and usage by women in India, using 2004-2005 National Family Health Survey cross-sectional data, found that households where women had mobile phones reported lower tolerance for domestic violence and higher women’s autonomy in mobility and economic independence. It can in turn ensure more women participation in the workforce, thereby making a positive impact on the GDP of the country.
Indeed, the steady transition from fear to familiarity with digital transactions is already underway. This will carve the path for a new India that will emerge as a global superpower.
— The author is co-founder and director of a mobile phone-based payment system and digital wallet.