Rural folks need `Web' feet

Jeyessomnath C. Nagarajan

CHENNAI, March 13

THE IT revolution and the Internet have levelled the playing field, they say. Have they, really, in India? Maybe not.

Take the case of Ramabhadran (not his real name). He wears a frayed and faded yellow shirt, and an off-white dhoti, south Indian style. His hair is greasy and unkempt, with a week-old grey stubble on his face. Mild-mannered and pleasant, he speaks little English, but can understand the language.

He would seem out of place in a corporate gathering. To any average, educated city dweller, who is quite knowledgeable about how businesses are run, SEBI guidelines, market cap and earnings per share (EPS), Ramabhadran would easily fit the stereotype of a `villager'.

But guess what? He is a small investor. He was glued to his seat at an extraordinary general meeting of a city-based company. When the finance director read out the revenue projections for the current year, he knew his maths. While the other gentlemen in crisp white shirts and silk ties whipped out their calculators, Ramabhadran mentally figured out the EPS.

He symbolises the changing face of rural India.

Ramabhadran, who is in his late forties and is a shareholder in the company, had come all the way from Tiruvannamalai, a small town about 130 km away from Chennai, to attend the EGM. Back home, he works in a book-store run by the Ramana Maharishi Ashram.

He has his grievances. Not frivolous ones such as the poor quality of the coffee/sweets/gifts distributed outside the hall. He says, coming from a rural area, he does not have access to market information. Crucial investor information mailed by companies in which he has invested, sometimes gets lost in transit.

An official quickly points out that all the information pertaining to the company, including quarterly financials, and plans, are posted on its Web site.

But, says Ramabhadran: ``I don't even get financial dailies in the village where I live.'' Later, in a private conversation with this reporter, he ruefully asks, ``Where will I go to access the Web and how can I afford it?''

``The mainstream dailies, which are readily available, do not carry the market information I need,'' he adds.

Looks like the much-hyped information technology revolution in India is pathetically struggling to keep pace with the changing face of rural India. If at all there is a revolution, it seems to be confined to the major cities, denying the rural populace its benefits.

The fact is that there is a stampede among all Internet access providers, private and public, to garner a chunk of the affluent urban market. This is based on calculations such as 8,00,000 household PCs, five million telephone connections, and 25 million households with cable TV access.

The remaining 900 and odd million still have to make do with the available, and often unreliable, rudimentary infrastructure in select towns, thanks to VSNL nodes run by the Department of Telecommunication.

If access is one problem, the cost of access is another. Sam Pitroda's proposal to set up community access centres across the country to increase access and reduce costs is yet to see the light of day.

With infrastructural bottlenecks, and ISPs struggling to show decent returns on investment, rural India seems to be losing out. Due to this urban-rural divide in accessing information, it looks like the poor guy is losing out. Again.
Source : The Business Line. March 13, 2000