When was the last time you checked an important email? Or looked up a question you had on Google, or something you weren’t sure of on Wikipedia? Or even bought a railway or plane ticket on a website? In fact, when was the last time you were politically active thanks to online social media? Chances are that you have done some if not all of these in the last one month, if not the last hour. Aided by the power of the internet/mobile, you now have access to combined human knowledge, efficient service and powerful self-expression at the click of a mouse or a tap on the phone. Unfortunately, Matt and Tushar could not have the privilege of this universal access channel at Rs. 32 a day. And its not just their story, the large majority of your fellow Indians who could really benefit from being connected today remain dark. And its not the cost of having a handset/access device, its not even availability of connectivity, its the cost of data usage that keeps them out. But before we analyze that and try to present solutions, its important to identify how and if at all, being connected is important for development in India. How valid is the promised goodness of the Internet Protocol? Could being connected really uplift the Human Development Index? Could it lead to better governance and a stronger democracy?
We have been asked often, what we missed the most during our stint with poverty. Besides a healthy diet, the answer is clear: “you can maybe survive, but not live a life of aspirations”. What do aspirations mean? To us, they mean having access to knowledge and information, healthcare access and awareness, and communication and mobility. Basically tools that can help us remain healthy, enhance our awareness and skills and give us the freedom to follow our dreams and preserve our rights. Tools that remain out of bounds at Rs. 32 a day.
Until now, the government has tried to assist in these avenues for the poor who cannot hope to pay for these services by creating large-scale infrastructural interventions. However, in the last few years, if not months, a silent revolution has taken place in India – one that of universal mobile access. With 900 million subscribers, feature-phones under Rs. 1000, call costs at 1 paise/second and 95%+ cellular coverage, people have access to a unique portal that can act as a gateway for many of these “aspirational services” and can help create a more accountable, efficient governance and a more inclusive democracy. However, this not happen on its own, as we have clearly witnessed the inability to pay for anything but the most essential calls at Rs. 32 a day. “Connecting India – The Mobile Series” posts are about what intervention can be made to get the country connected efficiently and meaningfully and utilize the incredible potential of mobiles towards enhancing our country’s Human Development Index.
Both of us were employed at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), contributing to the goal of uniquely identifying every Indian resident, before we started on this experiment. It was a remarkable learning experience, working on a complex public policy challenge alongside some of the brightest minds in the world. At UIDAI, we had become aware of the many potential benefits of a Aadhaar (UID) – each stemming from getting access to identity and being able to prove it online – anytime and anywhere. For instance, possession of Aadhaar can be used to satisfy the Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements to open a bank account, acting as the first step in financial inclusion of the masses and enabling direct transfer of subsidies from the government to citizen. During our experiment – either through our own experience or by talking to the people we encountered – we realized that some of these benefits are more relevant